Redefining What It Means to Be a Horse Girl

Anthology editor Halimah Marcus on disentangling the stereotype from gender, race, and privilege

Photo by Christine Benton on Unsplash

It could have been soccer or tap dancing, it could have been Dungeons & Dragons or Model United Nations, but for editor Halimah Marcus and the contributors of the new anthology Horse Girls: Recovering, Aspiring, and Devoted Riders Redefine the Iconic Bond, what stamped them most profoundly in childhood was the act—physical, emotional, social, cultural, ineffable—of riding horses.

I took the appealing blue and gold book on a short trip to a cabin and, at the first sign of rain, cozied up with it under a blanket, a hot cup of tea nearby. But the blanket was ripped off during T. Kira Madden’s essay on the ridiculous and revered film Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken and the tea spilled at the first line of Carmen Machado’s form-exploding feast of a piece and soon I was standing in the doorway just inches from a deluge.

This is not a cozy anthology. It does not snuggle you, or coddle you, or anesthetize you with nostalgia or even sink you with sadness. It spotlights an experience at once profoundly particular—the smells, the sounds, the inexplicable feeling of horse contact—and seriously universal: that thing we loved once that could not be taken with us, the child we were, the girl we were and how being a girl was the worst thing to be; the adult we became, the shame and the silence, the ferocity and the freedom.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Halimah Marcus, the executive director of Electric Literature, about her own horse girlery, how she put the book together and why, how she exploded—because she did—what it means to be a horse girl. 

Editor’s note: Halimah Marcus is the executive director of Electric Literature.

Emma Copley Eisenberg: I’m wondering of course where the seed of this anthology comes from. What drew you to writing about horses and to this framing more specifically? 

Halimah Marcus: I loved horses and riding as a child and as a teenager. I rode every day from when I was ten until I left for college, and riding—the horses, as well as the community I found at the barn—gave me a sense of purpose and belonging I didn’t have at school. I was raised in a Sufi community, which is of course unusual for a blonde white girl, and made me feel like a misfit at school. I also really bristled at the strictures of religion, which were very gendered and all about modesty and chastity. I didn’t feel truly comfortable anywhere. As a teenager, I also really struggled with body issues and disordered eating. Riding helped me escape from all that: my body, my home life, the restrictions placed on me as a girl. 

Riding helped me escape from all that: my body, my home life, the restrictions placed on me as a girl.

Then when I got to college, and finally had a chance to reinvent myself so that I could fit in, I gave up riding completely. I was very self-conscious about it, actually. That’s where the whole “horse girl” thing comes in. Horse girls are meant to be spoiled, weird, smelly. Privileged but unpopular and unsophisticated. I don’t think anyone ever called me a “horse girl” explicitly but I intuited the categories that riding horses landed me in. College was where I began to pursue my intellectual and creative passions in earnest, and always had a sense that riding had no place in a literary life.

Fast forward 15 years. I’m an editor in New York, and I actually long for horses. I long to ride. I began to ask myself what it was all about—if there is actually something to the idea that girls have a greater connection with horses, and wondered if it was possible to disentangle the horse girl stereotype from all the toxic gender stuff, and expectations around race and money. I knew that, from my limited point of view, this would be an impossible undertaking and that the project needed to be an anthology. 

ECE: I wanted to touch on two ideas that you just mentioned that it seems like you, in your introduction, and also many of the contributors are grappling with: 1) The resistance to being called a “horse girl” because of its connotations, specifically of uncoolness. 2) As Carmen puts it, that a horse girl would “smell like heterosexuality, independence, whiteness, femininity.” How did these truths influence the way you put the anthology together? Were you looking for points of view that would undermine the horse girl stereotypes? 

HM: Calling the book Horse Girls was initially meant to be ironic, but guess what? There is no such thing as an ironic book title, I’ve learned. Because the book is called Horse Girls, I’ve had to identify as a horse girl more now than ever before. I think that’s true for other contributors as well. I don’t think any of us considered ourselves horse girls prior to this anthology and most likely still don’t, but we may still have “reclaimed” the term to some extent, making it more empowering and inclusive. 

When soliciting writers for the anthology, I absolutely thought about who the horse girl stereotype excludes and actively worked to include those people. Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, for example, writes about how they were never a horse girl because they were never a girl. Braudie Blais-Billie writes about thinking of her and her siblings as “Seminole horse girls,” because there wasn’t a ready-made category of Indigenous horse girls for her to slot into. 

ECE: I felt the ambivalence about the term shining through in almost all of these essays, but a lot of pride and tenderness too, and you definitely succeeded in offering a much more complex portrait of horse girl-ness. I’m wondering about formal concerns as well. Horses and horse culture offer certain metaphors as well as textures and rhythms. Did you find yourself writing or reading differently in this project than you otherwise might? 

