Horses and Princesses: Paths to Freedom


look ma! no brains!

If you recall, eloriane had a great post a while back discussing the appeal of princesses to little girls; how they are a means of embodying some measure of empowerment, despite (or in addition to) how they also maintain the typical gender script for girls/women. One of the things that feminism/sociology is usually really good at teaching us is to use a “both/and” way of looking at social forces, rather than “either/or.” Princesses for little girls are both a means of liberating themselves from the invisibility and second-class status of being a girl and a means of keeping girls within that gender script. As eloriane points out, given the choice between laundry/cooking and being the heir to the throne, girls naturally embrace the princess.

Girls also commonly become horse-crazy. I count myself in this group; my earliest memory is of desperately wishing the irish setter I was walking next to would turn into a horse so I could ride it. I was about 2-3 years old. That’s pretty early, and for most girls I would imagine that their horse-love comes later in childhood. By the time I was an adolescent I was independant enough to ride my bike down to the stables and bug that old creepy guy to let me ride his horses. That’s my first horse up there and me being young and incredibly stupid. Can you count the number of things I’m doing that are freaking dangerous? There are four, although the forth is hard to see in the photo (I’m in our suburban back yard).

I loved horses. I still do. For a few years I lived on that horse’s back, riding every day in the summer, almost always bareback, and riding every weekend in the winter when it was too dark to ride after school. Those years with that old grumpy fellah up there were the best years of my childhood. Late enough for me to be well on my way to developing my sense of personhood, but before the patriarchy came crashing down on my body too much, reminding me at every turn that I am a member of the Sex Class, and my body is there to be ogled, on display, fetishized.

It’s obvious how horses give one a sense of freedom; like driving a car, one is free to go almost wherever you want and faster than on foot. The sense of power is also likely self-evident. They are, after all, very large animals and while riding you are in control of them (somewhat! heh). You squeeze your legs and lean forward and your horse responds, engaging those massive muscles and jumping forward. You can feel their muscles working underneath you. You can feel their weight shift as each leg moves forward. I am firmly convinced that the legend of the centaur comes from riders: one starts to forget that one has two legs because you can feel four underneath you at every step. You start to feel like you consist of an upper torso and a horse’s body.

So for girls, growing up in a patriarchy, having access to that freedom and power is intoxicating. Horses are, of course, also beautiful and interesting in their own right. And, being animals, in riding one you develop a relationship with it. It is not an inanimate object, like a sports car or rocket ship. This may be a part of why girls would not be drawn to the machines of power, like boys are, because apart from being heavily gendered to boys, machines leave only you there, being powerful. Even girls with no feminist awareness are unconsciously aware that they are not socially powerful in themselves; they are supposed to get it from somewhere else.

If you’ve not ridden before you may not be aware of just how deeply intimate riding is. Not sexually intimate, duh, although men have said that’s why girls like horses, to have something big between their legs *barf*. But emotionally intimate, and physically intimate in a way similar to caring for babies. I think this is how a girl’s love for horses fits into the gender script: she’s nurturing a creature, giving vent to that caretaker mandate that all girls are bombarded with, and she borrows power from outside herself.

However, riders know that it doesn’t really feel like it’s coming from outside of yourself. You become a part of your horse, your horse becomes a part of you. And it’s a more egalitarian form of power – you’re not really dominating another, while you are in charge, obviously. Some riders dominate quite ferociously, of course. Male riders more so, I found (that’s how it fits into their gender script: control). It truly does feel like a partnership, albeit one skewed in the rider’s favour.

Cantering on horseback fills your heart in a way that is difficult to describe. It is an embodied experience, not intellectual. You stop thinking about how to tell the horse to turn left; you just find the both of you are turning. You feel their every movement; their legs become yours, their power becomes yours. You bomb around, the wind making your eyes water, and you feel like you’re flying. Girls are so small in our culture. Femininity is so minimizing and enfantalizing. Horses make you feel BIG and powerful and free. So while they enabled us to stay within that narrow gender script, they also gave us this absolutely intoxicating sense of Xena-like freedom.

I didn’t grow up with stories about girls. I had no Tamora Pierce. I loved horses, and virtually all of the horse stories were about boys and horses. I placed myself in their shoes regardless. I grew up with Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion series and when the first book was made into a feature film I was a little shocked at how it made me weep. Images from the movie still make me weep.

This is what riding feels like.

Ignore the boy.

That’s me, wild grin on my face, heart soaring, free at last.

the black stallion


6 Responses to Horses and Princesses: Paths to Freedom

  1. dollyann says:

    In all honesty, I never got the whole horse thing when I was a kid. All the my Pretty Little Pony stuff just went over my head; I didn’t get into it. I did like Hot Wheels, but I don’t think it was about liberation or empowerment for me… I think it was more about shooting pieces of metal off plastic tracks and wathing them crash wildly into my Link’n Logs or K’nex. But, having said all that, I see where you’re coming from. 🙂

    Speaking of cars and empowerment, Sarah Haskins got a new Target Women on Cars at This one’s way better than her last one on The View. You should check it out!

  2. Crowfoot says:

    heh yeah well, as feminists we speak in generalities, eh? 😀 Not true for every little girl, but true for many I think. Maybe just true for many of the horse-loving girls. I hope I didn’t imply that I thought these strict gender roles will always (or even necessarily predominantly) affect us the same way, just that this was one of the ways, like princesses, that that re-negotiation of our options can play out. I never intend to speak in absolutes, but rather in strong generalities or sociological currents. Tho maybe I sounded more ‘absolute’ because I knew that that was a part of what affected me as a girl. (ok maybe I’m being self-conscious here lol – you did say that you could see where I’m coming from)

    And I never got into the princess thing. At all. And I’ve found that some women just were never ever interested in horses when they were girls. But I’ve also met many women that were, at least for a time. A phase, like princesses. And some that never grew out of it, like myself. And very few boys and horses, even though all the books are about a boy and his horse. I don’t think I ever knew any boys that were into horses, frankly. Everybody I rode with were girls. Horses always seemed to be really gendered as a girl thing. And, FWIW, I never liked the Pretty Little Pony stuff either – so flouncy! Plus, they SO did not look like real horses 🙂

    I also didn’t mean to imply that every enjoyment of cars/machines (real or toy) was about power, just that that subtext can often be there. Kind of common undercurrent of flavour. But then, I think you know what I mean 🙂

    (oof I hope that made sense – I really need to get to bed!)

    Sarah Haskins tomorrow, yay! Thanks for the heads up 🙂

  3. Becca says:

    I just wanted to say that i thought this was a very perceptive piece on horseback riding and gender roles.

    I come from the same background– LOVED horses when i was a little girl, before i became consciously aware of my feminism and then later on my lesbian identity. I went to an all-girls horseback riding camp for many many years and worked there as well– I definitely agree with riding being a “a more egalitarian form of power.” Its quite amazing the confidence little girls can get from learning how to care for and work with horses. they are such beautiful, powerful creatures that are capable of so many emotions. I also believe this is why many horseback riders are also strong women.

    really liked this post =)

    Were you also into Breyer Toy Horses instead of Barbies?

  4. Crowfoot says:

    Thanks Becca 🙂

    They are emotional creatures, aren’t they? And I agree with you re: why so many equestrians are strong women.

    Ah yes, Breyer. I had at least 5 or 6 Breyer horses (and still have at least two of them heh). I also had a couple of Barbies, but you know, somebody had to clean the Breyers’ barn. :-p

  5. Shev says:

    I recently read this book called The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories. I think there’s definitely something in this theory….

  6. Crowfoot says:

    woah. a book of lesbian horse stories?? 😀 *want!*

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