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Horse Crazy: Girls and the Lives of Horses

In 1983, Chief of Child Psychiatry and Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry at Yale University, John E. Schowalter, wrote about the phenomenon of American girls' passion for horses, "I have been struck by a relatively common but not much studied phenomenon, the 'horse-crazy' girl" (1983). Schowalter noted that this passion existed as far back as the late nineteenth century. Still, today, this prevalent phenomenon is, as Schowalter said thirty-five years ago, "not much studied." This is surprising given that United States girls' love of horses continues to be very common, and fed by a plethora of popular culture books and toys.  

 

Girls love horses, but why? What does this love say about what it means to be a girl? And what does it say about the meaning of horse lives? I explore these meanings, and this love, of girls with horses in the United States. I am interested in the girls' experience of the horse-girl relationship. I am also interested in what the lives of horses are like, and what their lives reveal about the significance of horses in human lives. The love of horses and the girl-horse relationship in some ways reproduce traditional gender norms. In other important ways, I claim that girls' experience of riding horses and their love of horses offers a challenge to sexist ways of thinking about being female, and to mainstream ideas of girlhood. Finally, I investigate the ways United States horses are a type of capital—animal capital—and produce profit that is both symbolic and material. These are interrelated forms of capital. Horses as symbolic capital normalize girls while horses also exist as more traditional economic capital offering the possibililty of material profit. This book combines traditional scholarly research with personal narrative about horses and girls.

 

This is a book about love, and about the life-giving possibilities of love. As a girl, I loved horses, and my horse, the relationship I had with him, the calm and sense of well-being—rare in my childhood—the strength I gained through being with him, helped me to survive being a girl, allowed me to become an adult. In some ways, I was raised by nonhuman animals, by a small grey Siamese cat, a dusty brown Shetland pony and a chestnut quarter horse. 

 

While my relationship with my cat was not fetishized by consumer culture, looking back I see now that girls and horses were a thing, and they still are. We are sold girls and horses, and linked to that consumption, there is a popular culture of horsey girls in the United States, Great Britain and other places today. 

 

Girls are many things, horses and fashion, thinness and dissatisfaction. And I believe horsey culture offers girls something, a kind of freedom, that fashion does not. My first books explored the grip of social power. This book looks at the ways we shake power loose and make (a) life in spite of power. Horsey girls are girls who, to some perhaps small extent, resist mainstream culture's death grip of frail-girl, skinny-body, make-up-and-beauty demands. Horsey girls find a way to something else.

 

While some girls had fantasies of thinness and boys who will protect and keep, men who will validate their existence, I had fantasies of horses. I dreamed of being with horses, raising horses, training horses, riding horses, and being myself horse. At school when my body was alone, and merely small girl, I was silent. On my horse, Snipaway, I became huge and powerful and beautiful. On my horse, I mattered in both senses of that word.

 

We had little money for toys, but the toys I prized most were my plastic Bryer horses and the small wooden stable where they lived. I read about horses as much as I could, although my reading material came to me by happenstance. I read around the edges of other people's lives, the books my mother and stepmother kept on their shelves, the books family members gave me for Christmas or my birthday. But the paucity of my horsey reading material did not stop me from filling my mind with horses. 

 

Yet in spite of my deep love, the horses in my life died with so little fanfare, so little peace. We humans do tend to keep our horses as long as they are useful to us and not much longer. A horse's life might be good for a time and might not, but a horse's death is too often an ugly affair.  

 

Perhaps I wanted to write this book only to honor my horse family, to honor the love that I shared with them, the life that they gave me. Still today, when I turn my mind to peace, I shut my eyes and return to my horse.  I am once again riding him through pine forest, the forest rising up from my little mountain town.  Snow falls gently around us and all the world is quiet.