Horse Girl: A girl who wears t-shirts with horses on them and tapered denim pants, has really long hair in which they braid and fasten with a scrunchie in the back of their head, will “gallop” on the track during gym class, is only friends with other girls who like horses and will look down on you because you are not a horse.
— Urban Dictionary
It began with olive trees and the dry crackle of dead grass in the summer. The sun baking warm earth. The smell of hay marinating in a hot barn, flies buzzing, swirls of dirt drifting in tiny tornadoes, sweat, messy hair, bareback on the back of a horse.
At the barn where I learned to ride, nestled in the hot valley east of my hometown on the central California coast, I took lessons from a powerful horse woman named Traci. Traci was a purist in her approach and believed the art of riding should be learned without a saddle or bridle or any other kind of tack. When I began, the only thing between me and the horse was a thin pad and a lead rope that I used as a set of reins.
At first I was wobbly, rolling back and forth on a round, white pony named Daisy, who, like a parent holding a bike for their child, scooted under me each time I began to fall to one side. While Daisy trained me to stay upright, Traci taught me how to care for horses: how to brush them, ask them to pick up their hooves, administer medicine in the back of their throats, wrap bandages, treat superficial cuts, catch them loose in a field, avoid getting kicked in the head.
But she also taught me to approach riding without fear. Horses know when you’re scared, and it makes them scared, too, she often told me. They feel your nerves tighten, your breath catch in your throat. When I got nervous, she told me again and again to breathe. Let your breath out, she said, and I listened.
I don’t think the term “horse girl” even existed when I began riding, at least not in the way it does now. To be a girl who liked horses was simply that. Yes, I certainly got made fun of for galloping around grocery stores instead of walking like a normal girl, but mostly, kids my age left me alone.
When I arrived at college, “horse girl” was just becoming a catch-all for those of us just a little outside the social norm but not in a cool way. I accepted the gentle teasing, the references to Equus, the well-intentioned compliments: “You don’t seem that weird!” People were friendly, mostly joking, but, underneath the humor, there was always a hint of skepticism and perhaps judgment. Who is this girl, and what is she hiding? Do we accept this part of her, this obsession with horses, or do we not?
More recently, “horse girl” as a term has become a subject of internet theory. There is now also “horse girl energy” and a litany of memes weighing in on the definition. In one popular meme, someone Tweets “Horse girls were actually an experiment they were never meant to be released into society, [sic].” In the darker corners of the web, there are articles advising young men not to date “horse girls” because “they will rip you off,” or “they will love their horse more than you.”
After those early summers spent with sticky-popsicle fingers and Daisy, I moved to a barn closer to home to pursue more competitive riding. The transition was harsh: from sun to fog, from bareback and bridle-free to technique, elegance, precision.
Still, at a bigger barn with more kids coming and going, for the first time, I made friends with my fellow horse girls. In elementary school, my barn friends were separate from my school friends, but it wasn’t like I prioritized one group over the other. I needed both in different ways.
While other girls preferred spending weekends at the malls, or at the movies, the horse girls and I spent time running through foggy woods smelling of hay and dirt. We built obstacle courses in our backyards to practice our strides, gossiped about our favorite ponies—their best qualities and their worst—helped clean the barn and tack-up trail horses in exchange for free lessons. We didn’t feel better or worse than the mall girls; what they did just didn’t interest us. Ours was a different kind of rebellion.
What we may have lacked in social awareness, we horse girls made up for in grit. By the time I was 10, I had been thrown off of the backs of bucking ponies and tumbled over the shoulders of unruly mares more times than I could count. I had sustained only mild injuries, but I’d seen far more than I’d been dealt: girls being thrown into the air and landing flat on their back in gravel parking lots, as their ponies took off down the road. Horse-shoe shaped bruises on thighs. Crushed ribs, knee braces, a horse stepping on a rider’s head, accidentally, after landing from a nearly six-foot-tall jump.
If anything, the injuries we endured and were ready to endure made us more, not less, determined to succeed. We compared bruises and blisters like teenage boys and swapped scar stories like seasoned vets. At home and in school, we had all different styles and personalities, but what when we put on those boots every Saturday morning, we had a singular purpose one might call faith.
The first time you ride a horse it will feel bouncy and unnatural. You may scream out in pain because your crotch is being smashed to smithereens or your knee joints are bending in unusual directions.
