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Why Girls Love Horses

Jean Halley grew up in Wyoming with a violent, alcoholic father. She survived that difficult childhood by “being on horses and with horses, reading horses, dreaming horses, playing horses.” 

Eventually she realized she was far from alone in her obsession with horses. Maybe other girls didn’t need horses to escape an abusive home life, but girls who love horses can be found around the world, and they’ve been a phenomenon for more than a century.

“But why?” asks Halley, a professor at the College of Staten Island and The Graduate Center. “What does this love say about what it means to be a girl?” That’s the question she explores in her new book, Horse Crazy: Girls and the Lives of Horses.

Watch: Video interview with Jean Halley about her book “Horse Crazy: Girls and the Lives of Horses.” Video edited and produced by Ronald Chunilall.

Girls find “a kind of freedom” and empowerment in “horsey culture,” she writes. By shoveling manure or handling a temperamental animal that weighs over 1,000 pounds, they’re challenging traditional gender norms. “Girls who are horse crazy tend to be horse crazy instead of boy crazy,” Halley said in an interview. “Girls who are horse crazy are focused more on things like their strength and their capacities with horses than on things like thinness, femininity and attracting boys.” Even girls with no access to real horses use toys, books, and their imaginations to fantasize about taming wild horses or horseback adventures. 

Halley interviewed 25 women for her book and also surveyed the history of horses, from their evolution as a species to their roles in colonization, farming, industry, and recreation. Highlights include the story of Wild Horse Annie, who helped save wild mustangs from wholesale slaughter in the 1950s. Halley also writes about girls and women working as stablehands and dominating trail-riding, show-horse culture, and equestrian sports. That said, men often do better at the sport’s highest levels because they tend to get more financial support. 

The book surveys literature, toys, and pop culture, too, from classics like Black Beauty and Misty of Chincoteague, to movies like National Velvet and the blockbuster multimedia franchise My Little Pony. 

But the heart of Halley’s book is her own story, especially her tender relationship with a horse she had until he died. “When I imagine a peaceful place,” she said, “I still imagine riding my horse in the Rockies and the snow falling and the quiet everywhere, and that delicious horse smell.”

Halley will be speaking about the book at Community Books in Park Slope, Brooklyn, on Sept. 10.