Alex Marzano-Lesnevich on Navigating the Starkly Gendered World of Horseback Riding


horse girls

How I hated the jodhpurs. If you’ve worn them, you know why, can probably conjure their feel against your legs: the heavy yet too stretchy material; that color like sand or Play-Doh or a pallid doll’s hard plastic flesh, a color that has never looked good on anyone, only determinedly inoffensive, the most offensive thing about it. And then the horrible cling of those pants, the way there was just your shape in them, the bud bloom of your body right there for you and your mom and the other horse girls to see. Worse yet was that the pants somehow conveyed in their very fabric the suggestion of how they were supposed to look: smooth and elegant, like you were tall and thin and had hair as straight and plain as the pants. Like you were one of the cool blond saplings of a Ralph Lauren ad, part of an idea of America that had taken British tradition and Western adventure and forged a wholesome new myth from it.

Like, in other words, you had money. Money was what the tall black riding boots cost, as well as the 14-karat horseshoes that hung on chains from the horse girls’ necks and dangled from their charm bracelets. Money meant that your hair was honeyed and your clothes cut well and you’d learned to dance at the country club on the hill, where your father played golf, and that the pants and the helmet and the riding crop and even the horse weren’t borrowed, but your very own. The one time I remember going to the tack shop a town over in northern New Jersey—ours striving to be a tony town of cash, always striving, but the other far tonier, my sisters and I raised to be attuned to that difference—I gaped at the perfection of what was on display: tiny plush horses with their tinier, bristly currycombs; the gorgeous gleaming leather of the saddles. Imagine owning your own saddle! Here, thumbing through racks of jodhpurs for ever-smaller sizes, were the girls who never got messy even as they mucked stalls, the girls whose hair stayed neat in their ponytails as they rode the backs of hulking, sweating creatures. Who were long-limbed and loose-limbed and who went to, oh god, summer camp. A tribe of girls, a flock of girls, a stable—the collective noun—of horse girls.

Then there was me.

I looked like a perfectly ordinary girl, if you want to know the truth. I tell you that to remind myself of it, too, so hard it remains to look at photographs from that time. The girl in them has long curly hair that pokes up around her face with frizz and snarls in the back into a dark, knotted cloud. Her glasses are big and round and always sliding down her nose. That nose is freckled, and while it might not have anything as obvious as newsprint on it, it somehow nonetheless carries the suggestion that it belongs in a book. If you could coax her to speak, her voice would barely be a whisper. She prefers the shadows at the sides of the stalls. She seems to want to be swallowed up by the shadows, the way her dark green T-shirt swallows her up before the tight betrayal of the pants.

A borrowed riding crop in her hand, a borrowed helmet on her head, all these rented props that tie her to this role. That riding helmet was hard plastic covered in the soft fuzz of black velvet, an adult men’s large, size 75/8, and I still know that size because it always occasioned comment at the store, that a girl should have a men’s-size head.

But let’s go back to those pants. Because only writing this do I realize I’ve conflated two pictures, two outfits: the pale gray of Little League stirrup pants, paired with the dark green shirt. Those stirrups were stretchy, they clung, but still, I felt only pride wearing them, never shame. The other kids on the team were all boys, and I took my place with them as though there I might belong, as though the pants fit me the same way they did them, proud to be a pitcher, proud to throw my one no-hitter and collect the signed game ball after, covered in my classmates’ scrawls. Why was I happier then, when I looked in the mirror after games, my hair lank and sweaty under the ball cap, my shirt come untucked, dirt patches at my knees, the glove I oiled and kept under my mattress still clenched in my fist? What power did these symbols have, this context, that spun a story that let me forget my body and my unease? And when a retrograde state law swept through our ballparks, banning young women from Little League out of a supposed fear for our developing shoulders, and redirecting us to softball, why did I never take to softball like the other girls, to what was supposed to be the sport for growing girl bodies?

I hated, I suppose, orderliness, all the shoulds that had suddenly arrived into my life.

A perfectly ordinary girl. Sometimes when I reach back into the past, when I—let’s go for the language, why not—try to muck out the past, this is what I come up against: I didn’t understand how I felt back then. I didn’t have words for what I felt, or a narrative that could tell me who I was. But now that I do, the signs of what was wrong are everywhere, obstacles laid out to be jumped.

