Why Some Girls Are Horse Crazy, Like I Was
In a new book, Professor Jean Halley explores what makes horses so appealing to girls, including her young self, and what this means for girls' lives.
Professor Jean Halley (GC/College of Staten Island; Sociology, Women’s and Gender Studies) grew up “horse crazy.” She loved riding. She played with toy horses instead of dolls. And she read and reread classic books like Black Beauty, The Black Stallion, and Mustang: Wild Spirit of the West. Eventually she realized she was not alone: The phenomenon of horse-crazy girls has existed in countries around the world for more than a century.
For her new book, Horse Crazy: Girls and the Lives of Horses, Halley interviewed 25 women about their horse-crazy lives. She also conducted broad research on horses and horse culture, from the evolution of the species and how horses fit into American history, to toys like My Little Pony and books like Misty of Chincoteague.
But perhaps the most compelling aspect of the book is Halley’s personal story, woven into her narrative in spare, unsentimental prose, describing how horses offered refuge from an abusive home life.
“My horses carried me through a difficult childhood,” Halley said in an interview. “There was a lot of alcoholism in my family. There was extensive violence. And yet, you know, in spite of all that my father was the one who bought me this little pony out of the blue.” That pony was “my closest friend and the center of my life. Starting at age 8, I would ride by myself all day across Wyoming prairie on my little pony.” When she outgrew the pony, her father bought her a horse, and she kept that horse until he died.
Beyond her first-person recollections, Halley’s research offers tremendous insight into why some girls are so passionate about horses. She says the relationship between girls and horses is “profoundly empowering.” Working with a 1,000-pound animal gives girls “a kind of power they don’t necessarily have otherwise in life,” in a way that “challenges femininity and hetero-normativity.” These girls are horse crazy “instead of boy crazy,” focused on strength rather than being thin or feminine. Even their play fantasies are empowering: They’re “out in the woods, riding in an adventure, or rescuing someone, or training a horse that was untrainable.”
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Halley also notes that equestrianism is the rare sport where men and women compete equally, without divisions by gender, from local competitions all the way up to the Olympics. While men tend to be more competitive at higher levels, partly because they have more financial resources, local shows are often dominated by female riders. Recreational riders are also mostly female these days, and women tend to do much of the caregiving for horses as well. While that type of caregiving does conform to female gender norms, it also requires strength and work like shoveling manure that counters traditional ideas of femininity.
Halley earned her Ph.D. at The Graduate Center and says her professors were “deeply influential.” Among them were Hester Eisenstein, whose support and brilliant work inspired her; Stuart Ewen, a superb teacher and groundbreaking scholar, who taught her to teach, write engagingly, and use social history in her research; and Patricia Ticineto Clough, who introduced her to “authoethnography” — using personal experience as a springboard for examining social phenomena. She called Clough “brilliant and very brave, as a scholar always willing to take risks. It’s really life-altering to read her work.”
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But Halley noted that incorporating memoir into sociological research is also controversial, with some critics viewing it as “narcissistic” or “lacking in objectivity.” Another faculty adviser, the late Bob Alford, “was really against that kind of research,” and Halley says she was glad to have him on her Ph.D. committee because those critiques were valuable.
She added that her time here as a student is “a period of my life I still look back on and cherish. I didn’t want to graduate. I don’t know many graduate students who said that.”
Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.
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