The Horse Girl canon (2024)

Table of Contents
1. Horse literature ⭐︎ Black Beauty (1877) ⭐︎ The Black Stallion (1941) ⭐︎ Mr. Revere and I (1953) ⭐︎ The Horse and His Boy (1954) ⭐︎ Man O’War (1962) ⭐︎ The works of Marguerite Henry (1940-1997) ⭐︎ The Saddle Club (1988-2001) ⭐︎ The Thoroughbred series (1991-2005) ⭐︎ I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade (1998) ⭐︎ The Valdemar series (1987- ) ⭐︎ Wendy (1986- ) Felicity: An American Girl (1991) ⭐︎ I Want a Pony, Pony Pals #1 (1994) ⭐︎ Literally any book that can justify putting a unicorn on the cover 2. Horse cinema and television ⭐︎ The many Black Beauty movies (1921, 1946, 1971, 1978, 1987, 1994) ⭐︎ My Friend Flicka (1943) ⭐︎ National Velvet (1945) ⭐︎ Misty (1961) ⭐︎ The Black Stallion (1979) ⭐︎ Bibi und Tina (1980) ⭐︎ The Last Unicorn (1982) ⭐︎ My Little Pony: The Movie, and continuations (1986-1987) ⭐︎ Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken (1991) ⭐︎ The Silver Stallion/The Silver Brumby (1993) ⭐︎ The Horse Whisperer (1998) ⭐︎ The Silver Brumby (1994-1998) ⭐︎ Ready to Run (2000) ⭐︎ Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron (2002) ⭐︎ The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) ⭐︎ Seabiscuit (2003) ⭐︎ Hidalgo (2004) ⭐︎ Wildfire (2005) ⭐︎ Horseland (2006) The case for How to Train Your Dragon ⭐︎ Free Rein (2017) ⭐︎ She-Ra (2018) ⭐︎ Black Beauty (2020) 3. Horse games and toys ⭐︎ My Little Pony ⭐︎ Hobbyhorse riding ⭐︎ Herd Your Horses ⭐︎ Breyer horses ⭐︎ Barbie Horse Adventures (2003-2008) ⭐︎ Howrse (2005- ) ⭐︎ Star Stable Online (2011- ) ⭐︎ Shadow of the Colossus (2006) ⭐︎ Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017) ⭐︎ Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018) Bonus: “Everyone hates my big stupid horse in Red Dead Online” (2019) Hayseed: The T-shirt

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Space, dinosaurs, trains, wolves, trucks, dolphins, construction machines, dragons — there are as many different childhood obsessions as there are children.

And then there are horses, and their fans: the Horse Girls.

The Horse Girl, with her equestrian posters, her unicorn folders, and her dog-eared copy of Black Beauty or Saddle Club or maybe The Black Stallion. Is she a little old to be obsessed with animals? Shouldn’t she be moving on to ... I don’t know, makeup or boys? When is this Horse Girl going to turn into a Normal Woman already?!

Defying the somewhat reductive, if serviceable, label, Horse Girls come in all genders. What bonds these kids is a longing for the Romantic Ideal of the equine. This Platonic horse represents a refusal to be tamed, an inherent beauty, and a superhuman strength; and anyone who proves themselves worthy of a horse’s trust takes on those traits by proxy. It’s a power fantasy that strains against the reins of a culture that tells young people that they can be strong and independent — or they can be beautiful. Now choose.

The Horse Girl credits

Foreword and editing by Susana Polo

Entries and additional contributions by Ashley Avis, Lisa Hanawalt, Maddy Myers, Seanan McGuire, Tasha Robinson, Simone de Rochefort, Alice Ruppert, and Tyler St. Bernard

Design by Alyssa Nassner; creative direction by James Bareham

“Horse Girl” can be used dismissively by folks outside the subculture — after all, girls are silly and therefore their interests are silly, and if the interest is silly then probably girls are into it. But we know the truth is more complicated. There are all kinds of kids who long to be best friends with a one-ton animal with metal feet.

The irony of it all is that horse-loving kids are more united by stories about horses than actual horses. But which stories?

This is the Horse Girl Canon: Polygon’s definitive collection of books, films, TV, toys, and more that make up the foundation of so-called Horse Girl life. Join us as we look back at the essentials, from Black Beauty to My Little Pony to Lord of the Rings, and spotlight a facet of culture that’s gone overlooked and underappreciated for decades.

The Horse Girl Canon is a living, breathing, galloping collection of notable horse works. Have suggestions? Let us know in the comments, and we’ll consider them for a future update.