The bounce, at least, goes away. Feeling at odds with the movement of the horse comes from not following the rhythm of the horse’s step, which takes time to understand and to mimic. It’s once you learn to absorb that movement instead of fight it, to relax your back and close your eyes and feel for the pattern of hooves underneath you, that you’ll feel at home.
Horses are incredibly athletic animals. The ones we rode were trained to jump. There are four distinct phases when a horse leaves the ground: the approach, the takeoff, the flight, and the landing. The process is a team effort. To take off, the horse and rider, together, have to balance the horse’s weight on its hindquarters. When the rider shifts her weight, the horse can feel it and responds. As the weight moves back, the legs can compress and horse and rider are launched into the air. A spring released.
The horse girls and I loved the thrill of jumping, and we went after every opportunity. Even then, we knew we were lucky. We had the privilege of riding in one of the most beautiful places in the world. The cross-country course where National Velvet was filmed was a 20-minute ride from the barn, and we had miles and miles of fire roads to explore on our own.
When my friends and I were old enough, we went out on rides by ourselves, and though we were not supposed to, we played games, jumped over logs, piles of pine needles, anything that looked remotely like a challenge. We pointed our ponies head-on, squeezed, held on to their necks, or sometimes, for fun, let go.
I never try to force people to ride horses if they are afraid. Horses are a perfectly justifiable fear: 1200-pound animals who are biologically designed to run for their lives at the slightest hint of danger don’t exactly come risk-free. Even after years of learning to intuit how horses think, I still can’t always predict what they’ll do. Like people, they have their own personalities, but also like people, they will sometimes act out of character.
When I was about nine, I took lessons on a grey Arabian mare named Fiona who threw me off every single time I rode her. She wasn’t mean about it, but she was consistent with her message. I would point her toward a jump, and each time she would duck away at the last second, leaving me on my back in the dirt where her feet might have left the ground.
I couldn’t explain to you why I chose to get back on this mare each week, only to be sure that I would fall. The only explanation I can think of is that loving horses, much like loving a cat or a narcissist, must involve some kind of willingness to be completely vulnerable in the face of a relationship you know may hurt you. It’s the willingness to love, the belief that one can always do better.
I have no shame in admitting I have trusted some horses more than some humans. But despite the closeness, the knowing your horse senses danger or when he or she is in pain, does not come without its own mysteries and darknesses. There is something unfathomable about love of any kind.
Parallel to my own journey falling in love with horses as a child, my father was living his own. He, too, rode with Traci, and later came with me when I moved to the barn in the forest. Despite my parents’ divorce, and the distance between the house where I lived with my mom and his, we had this shared passion to explore together. And each weekend, he got up as excited to go to the barn as I was.
When I was about 13, Dad’s former law partner passed away from cancer and left his half-wild hunting mare in central Oregon, where his wife could no longer keep her. That summer, we drove a Suburban and rusty trailer nine hours there and back to bring her home.
Once my father established himself as a regular character at the barn, the barn ladies—a special elite group of middle-aged horse women—took a special interest in him, a handsome middle-aged man who was just as eager to learn as they were to teach him. They taught him about the right brushes to use for shedding and for removing dirt from the horses’ coat, how to saddle up, what kind of gear to get (always too expensive), and, after all this, they invited him for afternoon tea, the true rite of passage into their inner circle.
The barn became a kind of Sunday ceremony for my father and me, as routine as going to church and just as peaceful. In the fog of the forest, we couldn’t have imagined what was to come.
The last video footage I have of my father was taken on an old video camera en route to the barn one foggy Sunday morning. In the video, he says only this: “It’s Dad and Sophie, on our way to see the horses. Going for our morning ride.” I filmed it from the passenger seat, with his face in profile, a smile peeking out of the corners of his salt-and-pepper beard.
Two months after his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, and roughly one year after bringing Ginger to her new home, my father died. A family friend agreed to take Ginger, for us, since we couldn’t afford to keep her, though we kept his name under hers on her stall placard until it was eventually changed to mine.
We had three memorials in all: one in Los Angeles, one in the Bay Area, and one at home for our barn family. All of my horse-girl friends came, as did his tea ladies, as did another middle-aged father with whom my father was closest, and who had a special gift for seeing eye-to-eye with animals, once helping save my dog from a German Shepherd attack. He passed away soon after this memorial, too.
