One day when I was a kid, my mom drove out of town to a farm with white fences and large grassy fields. She had a surprise for me, and I couldn’t believe it: I was getting horseback-riding lessons. It was a wonderful day, and the first of many, as I spent the next few happy years riding horses like Button, Jake, and Goldie. (Thanks a million, mom!)
This was not my first brush with horses. As far back as first grade I was identified as “a Horse Girl,” one of those weird kids who gallops around the playground whinnying. I have always been deeply embarrassing to know. Long before those riding lessons, horse culture was drilled into me through books and movies: the Horse Girl Canon.
But what makes something part of the Horse Girl Canon? Not all Horse Girl stories are about girls, for one. Among these are Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, and most books by Marguerite Henry. Mary O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka and Beauty by Bill Wallace (not to be confused with Black Beauty, you see, this one is about a white horse), are both about horse boys. But they are still part of the Horse Girl Canon.
What they have in common is that they stoked the same fire in me: a desire for stories about these huge, magical, speed-machines — and more often than not, the special kids that befriend them.
Here are some of the lessons that make a quintessential Horse Girl story.
Wealth is bad
Despite the sport being quite expensive, a key element of Horse Girl stories is that the characters are down-to-earth. Hiring someone to take care of your horses is a no-no, as is caring about fashionable riding clothes. In general, this disdain for wealth is focalized on one character: The Snobby Rich Girl. She models how not to behave, by caring about how she looks more than her horse. She’s probably not a good rider, and she’ll complain about needing to groom her horse, muck stalls, or clean her tack.
By contrast, the main characters understand hard work. They don’t need to learn that taking care of horses is important — more often than not, they need to learn that, actually, homework is important, too.
Money stress crops up often in Horse Girl Canon stories. Misty of Chincoteague has kids Paul and Maureen Beebe doing odd-jobs to scrape together enough money to buy a legendary pony called the Phantom, and her foal. When the Beebes finally rush down to make the sale, they find out a wealthy man has just bought the ponies for his son. Don’t worry! The kids get them in the end! But the threat of a rich person buying a horse you love just because they can is ever-present in the Horse Girl Canon.
What we learn from this: Mommy and Daddy are probably not going to get you a horse, because they’re super expensive. But if you’re lucky enough to get lessons, you’d better work really hard and not be a little asshole.
Do things right
A proper Horse Girl story imparts knowledge on how to take care of horses! This goes all the way back to seminal Horse Girl-adjacent story, Black Beauty. Though not originally a children’s book, Black Beauty is firmly part of the Horse Girl Canon because it is essentially a treatise on treating horses well. All who have seen or read it probably remember when stableboy Joe gives Beauty cold water after a long run, thinking that the horse is overheated. BAM, BEAUTY GETS COLIC.
Colic is a gastro-intestinal problem that affects 4 – 10% of domestic horses every year. Now, before you start screaming at me, fellow Horse Girls: we now know that cold water does not cause colic. However, Black Beauty remains part of an important trend: horse stories that impart horse-care lessons by scarring readers for life. The Snobby Rich Girl often factors into this. She doesn’t just exist to be spoiled — she often makes terrible mistakes, through carelessness or stubbornness. But we’ll talk about embracing death later.
Black Beauty (1994)
Image: Warner Bros. Pictures
The Saddle Club series features a main character, Lisa, who is new to horseback riding. That way her more experienced friends, Stevie and Carole, can impart Horse Care Facts to her on the regular. The girls also volunteer diligently at their stable, cleaning and organizing tack for the owners and cleaning stalls. Carole even does ride-alongs with the local vet, so in the third book, Horse Sense, we get a first-person account of What To Do When Your Horse Gives Birth.
I still vividly remember a lesson imbued in me from Misty, the film adaptation of Misty of Chincoteague: The kids, Paul and Maureen, are trying to earn money by “gentling” the foals their grandpa sells. The trained foals will sell for more, and the kids can get a cut of the profits. But when Grandpa finds out they’re using sugar cubes to bribe the foals, he gives them a talking-to! Using food as motivation will just teach a horse to expect it, and will make them nippy if they don’t get what they want. That’s no way to train a horse (I think).
What we learn from this: Good people do things properly, and have happy horses as a result.
Death is a big part of many classic animal stories, and entries in the Horse Girl Canon are no exception. The thing is, horses are large, expensive, fragile prey animals. Horse Girl stories ensure that we know all the ways that they can die.
In the first Saddle Club book, Horse Crazy, we’re introduced to Cobalt, a beautiful thoroughbred stallion who belongs to rich, snobby Veronica DiAngelo. Saddle Club member Carole adores Cobalt, and often takes care of him because Veronica is too lazy.
Cut to book two, when Veronica gallops Cobalt over a downhill jump and he explodes his cannon bone and has to be put down. The accident happens off-page but what the heck oh my God what the heck. The first book had all but set-up that someday Carole would be able to save up enough money to buy Cobalt from Veronica, or at least to prove that she deserved him more. Not so!
Meanwhile, Joanna Campbell’s Thoroughbred series opens after a terrible disease wipes out the Griffens’ horse farm, forcing the parents to uproot their kids and work as breeding managers at a different stable. Yes, the mass death of an entire farm forms the backdrop to this story. The main character, Ashleigh Griffen, swears she’ll never love a horse again. But, of course, she immediately imprints on a beautiful chestnut filly, later named Wonder.
