Here in the blog series Reverse Cowgirl, we've looked at everything from women warriors to advertising aimed at horse-loving girls, each getting at this baseline question: what is it about girls and horses? Now, as it's time to hit the trail (sorry, had to), what can we come away with?
Anton DiSclafani's new novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls (coming out on June 4 from Riverhead books), tells the Depression Era coming-of-age story of Thea Atwell, a complicated and willful 15-year old girl who is exiled to an equestrienne boarding school in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina for her role in a mysterious family tragedy. Thea is a nuanced character whose relationship with horses and riding lends a sense of power and steadiness to life as she confronts what it means to be a young woman of her time.
Anton Disclafani herself is a horse-lover herself and was gracious enough to take time off from her writing, teaching, and caring for her horse, Val, to speak with me about her new book and what horses mean to young girls.
A lot has been said about Mad Men's Betty Draper, from her cold demeanor to her role as a lonely housewife, but love her or hate her, she is a complex character functioning within a system that leaves her dissatisfied.
In the early seasons of Mad Men, Betty has pretty much only one outlet to help her to cope with her unfulfilling life: horseback riding. What do horses give her that being a wife and mother cannot?
Many young girls are horse-crazy, and advertisers have tapped into this attraction to sell everything from toys to cartoons to bedroom sets. But how do they manage to appeal to rough and tumble tomboys and girlie-girls alike? And where to these ads fit among the feminine stereotypes being sold to young girls?
There are two types of cowgirl narratives: Ones with plucky girls whose horses are a symbolic extension of their inner strength (see: Brave, National Velvet) and ones where girls feel unsure in the world and connect with horses who are also healing from some kind of trauma. We talk a lot about how horses help girls with wild hearts, but how is healing a horse like healing a woman?
The story of racehorse Secretariat has been told many times, many ways. In 2010 Disney released their own star-studded telling of the horse's rise to glory with the help of his determined owner, Penny Chenery (played by Diane Lane). Everyone knows this film as a story about a horse's Triple Crown win. But really, it's as much a story about Chenery's struggle with challenging gender norms both personally and professionally. The horse Secretariat was her means to achieving success in a sexist industry.
Cowgirl narratives often depict women and horses building a trusting relationship. But though they're about collaboration and trust, in these stories women almost always employ traditional horsemanship techniques that are grounded in domination and submission. So while these narratives are important in that they show women exercising freedom and agency, they still retain some elements of patriarchy. Control of horses and natural is a parallel to the control of women.
The American Girl company leaves many feeling torn between its promotion of pricey consumerism and the dolls' celebration of history and education. One thing is certain though, the story of Felicity and her horse Penny is one that offers hope to the suburban girl—the horseless girl with a wild heart.
Growing up in 4-H, I heard the joke often: girls would rather give up boys than our ponies. When women talk about horses, they often speak of freedom and power, of connectivity and understanding, of trust—often using the same language we use when we discuss intimate relationships with humans.
Based on a true story, the 1991 film Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken tells the story of an orphan girl named Sonora (played by Gabrielle Anwar) whose beloved horse is sold off by her aunt as punishment for Sonora's bad behavior. Sneaking off into the night, Sonora takes to the road in search of a traveling diving horse show. That's right, a TRAVELING DIVING HORSE SHOW!