HM: It’s interesting that you should ask about language because so many words, expressions, and idioms come from horses and horse riding. (I think there might be more than from baseball, which is where I assume all expressions come from.) Champing at the bit, raring to go, being blinkered, right out the gate, to muck something out, using a carrot and a stick, being gun shy. I consciously tried to stay away from those phrases, while some other writers had fun playing with them. I also had to balance how much to explain certain horse-related terms that might not be familiar to everyone, and generally landed on the side of assuming a certain level of equine knowledge in the readership, even though I hope the essays will appeal to a broader audience. Context clues are powerful. Even if you don’t know what a fetlock is, for example, I am pretty sure it won’t ruin the essay or even the sentence. 

ECE: Another fascinating language moment for me was when you wrote “I was once a horse girl, but I never became a horse woman.” Time, temporality, change, transformation seem at the heart of many of the essays. What does that line mean to you? 

The term ‘horse girl’ is meant to make its subject feel ashamed, not so much for liking horses, but for being a girl. Meanwhile, boys who like horses get to be cowboys, masculine icons of America.

HM: The difference between what people generally mean when they say “horse girl” versus “horse woman” is vast. Horse girls are pigtailed brats; horse women are tough, grizzled athletes. The horse women I’ve known—my trainers—have been enormously influential in my life. I can’t tell you how much I looked up to them, how I sought their approval, attention, and instruction. The other people who held that authoritative role in my life were mostly men, and here were these strong, no-nonsense women who no one would dain to call a horse girl. That line you quoted is imbued with a lot of regret, because I quit and didn’t pursue riding as a profession. It’s an alternate path; the life I chose not to live. 

ECE: That’s fascinating that in a way horse women become masculine figures or stand-ins, while horse girls tend to be imagined as the pinnacle of femininity. I’ve got no answers for that, but your contributors explore gender powerfully in this book. I also knew two horse women and they were—horses were not their work, they were their LIFE. Being a horse woman to them was like a calling or a religion, not a hobby, job, etc. It was fascinating.

I’m wondering what surprises cropped up (horse word??) during this process. Did the ways any of the contributors thought about the subject or offered their own insights surprise you? 

HM: Once I had all the essays in, it was really powerful to trace certain themes and commonalities across this diverse group of contributors. I knew that for my introduction, I should try to come up with some sort of grand theory of the horse girl, and reading through the book, I kept coming back to this idea of shame. For me personally, and for so many girls, shame is a dominant emotion. That’s how our culture trains girls to feel: ashamed of their bodies, their desires, their sexuality, their origins, their upbringing. Ashamed to be too loud or too quiet or to say the wrong thing. Even the term “horse girl,” is meant to make its subject feel ashamed, not so much for liking horses, really, but for being a girl. It’s dumb because you are a girl. Meanwhile, boys who like horses get to be cowboys, masculine icons of America. 

ECE: The idea of shame being a common undercurrent rings very true to me, and at the same time there’s another contradiction there, because you and many others write that being a horse girl offered you freedom. There is also that sort of flavor when we talk about horses and girls of the sexual, the weird myth (maybe this was just at my school who knows??) that you could break your hymen while riding a horse. How do you see sexuality and eroticism fitting into this conversation about horse girls, shame, and freedom? 

Anyone who has dealt with feelings of shame and the desire to escape will relate to these essays.

HM: Right, and there’s that rumor that Catherine the Great had sex with a horse. Early on, when I told people about the anthology, many of them asked if Catherine the Great was going to be in it. What would that essay look like? An investigative report of whether an 18th-century empress engaged in bestiality?

This is a little bit of a tangent, but I really appreciate how, in the Hulu series The Great, you see that rumor get started by a disgruntled lady of the court. Because of course, that’s what it was! A nasty rumor designed to hurt the world’s most powerful woman. So yes, it is something I wanted to address. Maggie Shipstead’s essay bravely tackles the Freud of it all, who, as we all know, was obsessed with penises (which he called widdlers?), and likewise fascinated with horse penises for their size, and is therefore responsible for much of this mess. 

Less sensationally, it’s quite common for riding to be seen as a hobby with the chief purpose of deferring boyfriends (girlfriends are not even considered by these parents) and sexuality, generally. I know my parents had that motivation. 

ECE: That was actually such an eye-opening storyline in The Great and made me see the idea and intent of the horse sex story in a whole new way: that to be with a horse was somehow the ultimate slutiness, which you help explicate above, thanks Freud.

What haven’t we talked about yet that you’d like to touch on? What else do you want people to know about this book? 

HM: I wish I could go through and summarize each essay, because they are all so unique and wonderful, but I will restrain myself. Each one is worth reading, and not just for former horse girls anonymous. I think that anyone who pursued something fervently in their youth that they’ve struggled to incorporate into their adulthood will relate to these essays, as will anyone who has dealt with feelings of shame and the desire to escape. 

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