The phrase “Horse Girl” invokes a lot of different imagery. Typically, she’s an upper-class white girl who eats, breathes, and lives horses. She can’t have a conversation about anything but the last time she was at the stables, and you know she’s going to make you watch Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron at every sleepover. While the horse world has had many different faces, and many of them aren’t white, most media would lead you to believe differently.
Characters of color are often the sidekick in horse movies, and their storylines are driven by their ethnicities. Where white characters have the freedom to be the “weird horse girl” or the daring cowboy, characters of color are stuck supporting their leads, or are forced to act as a representation of their entire race in an even more stereotypical manner than in other genres.
As a non-white horse girl myself — and a rider of many years — I consumed horse media ravenously, from cute cartoons as a child to hard-hitting dramas as a film major. The horse world is often a cold and ostracizing community in real life, and that exclusiveness bleeds over into fictionalized accounts, normalizing the lack of representation I was already experiencing. I didn’t always understand the ways that race, gender, and sexuality shape media narratives — I was just confused that I couldn’t change the skin color of the rider in my cheap computer game. As an adult, the politics that play into horse media rarely leave my mind.
Horse-themed media splits into two branches: Horse Girl and Cowboy. The Horse Girl focuses on curated life lessons for young girls such as friendship and responsibility, while cowboy media focuses on scratching the traditional American male itch of yearning for wide open spaces and complete freedom. This split leaves adult women out of the loop; they are left with children’s programming or stories of male fantasy. Both sects of horse media, however, present a whitewashed representation of horse life. Minorities are relegated to the background, often working as stable hands or playing the sassy best friend. In both scenarios, characters of color function as beams of support for leading white characters, and their experiences with horses are diminished.
The animated series Horseland is a prime example of Horse Girl content, combining age-appropriate life lessons with talking horses. But while the show attempts to showcase diversity, it does it in a very stiff and stereotypical manner. Each character is two-dimensional and fails to cultivate a personality outside of their race, especially compared to Sarah, the show’s white protagonist. All of the human characters own a horse that reflects their “heritage.” Molly, a Black girl, has a horse who speaks with a Jamaican accent, even though Molly herself does not have one and there is no mention of her ancestry. Alma, a Hispanic girl, has a horse who speaks with a Hispanic accent. Her father has worked at the farm for a long time, perpetuating the stereotype that Latinas can only have the horse experience if their fathers work at the stables.
The POC characters in Horseland function to either support Sarah in her endeavors, or to serve as problems that Sarah can fix. At the end of episodes centered around Alma or Molly, Sarah is the one who has to step in and save the day or teach the life lesson. Sarah is somehow wiser and smarter than the rest despite being the same age.
On the other end of the spectrum is the classic Cowboy narrative, which centers white men as the savior of women and minorities. The cowboy rides into a town plagued with problems that the simple folk cannot handle themselves, takes on a trusty sidekick who idolizes him, finds love with a lonely woman, and then leaves everything behind in search of his next adventure, in a beloved American ode to freedom and personal choice. Historically, cowboys were predominantly Mexican and Black, but the mythos of the American West paints a different image.
The Lone Ranger, to reference what is perhaps the most mythologized example, travels the American West with his Native American sidekick Tonto, fighting crime and breaking hearts. Tonto’s character never develops past what is necessary to support the Lone Ranger. Tonto’s tribal ancestry is never officially established, instead, Lone Ranger stories simply emphasize his stilted vernacular and constant sharing of wisdom, and his background is only explored when convenient to the episode’s adventure.
This leaves him as an amalgamation of white-washed impressions of native peoples, supporting every stereotype of Native Americans created by early 20th century attempts to revise the history of the bloody colonization of America. In an ironic turn of events, there’s a lot of evidence that the Lone Ranger himself was inspired by the heroism of a person of color, as biographer Art T. Burton explored in his Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves.
Mixing Horse Girl and Cowboy tropes can have interesting results. In the Disney Channel Original Movie Ready to Run, Corrie is a young Mexican-American teenager who grew up on the racetrack, and dreams of becoming a professional jockey. Her hard-work and perseverance in a racist environment is overshadowed by the magical Disney element: She can speak to horses. Much like Alma in Horseland, Corrie only seems to have access to horses because her father was a jockey at the stables Corrie volunteers at.
Her grandmother tells her that this is a gift, passed down through generations of her ancestors, evoking the common cliché of people of color deriving magical abilities from their ancestry. Instead of producing a story about Corrie being empowered by real aspects of her heritage, her culture is boiled down to oddball magic powers. While Corrie gets to be the lead in her own story, the film begins to focus on its more nonsensical aspects halfway through, derailing the larger conversation about her struggles.
Horse media has a reputation for being low quality as well as white-centric and stereotypical. In the current climate of fighting for greater representation in media, why hasn’t horse culture seen this change?
The history of horse ownership in America is long and diverse, and our media should reflect this. The dichotomy of the Horse Girl and the Cowboy is tired and over-simplistic; viewers deserve horse media that is focused on exploring diversity within the horse community, instead of repeating the same stories over and over again.