When ‘Horse Girls’ Become ‘Horse Women’

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It was the night of the Exotic Erotic, and I was stuck in traffic in suburban Connecticut with the college equestrian team. The annual Exotic Erotic dance (“the less you wear, the less you pay”), would start in one hour, and there was no way I was going to make it back in time to partake in my new favorite pastime: “pre-gaming.” It was at that moment, drenched in a potent mixture of sweat, manure, and horse snot, that I decided that I wouldn’t be spending the next four years driving around New England; it was time to pair an unflattering bathing suit top with a pair of cut-off Seven jeans and do shots of Popov vodka. It didn’t matter that at the age of 8, peaking around 11, slightly petering out at 15, and then roaring back for college at 18, I had been obsessed with horses for most of my life.

All this came flashing back this year, a decade later, when I was bored one day and biked over to my old barn. I happened to observe a group of thirtysomething ladies taking a lesson together. They looked like they were having a ball. So I decided it was time to get back in the saddle, even though I felt slightly embarrassed. When I heard horse-related murmurings coming from my cubicle-mate Amelia Diamond's desk, it took me a while to venture over there to talk shop. “So, do you ... ride?” I tentatively asked her one day. Actually, she rides twice a week, occasionally thrice, and even competes. And Amelia, despite a phase as a pre-teen during which she watched National Velvet from start to finish every single day after school, also happens to be markedly well-adjusted. Soon, we both started talking about one of summer’s biggest book releases, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, out this week via Riverhead, which is beautifully written, and essentially horse porn for literary-minded equestrians.

Other than the fact that paying for lessons costs as much as a nice dinner for two, I obviously had reservations about getting back into it: There was something a little silly about a grown woman partaking in something associated with pre-pubescent girls. It's kind of like if I had decided to start playing with American Girl dolls or trading Absolut ads again. I would soon realize that riding as an adult is a lot different from riding as a girl. Gone are intolerable horse-moms, snooty mean girls, scary trainers, and all that adolescent angst. Only as a critically thinking woman can I now fully grasp how insane and amazing it is to be able to use your mind and body to seamlessly communicate something to a massive animal which, in turn, allows you both to fly through air. Whereas the relationship between Man and Horse was something I once thought of as “cute” and “fun,” I now think it’s kind of transcendent. Plus, riding gear is chic! A tucked-in white button down paired with a pair of tan riding pants and knee-high, lace-up black boots is just classically elegant. With dirty hair, it can look awesome.

Beyond the uniform, why did I like the hobby so much? That’s what I hoped talking to other women, riding as adults, could help me determine. “As an adult, I'm now more conscious of and can now articulate what it is I like about horses,” Yonahlossee’s author Anton DiSclafani told me the other day. She rode competitively as a teenager up until college, only returning to the sport a year and a half ago. “Riding requires so much mental and physical energy, and when I’m doing it, it’s the only time of the day when I’m not worried about something. It’s better than therapy.”

But though she leases a horse, rides several times a week, and has gotten to the point where she’s not embarrassed to go to the grocery store covered in all manner of equine goo, she says, “I have to be careful; I'm aware of not wanting to come across as that weird lady obsessed with horses.” I too feel the need to keep my horsiness in check, knowing that it could easily spiral into something verging on kooky, in a non-endearing kind of way.

Sarah Maslin Nir, a New York Times reporter who rode competitively as a teen and now rides three times a week, is less concerned with coming across as a weirdo than as a spoiled snob. There's no denying that horseback riding, at least here on the East Coast, is a sport that’s tied up with privilege; little blonde girls with pigtails photographed atop their ponies next to mom’s Jack Russells; Polo Ralph Lauren; Georgina Bloomberg. “I always think that saddest part of the sport is that it is associated with the elite, because at its heart of hearts, it's just being outdoors and being with a beautiful creature.” While it's still not cheap by any means, Nir says that she’s a strong enough rider to be able to “sit on anything,” and makes it work by riding other people's fancy horses. As a grown-up, she says the superficial values that made horseback riding slightly icky back when she was younger mostly seems to have disappeared. Yennie Solheim, another rider who works at Google and has been riding steadily since she was a young girl, adds that as a teen, there was a lot of pressure to have this fancy helmet, and that fancy riding coat. “For me, now, riding is purely a way for me to relax; it's a getaway.”

As young girls, the barn offered the same thing. “I was less interested in boys than my friends were,” DiSclafani says, “and didn't, like, love middle or high school. The barn was a total refuge.” (Like her, and all who rode, really, Christine Quinn writes in her new memoir that horseback riding was “the activity that sustained” her as a teenager).

But the sexy stuff is unavoidable. “This might be an oversimplification, but girls have a lot of sexual energy at that time, and being obsessed with horses was one way to direct that,” DiSclafani adds. Looking back on my early teens, my friends and I definitely used to talk about horses like we talked about boys (whom we were definitely not talking to): Wasn’t Toy just so cute today? Sarah rode Lucky, and it was so clear he didn’t like her! Windy and I just really have such good chemistry. It's no coincidence that Yonahlossee, a bildungsroman set during the Depression about a young girl whose wealthy family sends her away to a horse-centric boarding school, charts her relationship with an older man as she becomes a more competitive horseback rider. “As she becomes more interested in the world of sex, she becomes a better rider, and riding is an even more important part of her life,” DiSclafani says.

These days, the riders I spoke to seemed to be navigating the world of horses and men just fine. Diamond says that most of the guys she encounters don’t seem to have a problem with it. “But there’s always some dude who says something gross. Like, ‘You ride? Have you seen Cruel Intentions 2?'”

Nir recalls a blind date she went on with a guy who was named after a horse, and, shockingly, liked horses just as much as she did. “I thought, wow, it’s the closet thing to dating a horse as it gets. This is great,” until something just felt off. “I love talking about horses with my girlfriends, but talking about horses with him felt like talking about getting my nails done.”

It's true that there is still some sort of girlish glee that riding brings out in me. Diamond put it best when she said “there is something actually delicious” about that first whiff of horse and leather she gets now when she walks into a stable. Even if it comes at the expense of more grown-up activities: “When you get to this age, and you’re still riding, you've weighed your priorities, and your horse comes before your partner,” Nir adds, before clarifying: “But it’s not a sacrifice. I really feel like the luckiest girl in the world.