Say somebody is a “horse girl” and a number of images may rear up in the mind’s eye. Perhaps it’s Jackie Kennedy: elegant, straight-backed, and regal, astride her beautiful bay Sardar. Or, conversely, maybe it’s an introverted dreamer in junior high, with a binder full of equine doodles, a treasured Breyer model horse, and a long, wet braid. Or it could be Elizabeth Taylor, tiny and determined, harnessing the might of her horse Pi as she tears through the Grand National at the climax of National Velvet.
No matter the image, there’s a common thread that connects these young women. They subvert society’s expectations of what a young girl ought to do, with athleticism and style to burn. Whether you think of her as a rich girl, an athlete, a royal, or a dork, you may be missing the point; that horse girl is mighty. And these days, she’s all grown up.
Chrissy Teigen, reportedly following her therapist’s advice, took up riding in January (to mixed results, according to her now-shuttered Twitter account), joining Kaley Cuoco, Zosia Mamet, Gigi and Bella Hadid, and Kendall Jenner, to name just a few highly visible women taking on the sport. This is in addition to Georgina Bloomberg and Jessica Springsteen, both decorated athletes who’ve proven their mettle among the best in the world, and Mavis Spencer, daughter of Alfre Woodard and a professional show jumper, winner of multiple Grands Prix, and a former Miss Golden Globe. There’s also, of course, the timeless tradition of royal horse girls like Camilla and future Tokyo Olympian Zara Phillips (the most exclusive Saddle Club there is) that I’d argue stretches all the way back to O.G. horse girl Elizabeth I—and perhaps even all-time equine enthusiast Catherine The Great. And then there’s the everlasting allure of Jackie, whose horse girl roots took hold at her childhood Hamptons home (one of the hottest properties on the market this year): proof that the horse girl never goes out of style.
If that wasn’t enough, Disney+ recently released its Black Beauty remake (starring proud horse girl Mackenzie Foy, who also is a founding member of The Wild Beauty Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to the protection of wild and domestic horses in North America); while Polygon, Vox Media’s popular gaming website, unveiled the definitive Horse Girl Cannon, compiling horse girl essentials, from books and films to games and toys. This past summer “extreme horse-girling”-the act of physically embodying a horse and ‘riding’, sometimes through a makeshift show jumping course constructed with found household materials such as laundry baskets and broomsticks-took TikTok by storm, racking up likes in the hundreds of thousands.
“Horse girls are riding herd over the pop culture trend-scape,” says author Carrie Seim, whose new book, Horse Girl, is out March 30. In it Seim has created an origin story, drawing an indelible portrait of young Willa, whose unapologetic and unbridled love of horses gives her the resources to stay true to who she is as she comes of age at a prestigious riding academy. It’s being marketed as “Mean Girls meets Black Beauty,” and while it lives in the tradition of classic horse books like The Black Stallion, the works of Marguerite Henry, and, of course, the Saddle Club series, Seim brings her enthusiasm, empathy, and sense of humor to create a wholly new story. In her opinion, this moment of horse-mania is no coincidence. “We’re living an interior life right now, so we’re able to explore what really makes us happy…what makes us happy when no one is looking.” Or, for some, when everyone is looking.
With #horsegirl trending daily and several other notable new horse books (keep an eye out for Creaky Acres by Calista Brill and Nilah Magruder and Horse Girls: Recovering, Aspiring, and Devoted Riders Redefine the Iconic Bond edited by Halimah Marcus) and events like the annual Breyerfest (Comic-Con for people who love model horses), at which Seim is a speaker, coming down the pike in this year alone, the barn is the place to be in 2021.
Says Seim, “I find it fascinating that during this stressful time of social distancing, folks are turning to the tactile comforts and unconditional love of horses and embracing their inner horse girl.” Or maybe it’s just the clothes. After all, she muses, aren’t britches and boots “the original athleisure?”
Though she may be trending, horse girls have never gone away. And though she may be stylish, don’t forget she is an athlete. From Hua Mulan and Wonder Woman to Lady Godiva and Robyn Smith Astaire, she’s been there in mythology and history, rising above sexist social constructs.
“It’s interesting to me that this sport is so feminized in America,” says Sarah Maslin Nir, whose memoir Horse Crazy arrives in paperback this August. “It’s an extreme sport…and it is undermined by its feminine connotation when all those little gals and big gals on horses are being as extreme as people who repel off the side of a mountain.”
Indeed, the average horse weighs over a 1,000 pounds and to master them takes grit. “A proper collaboration with a horse is convincing it you are its herd leader, and that is with having internal stillness, having certitude in your behavior and your movements,” Maslin Nir says. “With a horse if you behave a certain way that you’re not asked to behave in any other part of your life as a little girl…then you become the master of this huge beast.”
Though timeless, the horse girl's moment in the limelight feels emblematic of where we find ourselves: with signs of spring seeming to sprout after a very dark winter. Perhaps, at long last, the paradigm is shifting. “Being on a horse, you literally elevate yourself,” says Seim. “You become a towering figure. And maybe we’re getting back to that point where that power is celebrated.” It’s high time.
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