Raise your hand if you were a Horse Girl. It’s ok, this is a safe space. Honestly, I was one too. If you’re not familiar with a concept of the Horse Girl, here’s the breakdown: a Horse Girl is that girl in your 5th grade class who is obsessed with horses. Horse Girls are found most commonly between the ages of 6 and 16, though if left untreated, this condition can often continue into adulthood.
Often the Horse Girl has never seen a horse in real life, or if she has, has no concept of the work and cost of actually caring for a horse. Horse Girls talk a lot about the freedom and beauty of these creatures, or about how intelligent they are. They often fantasize about getting married barefoot on top of a hill and riding off on a horse into the sunset. Girls who regularly care for horses, raise horses, or compete with horses are no longer Horse Girls. One positive side effect is that the Horse Girl is the only person who knows how to draw a horse. Talk to your children about Horse Girl syndrome today.
I most definitely was a Horse Girl. My grandparents kept horses, but even though I’d spend weekends grooming their Shetland Pony, Honeybear, and picking up manure, I was abysmal at competing, and had a lot of fantasies about riding bareback through fields.
The other thing about Horse Girls is that there is a whole genre of books dedicated to their interests. These books are full of willful children who discover true friends in horses, the only other animal apparently capable of an almost-human level of intelligence. As you may have guessed from this series, I did not read many of these books, but my impression is that no matter how much inside-horseball talk there is, or how long it takes for child and horse to actually bond, the book can and should always involve a bitchin’ horseriding montage.
The book begins with 10-year-old Ken riding Cigarette, what I assume is a goth horse, through his family’s ranch in Wyoming. Ken is always daydreaming, forgetting to do his chores and his homework, and now he is at risk of getting held back a grade. This doesn’t really matter to Ken, who spends all his time thinking about what it would be like if he had a colt of his own. (Note: This book uses the term “colt” the way most people use “foal,” that is as a young horse of either sex. Typical usage has “foal” for either sex, “colt” for a male, and “filly” for a female. O’Hara’s interchanging usage is extremely confusing and makes me question whether she was a real Horse Girl, though who knows, it was probably different in 1941).
Ken’s dad, Rob, doesn’t want to give him a horse and is constantly grumbling about Ken costing him money and being irresponsible and not doing his chores, but I don’t know man, what else did you think having kids was like? I know you wanted sons to work your land on the cheap but maybe you should have just saved up and hired some adults. So Rob is grumpy, but just as soon as it seemed Ken was doomed to a summer of extra schoolwork and tense moments with his dad, his mom, Nell, steps in and convinces Rob that maybe giving Ken a foal to care for will teach him responsibility.
I want to take a moment to talk about Nell, who is by far one of the most interesting (I hesitate to use the term Strong, for some reasons) female characters I’ve encountered in YA. Nell’s story is that she’s a hardworking farm woman with a New England background, and a degree from Bryn Mawr. She bakes her own bread and knits, then goes on hikes to seek solitude and shoot rabbits. She spends the whole book seeming to long for something, whether it’s for her husband to understand Ken, for the daughter she will never get to have, or for her life back north. This is something I particularly appreciated, since there are too many narratives to count about city kids who wish to be free in the wild west (“too many to count” = “I can only think of Newsies right now but I know there are more”). It’s nice to see someone who can love the mountains, and still miss life in the city.
Nell plays the part of the good farm wife by providing food for all the men around her and making sure everyone is taken care of, but beneath it O’Hara depicts a sadness, and a desire to be more than what she is. O’Hara writes:
It has amused Nell at first to be addressed as Missus, but it had not taken her long to learn that, here in the West, it meant “the woman,” with all that word signified of gentleness and motherliness. Here, in her world of men, husband and sons, hired men, haying crew, horse buyers, to be the Missus meant to be that before which they could remove their hats, and bend their heads. In the cities a woman could turn herself into a driving machine, or harden herself to meet difficulties, but the Missus on a farm or ranch, though she might be milker of cows or trainer of horses, must be more and not less of a woman for all of that, or she would rob the men around her of something which was as sweet to them as the sugar in their coffee.