The Thoroughbred series is exceptional among Horse Girl books because it covers a long period of time: Ashleigh grows up and gets married, and the series goes on to follow her daughter. So it was maybe inevitable that death entered the picture. Wonder nearly dies of an illness in the first book, and later in the series does die giving birth. Two of her foals also nearly die: one of twisted intestines, and another from a fractured cannon bone. The delicacy and the importance of the cannon bone strikes fear in the heart of many a Horse Girl.
Other times, Horse Girl stories address death the same way that most kids’ media addresses the loss of a pet. The Pony Pals books are geared towards younger readers, and although they still feature plenty of injuries, the series’ first death comes in book eight. In Good-Bye Pony, the titular Pony Pals have to cope with grief after the death of an elderly pony named Winston.
What we learn from this: For the love of God listen when someone tells you to slow down before a jump.
Get back on the horse!
Also known as “never give up,” this is a very important theme in horse stories. Sometimes the character has been thrown, and needs to overcome their fear of literally getting back on the horse. Other times, they’re overcoming fear of vulnerability, having gone through a terrible loss.
The Horse Whisperer is the quintessential example of this. The movie slides into the Horse Girl Canon: It is not “for kids,” per se, but I did see it in theatres with my mom when I was eight. It’s about a girl (a-ha!) who gets in a terrible truck-on-horse accident that results in the death of her friend and her friend’s horse. She and her own horse have to learn to trust each other again after this traumatic event.
The Thoroughbred series also begins by exploring this theme. After losing her horse, Starlight, Ashleigh doesn’t want to have anything to do with horses — that is, until she falls in love with Wonder. Similarly, after the loss of Cobalt in Horse Shy, Carole quits riding altogether — until she learns that death is an unavoidable part of horse life and it’s best to just accept that. Right?
What we learn from this: Life isn’t easy, but you can always overcome your hardships.
Your horse is special, and so are you
The most powerful, romantic aspect of a Horse Girl story is being granted the trust and affection of a large, beautiful, fast animal. For sheer pleasure and fantasy, nothing compares to this. Often the horse’s specialness manifests through a competition — the Big Race.
In National Velvet, 12-year-old Velvet Brown trains a gelding that no one believes in, disguises herself as a boy, and rides him to a win at the Grand National Steeplechase. In The Black Stallion, teenager Alec is shipwrecked on an island with a beautiful black Arabian stallion. He slowly befriends the horse, and after they’re rescued, they compete in a championship race. In Misty of Chincoteague, the Beebe kids gain the trust of the Phantom, the pony that’s never been caught, and Paul races her on Pony Penning Day. In the latter two stories, kids are the only ones with enough patience and understanding to tame a wild animal.
Misty of Chincoteague has a bittersweet ending: The kids, realizing that the Phantom longs to be free, release her back into the wild. Kids in horse books accept the hard truth that some animals aren’t meant to be kept. In The Silver Brumby, a young girl is horrified when a greedy rancher pursues a beautiful wild horse. The horse runs off a cliff to his death, rather than submit to captivity.
Not all special horses are glamorous. In Beauty by Bill Wallace, a boy named Luke has to move to his grandfather’s farm after his parents’ divorce. He’s naturally upset — but an old horse named Beauty helps him learn to cope (and then dies, so that Luke can Embrace Death).
(Side note: Beauty’s death also teaches us to Do Things Right — Luke hasn’t properly shut the barn, so Beauty breaks her leg, probably her cannon bone, in a cattle guard.)
We reach Maximum Horse Fantasy in I Rode A Horse of Milk-White Jade, by Diane Lee Wilson. In this book, which takes place in 13th century Mongolia, a girl named Oyuna fantasizes of winning the Big Race. But when she finally gets the chance to buy a horse… she finds herself gravitating towards a sickly older horse that no one else wants. Through her care, the horse, Bayan, ends up thriving — so much so that when Kublai Khan’s army comes looking for horses, they end up taking her. Oyuna disguises herself as a boy to join the army and stay with her horse. Very special horse, very special girl, very special big race: This book unequivocally rules.
This trope is somewhat subverted by Horse Shy, the Saddle Club book featuring the death of Cobalt. Carole thinks that Cobalt is her Dream Horse — but the big lesson she learns is that she will ride many, many horses during her life. Even though Cobalt was a good horse, he isn’t better or worse than any others. I guess that means … every horse is special.
What we learn from this: Unfortunately we learn that riding your horse fast is really fun, which is too bad because horses can’t really gallop that far and they’re more likely to step in a hole and break their cannon bone than carry you into the sunset.
And what of it?
The vast majority of Americans will never own a horse. And even fewer will ride a horse as magical, as perfect, as the Phantom, Black Beauty, or Thowra. Most likely, the lucky kids that get riding lessons will sit atop a sturdy animal like Button, the gentle old boy that I rode all those years ago.
But the Horse Girl Canon opens a door to a world where, with hard work, friendship, and persistence, anyone can have their moment on horseback. They capture in fiction something that’s true: the powerful connection between humans and horses.