*

Jo Monahan was 16 years old in 1866 or so—the historical record is unclear on the year—when he packed up what little he owned, slipped out of a clapboard house in Buffalo, and hopped a train bound west to Idaho’s Owyhee Mountains. Nothing exists in his words about his journey, so we will have to use our imaginations to tumble back across time, to tumble into his skin. Picture the clothing he would have chosen: not, of course, the white lace dress the likeness of which ran in the newspaper decades later when he died, the girl in that image Jo’s age and with his same face, but hands folded demurely in front of her, the sweetheart neckline of her dress displaying her delicate clavicle, her long blond hair tied softly back. A delicacy that has never been Jo’s by birthright, only foisted on him. Give Jo, instead, some rough-hewn Levi’s to pull over his legs, a bandana to knot at his neck, a wide-brimmed hat to tuck that hair under. In a few days he’ll shear off his locks, transformation begun, but here he must still hide his intent—must still hide himself—from his foster mother’s notice. The foster mother, he will protect from this knowledge, at least for now. The foster mother, he loves. It was she who took Jo in when his birth mother’s new husband turned out to be a drunkard. Thirty-eight years from now, when Jo dies and the coroner’s surprise at the shape of the body revealed when he pulls off the jeans and the rough shirt and the men’s underwear brings reporters knocking, a trove of letters from the foster mother will be discovered in a trunk in Jo’s cabin, yellowed but kept safe like the precious things they are.

On the train to Idaho, here is what Jo sheds: the years of growing up, the life before now left to tumble right off the back of the train like a forgotten parcel. He sheds a family, an identity, the eight inches of lank dead matter that was his hair. The s at the start of the pronoun she. Here is what he gains: an “e” at the end of his name. That, and everything. He practices standing differently. He practices chewing tobacco, letting the sour slosh around his mouth before aiming it out the train windows, as America rushes by.

In 1867, at now 17 years old, Joe Monahan steps off the train and into a new life.

*

The horse I rode at the stable back then was named Carefree—the irony lost on me at the time, but too clear now. Carefree: something we both definitely weren’t. He was tall and ornery and famed at the stable for biting anyone who got too near. All my orneriness, all my anger and grief, was kept under my skin then, silent as everything else about me. But I was tall. I am tall now for someone assigned female at birth, and I have been this height since grade six, so I was even taller by comparison then. Maybe that’s why the instructor, a lean and cheerful and to me therefore inscrutable woman, paired me with this horse, this horse that could only be wrangled and never appeased. I remember the chestnut sheen of his coat, the gnarled knobs of flesh on his joints like knots in a tree, the musk smell of his sweat and the flare of his nostrils. The horsiness of him. I must have felt relief to encounter anything so resolutely itself.

I could not picture myself getting older, because I knew I would have to get older in the body I had.

From the start, he had no patience for me. Perhaps he sensed that I didn’t have it for myself. He was bored; he was cranky; he had other things to do rather than contend with this stranger with her tentative, uneasy way. Once a week, my mother drove me and my sisters the 30 minutes from our town to the stable, which sat in a park we otherwise never visited. The park was green and fiercely manicured, and from a distance the stable rose as an unruly silhouette, dark and musty and somehow cool year-round and shadowed all the day, the sun’s brightness subsumed by the loamy smell of dirt. First you passed the small tack room, with its rows of bridles and leads, and the spare crops and helmets for borrowing. Then into the corridor where the horses stood in their stalls. I had been hoping to be matched with a horse who would come to know my scent and my footsteps as I walked the corridor, who would nuzzle into me like for once I had been chosen. Everything else was so complicated: the ungainly hoist up to the saddle, a movement that made me contend with my body. The spread of my thighs in those pants, puberty hormones making themselves known. My body became something to be contained. I hated trotting, the neat post-and-sit. I hated, I suppose, orderliness, all the shoulds that had suddenly arrived into my life.

I needed something to love. And though he never nuzzled me the way I’d hoped, I found what I longed for every time Carefree broke free of the trot, shrugged off my cautious reins, and galloped. I clung then and, on his back, flew.

Carefree, I loved.

*

The year is 1816, and a tall girl named Sarah Dowling who refuses—scandalously—to wear a dress comes knocking at the door of Patience White. “Her breeches didn’t hide how soft she is below,” Patience will later recall, of this first meeting that begins the classic 1960s lesbian novel Patience & Sarah, the meeting that will foretell her fate and bind her to a life as yet unimaginable. “Maybe they even brought it out.”

Patience finds she cannot stop thinking of Sarah. And so when Sarah tells Patience of her plan to run off to another county, where she might get out from under the thumb of her family and rent some land of her own, Patience’s friendship snarls in the knot of her secret feelings, feelings she doesn’t yet have language for. To stop Sarah from going, she seizes the weapon available to her: gender. Sarah can’t go, she says. Who would rent land to a woman alone?

“They don’t have to know I’m a woman,” Sarah says, her hair tucked under her cap, her loose shirt making a straight line of her body.

Fine, Patience says. Then she’ll come with her.