When we complain about Pick Up Artists, or Nice Guys bitching about the “friendzone,” this is the feeling we’re talking about. It’s a world that sees women not as their own agents, but as props in the story that men have crafted for themselves. If she became a “hardened” woman, or stopped being gentle and motherly, she would be “robbing” these men of something they believe they’re entitled to, rather than making her own choices. Her inability to adhere to this lifestyle would be a crime. So Nell goes on her walks to watch the sunset by herself, or drives into town to see a movie alone. She makes decisions and watches as her husband gives orders over her. She lets the farm hand take an axe from her because he thinks a woman shouldn’t cut wood while there are men around to do it. Every time she speaks I can hear her sighing.
As Nell mentions, she is surrounded by men, the foremost of which is her husband, Rob. Rob could easily be featured in Dad Magazine. He’s gruff and tries to raise his sons with tough love, and in his more playful moods chases his wife around their porch or makes some comment about how strong she is. He seems to understand that Nell and Ken have a deeper connection, and is honestly distraught by how much his son seems to be scared of him, so he quickly takes her advice and lets Ken choose a foal.
Ken chooses Flicka, a fast horse with a strain of “loco” blood from her mother, who was never able to be fully broken. There’s a lot of talk about how she’s beautiful but unbreakable, fast but unreliable, but Ken doesn’t care and makes his dad and the farmhands reign her in. She, being a wild fucking animal, becomes scared of the humans chasing her and tries to run through a barbed wire fence, which leaves her with bad wounds and infections.
The rest of the book is just Ken bringing his sick pony some oats, petting her, telling her how much he loves her and how she is his and he will take care of her forever, in language that I am sure would not be out of place in an Otherkin messageboard. Ken is very serious about his love for Flicka, and she seems to reciprocate (“She loved his hands, his touch, his caresses…They looked into each other’s eyes as lovers look,” I MEAN). Eventually she learns to trust him and do what he says, but she remains sick and her infections are causing her to lose weight. Eventually Rob gives the orders to his farmhand Gus that, at some point when Ken isn’t around, Flicka needs to be put out of her misery.
(By the way, there is also a whole subplot about a mountain lion that’s terrorizing surrounding farms and I just, I don’t even care, it is so boring. The mountain lion kills a foal and a cow and then Rob shoots it. The end.)
Ken then decides to spend one last night with Flicka, sneaking out of his room and cradling her body in a cold stream as she dies. Because for about a full chapter, O’Hara leads us to believe Flicka dies. She uses the words “she died,” and you’re thinking “great, now I’ll never get my bitchin’ horse montage” and think about watching Fly Away Home instead, because no it’s not horses but it’s still animals and humans accomplishing something together!! Gus comes to find Ken shivering in the water and carries him home, then comes back to find Flicka is actually still alive.
So now Flicka is getting better and Ken is sick, and the next chapters are just Ken in basically a coma and Flicka learning to walk again. And you think maybe, just maybe, they’ll both get better and reunite and ride off into the sunset. No. You know what happens? Ken, still sick, is driven out to see Flicka, and upon seeing her regains some strength and starts running toward her, and Flicka starts running toward him, AND THAT’S IT. He never rides her, or trains her, or gets to stick it to his dad and his asshole brother that he got the best horse and they were idiots to have doubted him. No, he just gets to run toward a horse. I can run toward a horse. Central Park is across the street from my office and any day I want I could jog over and spook one of the mares pulling a carriage. I won’t, but you are not special, Ken!
Tell me, Horse Girls, that there are other horse books that include scenes of children riding free with their horses, after they have learned to communicate solely with their eyes. Tell me that there are books that at least involve a relationship between human and horse that exists when they are both healthy, because I cannot take a horse book with another disappointing ending. Though maybe it’s different if you’re really into horses. To be honest, I was a pretty shitty Horse Girl. I couldn’t even draw one.