Growing up in 4-H, I heard the joke often: girls would rather give up boys than our ponies. When women talk about horses, they often speak of freedom and power, of connectivity and understanding, of trust—often using the same language we use when we discuss intimate relationships with humans.
In cowgirl narratives, romantic relationships are rarely something the female protagonist actively chases; rather she is often chasing the ways of her heart and love happens to come along. In recent Disney Pixar film Brave and Babette Cole children’s book Princess Smartypants—two stories that I would argue are cowgirl narratives—have heroines who actively reject romance in favor of life with their animals.
While Princess Smartypants and Brave are princess stories (or anti-princess stories), they contain many elements of cowgirl narratives: a girl and her horse, independence, grit, courage. Neither young woman wants to be married. Instead they are perfectly content living alone with their animals.
Princess Smartypants tells the story of young princess who is so pretty and rich that suitors are lining up to marry her. But all she wants to do is live in her castle with her pets and do as she pleases. To deter suitors asking for her hand she sets up a series of impossible tasks—and this works until one particular prince succeeds at them all. The problem is swiftly solved when she simply turns him into a frog, serving as a warning to the other suitors. The story ends on Princess Smartypants living happily ever after with her animals.
Similarly, Brave shows a courageous and independent young princess blissfully free to gallop around on her horse, climb and shoot, jump and soar, until the queen pushes for her to marry. Like Princess Smartypants, Princess Merida does not want to get married and takes her fate into her own hands, eventually living happily ever after without a husband in sight.
Peggy Orenstein calls this ending “payback” in her book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, reasoning that winding up alone acts as a punishment for stepping out of line. And in many ways this is true. But if horsewomen can feel as though they have a true partnership with their horse, one that steadies them when romantic relationships don’t stack up, where do they fit in all of this?
My mother bought me a copy of Princess Smartypants when I was a girl and I read it cover to cover more times than I can count. I couldn’t imagine anything better than living alone with my pets. What more could I want? Though I didn’t explicitly think about this book as an adult entering (and leaving) relationships, its message stayed with me. And I am not the only one.
In her book Dark Horses and Black Beauties: Animals, Women, a Passion, Melissa Holbrook Pierson writes:
A survey taken a few years ago by the British magazine Gallop! Found that three-quarters women who own horses would as soon give up their husbands as their horses; 90 percent would rather have a new horse than a new baby. The vast majority admitted to telling their problems to their equines and not to their partners.
There is something significant here. I hear about this deep relationship between women and their horses all the time: at the ranch where I keep my horse, when other women and I gather under the barn chatting, and floating around the horsemanship clinics I attend. For many of us there is a deep and sincere truth at the heart of that old joke about prefering horses to romance.
Many horsewomen describe the fulfillment in nurturing another living thing, the beauty horses represent, and the intimacy achieved between horse and rider. Given these serious emotional connections, it’s unsurprising that romantic relationships sometimes play second fiddle to our horses.