On the day that becomes the beginning of the future that follows, Sarah shows up at Patience’s house in a dress, having needed to escape any notice from her family. “Don’t say nothing,” she hisses at Patience, uneasy in the dress. Patience wants Sarah to pass through life unnoticed as different. As the novel’s author, Alma Routsong (pen name Isabel Miller), put it in a later interview, Patience tries to teach Sarah “how to act like a lady, how not to hear anything, not to see anything, not to respond to anything, not to put her hands in her pockets, not to cross her legs, not to stride these million little (or huge, really) socially required inhibitions.” But even Patience cannot deny to herself that Sarah looks in the dress like “a dog we’d clipped once to help him against the summer heat, and he hid until his coat grew back.” The dress is wrong. They don’t have a word yet for what is right, but Sarah in this dress is simply wrong.

They have no real plans, they have no money, but they have two cows from Patience. And Sarah’s horse. The horse is what they pin their dreams on, what will carry them away from the lives that have no place for them. Poring over a map, they decide on a destination. There, Sarah says, “I’ll cut my hair and be a laborer.” They never do make it to the chosen town, settling instead in a closer county, but they hardly care. The point is not the destination; the point is the new life: Sarah in breeches, and Sarah and Patience together in their bed at night.

*

My own dreams were never of the weekly riding lessons sort. Instead they were of freedom. Someday I’d grow up, and I’d move to Montana or Wyoming, one of those big, wide-open states, indistinguishable in my mind but always imagined as a swathe of green with mountains on the horizon. I’d live there alone—in my dreams I was always alone, as though I couldn’t even imagine my way out of my loneliness, no Sarah Dowling to show up at my door with her gunnysack and her trousers and her shy, persistent way—but for my horse. It was the horse’s chestnut sheen I would picture when I dreamed. I had fuzzy ideas of how we’d live, how it wouldn’t run away, where it would go in that valley, and what exactly I would do to earn money out there in an empty field, to keep us in oats and coffee. All my dreams were outward looking. I never quite imagined myself. I didn’t even dream my body, for I could not picture myself getting older, because I knew I would have to get older in the body I had. That was unthinkable, so I didn’t think it. I could not countenance the distance between what I looked like and how I felt. What I imagined, only, was the wide expanse of grass. And the horse.

Maybe you’re thinking of the movie Desert Hearts right now, imagining the solitude of young sculptor Cay Rivvers, as she—in a dashing, yet feminine, fitted jean shirt—notes from the back of her horse the arrival of professor Vivian Bell, come to Reno to wait to be eligible to divorce her husband. The two seduce each other, out there amid the desert plains, horses their only witnesses. The movie is a romantic fantasy, a lesbian classic, but it wasn’t mine. Those women knew they were women, they were drawn to each other because they were women, and so for me even that story, when I saw it young, wasn’t mine.

So picture instead, from Annie Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain,” and later the movie, Jack and Ennis, friends who can’t admit what they are to each other, men who look more like my friends look now, who look more like what testosterone nudges me subtly closer to every day, ever further from that girl in the stable with the body that feels wrong and the jodhpurs that feel wrong. Picture Joe Monahan. Or picture Harry Allen, eventually a legendary horse thief of the Wild West, but in 1908 smiling rakishly as he prepares to ride out of town, to shed another home like he shed his girlhood and in the next town break a girl’s heart for the pleasure of it and another and another, and only then will he stop, when, as the story goes, two of his spurned lovers have committed suicide and a third attempted it, their broken hearts evidence for him that he is worthy of love, is alive, is now in his body and can be seen. Picture how much hurt those who cannot see themselves, cannot yet love themselves, can cause.

And picture what a new beginning, a beginning true to one’s own skin, can require. What it takes for Sarah to trust Patience with the truth of who she is. Or what it takes for Patience to decide to trust Sarah, to believe that another life is possible, a life away from every should and must they know. Haven’t new beginnings always belonged to the queers? Hasn’t the dream of reinvention, of breaking loose from our cares and becoming ourselves, always been ours? And haven’t we always had to learn how to do it?

*

No one knows exactly who was the first to say, “Go West, young man”; the phrase has been the subject of many speculative articles trying to chase down the words that spawned such mythology. But the quote is usually attributed to the newspaperman Horace Greeley, who made his exhortation in the New York Tribune: “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.” Greeley, historian Peter Boag notes, was describing meeting a young man who had gone out to Colorado to make his fortune, but had failed, and was headed back home in disgrace. He had later realized, he wrote, that the young man was not a young man at all, but (in the language of the time) a young lady in men’s clothing. So Greeley turned the piece into a sexist warning: go West, young man, but not you, young ladies, for surely that was what she was, surely that was why she’d failed.

If this is true, he missed the story right in front of, and all around, him. The one that said you could go West and become who you were, as Joe and Harry and countless other people not at home in the gender assigned to them at birth (many of them documented in Boag’s legend-rewriting Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past) made themselves a new home on the back of a horse.