Horse people have a reputation for being crazy, and I can’t deny the fact that the sport seems to attract a higher-than-average ratio of intense or passionate people. But I have learned that most horse people are crazy for a specific reason: because they care deeply about what they do and who they do it with. They love and obsess harder than most people because they understand how much in life is and isn’t under our control.
After the summer of 2009, I began at a new high school and moved to a new barn. I missed my friends, but I loved the new barn because it was quiet and anonymous and I could be left alone to ride, which was the only thing I really wanted. I liked that the horses didn’t know that I was a fatherless girl. The idea that I could still be a whole person in their eyes brought me a sense of hope that I could someday be, too. I felt the familiar motions of grooming, tacking up, and riding each day after school propping me up above an imaginary abyss.
Those who have practiced something for a long time can recognize the supreme feeling of unconscious effort: of feeling like a bow or a soccer ball or a paddle is an extension of one’s own body. I’ve always felt this way about riding. That what we practice together, the horses and I, is a kind of sacred communion, a way to bridge the divide between our world and theirs.
When horses greet each other, they often blow small puffs of air into one another’s nostrils. I, too, have adopted this practice, fitting my entire nose into one horse nostril, waiting for the warm exhales of air. There were times after my father’s death when it was hard to imagine how I could make it through the rest of high school, let alone the rest of my life. There were times when I counted each of their breaths as my own.
I made many other subsequent barn moves after this first one, searching for an affordable way to keep horses in my life. For a couple of years, by coincidence only, I rode with Jane Smiley, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of the novel A Thousand Acres.
At the time, I didn’t know who Jane Smiley was outside of the context of the barn. I didn’t know, for example, that very soon I would aspire to be a writer too, to have more or less her life. Dressed in breeches and a helmet, Jane said nothing of her literary pursuits, and I didn’t ask. Instead, she offered to let me ride her dappled grey thoroughbred mare, Kiss Me. We talked on occasion about horses and the weather but, mostly, we just rode.
Like my first barn, the place where Jane and I rode together was quiet and warm, surrounded by mountains. Aside from an occasional wedding hosted in the rustic farmhouse up the hill from the arena, the place was peaceful and empty. No sounds except for the rustle of grass in the summer, flies buzzing, and the occasional whinny.
In a way, writing and riding are soul sisters. Both require isolation, intense thought, a constant reflection and introspection. Perseverance even when the odds are stacked. The willingness to get beat up over and over again, and, of course, the obvious metaphor: getting back in the saddle. Those days riding in the hills with Jane beat a slow, steady rhythm in my head, one that continued on after I left for college, one that moved like sentences on the page.
Now, far past the stage of my life when anyone should be calling me a “girl,” I have spent a lot of time trying to understand who a “horse girl” is and if it matters at all what people think of us. I try to keep a healthy attitude about the term and all terms propagated by way of the internet, but the truth is, it gets under my skin. I worry that “horse girl” as a pejorative will deter future horse girls for fear of social isolation or bullying or being misunderstood. I worry about this because I know that a horse girl is much more than braids and horse stickers and naivete.
I can’t say for sure that horses saved me from anything, but I can say with some degree of certainty that my childhood as a horse girl has shaped me into the woman I am today. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the horse women in my past. The barn ladies and Jane Smiley and especially Traci, the first horse woman I knew, who recently succumbed to a decades-long battle with cancer. Traci showed me what power there can be in being a horse-girl-turned-horse-woman. For years, she ran that barn on her own, learned to take once-wild animals and let them live close to her heart.
Maybe horse girls deserve to be made fun of. Maybe we are weird. But I keep returning to the words “horse” and “girl,” and wonder if there is something to be said about the relationship between them. One, the picture of innocence, the other a symbol of freedom. I wonder if there is something to be said about our desire to escape. Our refusal to be clean. About the infantilization of women who love something more than men. To love what we are not supposed to will always be an act of rebellion. Especially the wild, dirty, dangerous.
Sophie Newman was born and raised in California. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Quarter After Eight, Catamaran, and The New York Times (Tiny Love Stories). She’s currently an MFA candidate at Ohio State University and at work on a novel.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/cadratin