When I first came out  as a lesbian—back when I thought I would keep the secret that I wasn’t quite a lesbian because I wasn’t quite a girl—I was often told that I should read The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall as a daringly early example of a lesbian novel, one written in 1928. A classic. I didn’t back then; the title seemed so dire, I couldn’t bring myself to. What did I need of more loneliness?

Who was that girl who rode Carefree, who felt so ill at ease in her body and needed him to make her free?

So imagine my surprise a few months ago when I finally read the book, and discovered not a lesbian classic, but—we would now say—a trans one. One scene sent me reeling back in memory. Stephen is a child, around the age I was back in those stables. Stephen stands with the neighbor girl, both of them wearing jodhpurs, and the father of the little girl compares his daughter to the other. What that father sees is two little girls. “Ridiculous of course,” Stephen thinks to themself—ridiculous, of course, to be thought a girl—”And yet all of a sudden you felt less impressive in your fine riding breeches.” The breeches weren’t the mark of the gallant young man Stephen had imagined themself to be, the storybook character called “Nelson,” who is daring at the hunt and daring in the woods. The breeches are, instead—in the father’s eyes, in Violet’s eyes, in society’s eyes—jodhpurs. And the Stephen wearing them, a girl.

It is not the humans, not the horse girl Violet or Violet’s father, who save Stephen. But, rather, a horse: Raftery, a spirited gelding Stephen has grown up alongside. Stephen’s great—perhaps only—love, on the back of whom a reimagined life is possible.

If I’d known back then, is what I think every time I discover such a story. If I’d known. If only I’d known. 

*

So potent was the cool of the girls at the stable, so much did the stable seem to belong to them, that at some point I decided that because girl wasn’t a word for me, horse couldn’t be, either. I ceded the space of the stable over to the space of yet another myth of what it means to be born into a body in America. We are so good at us-versus-them divides, no place for the middle. I go horseback riding now only once every few years, the last time hardly a ride, a bunch of poky old ponies pockmarking their way across the sands of a Greek island beach. The view was beautiful: the lapping of the azure water at the ponies’ feet, the bluffs of other islands rising emerald and dusky in the distance. The ride was boring. Its only thrill came when a flock of birds descended on the beach and the ponies startled and reared up, forgetting their bridles. We laughed and, for a moment, forgot ours. Life has built up around me: I live in a small city now, near the college where I teach, and there is never enough time or enough money for all the things I want to do. Now the cowboy boots I wore for years sit in a big box in the apartment closet, and the only concession to a horsey past anyone would notice is the tie rack in my bedroom, carved in dark wood to make a cowboy’s boot spur and a horse’s head, approximately the color of Carefree.

But I think back to him often, to the pleasure of forgetting my body on his back when he ran. A historian colleague recently wrote to me, “We historians have a funny way of going about things. We think we can imagine the past, even better than the people who lived it knew themselves.” The list of things I don’t know about the past is long, even the past I lived. What happened to Carefree? When our time together ended—the end that brought, too, the end of my time in the stable—did his owners just move him away, as we were told in front of our parents? Or had he been sent off to the dog food factory, as we whispered about behind those stable doors? Did he fit in as poorly as I did, as he seemed to—and did our moments of riding give him the ease they gave me? When Joe’s horse took off at a gallop, back when Joe was still Jo, and he felt the air rush silken past them, and trusted his body, his muscles, to hold tight, and he trusted the body of the great beast that carried him, did that trust feel like weightlessness, like flight? Did it feel like possibility?

And who was that girl who rode Carefree, who felt so ill at ease in her body and needed him to make her free? If I could reach back across time and give her every story she never knew, every possible future she never dreamed, would I be able to write for her a happier beginning? Or did I need that loneliness she felt, the loneliness that would become a drive to imagine, a drive to bust free?

And will we ever learn what simplified myths cover up? That we are not the only outcast at the barn, that we are not alone in history or in our sorrows. That we stand at the doorway of our own hearts, hat in hand like Sarah, asking our own quiet selves to take a risk and imagine a future.

The girl I was is just as much an artifact of history as anyone I can uncover in a book. Just as mysterious to me. Just as gone. In her place, I imagine Carefree. We do with animals what we do with the past: project our hopes onto them, our human feelings and failings. I used to wish that whoever named Carefree had chosen a more fitting name, a name that wasn’t always and incessantly what we both weren’t. But what do I know of his ornery heart? I looked, on the outside, like a girl back then, and no one but me knew I wasn’t.

He carried some secret of his own, I am sure. I hope he got to live it.

_____________________________

horse girls

Excerpted from Horse Girls: Recovering, Aspiring, and Devoted Riders Redefine the Iconic Bond. Copyright © 2021 Copyright © 2021 by Halimah Marcus. “Hungry and Carefree” copyright © 2021 by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich. Reprinted here with permission of Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers All rights reserved.