The Horse Girl canon (1) Illustration: James Bareham/Polygon

What makes something part of the Horse Girl Canon? Not all horse girl stories are about (or for) girls, for one. Among these are Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, and much of Marguerite Henry’s extensive bibliography. Mary O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka and Beauty by Bill Wallace (not to be confused with Black Beauty, you see, this one is about a white horse), are both about horse boys. But they are still part of the Horse Girl Canon.

What they have in common is that they fed the same hunger: a desire for stories about these huge, magical, speed-machines — and more often than not, the special kids that befriend them.

As we corralled this list together, we kept an eye out for patterns. Before you dive into the full list, we present the tenets of the quintessential Horse Girl Story:

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1. Horse literature

Whether they’re about young riders learning tough lessons, or historical horses on grand adventures, every Horse Girl has a favorite horse book.

⭐︎ Black Beauty (1877)

The Horse Girl canon (3) Image: Public Domain via Polygon

Black Beauty: His Grooms and Companions, the Autobiography of a Horse is the undisputed monarch of Horse Girl Books. Which is ironic, because it was never meant to be read by children at all. It is the only novel of author Anna Sewell, who was born in 1820 and died in 1878, five months after its publication. She lived most of her life unable to stand or walk unaided, fostering a strong empathy for the animals who gave her a modicum of independent mobility: horses.

Written as her health precipitously waned in the final years of her life, Sewell poured her love of horses and her anguish over their abuse onto the creation of a memoir, told from the perspective of an English working horse. The resulting book is beautifully written: “There is no religion without love, and people may talk as much as they like about their religion, but if it does not teach them to be good and kind to man and beast, it is all a sham,” says the kind coachman John Manly. It’s also shockingly brutal, in a way that would surprise anyone who thinks of it simply as “a book for little girls.”

After his first owners are forced to sell him, Beauty nearly dies several times, is given life-long injuries from the neglect and cruelty of new masters, and, at the book’s lowest point, winds up pulling a cab in London, watching an old friend be whipped until she is worked to death, bloody spume dripping from her lips as she is carted away like refuse.

The book was an instant hit, directly leading to a swell of pro-animal right sentiment and legislation in England and the United States. It’s been called “the most influential anti [animal] cruelty novel of all time.”

Scholastic Classics gives it a recommended reading level of grades 5-7. —Susana Polo

⭐︎ The Black Stallion (1941)

Author Walter Farley was certainly a Horse Boy — he wrote 20 books in the Black Stallion series, and number of other horse books on top of that. But The Black Stallion remains his most iconic work. It tells the story of a boy named Alec, who is shipwrecked with a fierce stallion. Gradually, he gains the horse’s trust, as they rely on each other for survival.

I have a soft spot for classic adventure stories, and this one hits all the right beats. The book moves at an incredibly fast clip, wasting no time getting Alec to a desert island, where he needs to find food and shelter. And then it wastes no time getting him off the island! The horse is also marvelously described:

White lather ran from the horse’s body; his mouth was open, his teeth bared. He was a giant of a horse, glistening black — too big to be pure Arabian. His mane was like a crest, mounting, then falling low. His neck was long and slender, and arched to the small, savagely beautiful head. The head was that of the wildest of all wild creatures — a stallion born wild — and it was beautiful, savage, splendid.

The horse is terrifying and powerful and beautiful, and that makes it all the more satisfying when he chooses to give Alec his loyalty. The two bond for life — a very special horse, and a very special boy. —Simone de Rochefort

⭐︎ Mr. Revere and I (1953)

The story of the Sons of Liberty from the point of view of... Paul Revere’s horse! A revolutionary horse! A most independent horse! A horse that most assuredly did not throw away his shot. —SP

⭐︎ The Horse and His Boy (1954)

The horsiest of the Narnia books is, unfortunately, also one of the most Orientalist, taking place mostly in the brutal kingdom of Calormen, inspired by C.S. Lewis’ misinformed understanding of Arab culture. Young Shasta befriends Bree, a talking Narnian horse masquerading as a regular dumb horse to avoid Calormenian ire, and together they get to do all the things Narnia Book Protagonists usually get to do: Have big adventures, stop a war, meet Aslan.

In between, Bree spends most of his time roasting Shasta for being a terrible rider. Bree is a great horse. —SP

⭐︎ Man O’War (1962)

Walter Farley wrote many books beyond The Black Stallion, but here we have to mention Man O’War, his fictionalized biography of the great racehorse. Using the invented perspective of Man O’War’s groom, Farley traces the horse’s racing career. In the foreword, Farley writes about seeing Man O’War in-person as a child. The horse was retired at that point, and growing old.

“I knew that while I had never seen him race, it made no difference at all,” Farley writes. “I was lucky to be there.” It’s that awe and deep love for horses that makes his writing so resonant, even today. — SDR

⭐︎ The works of Marguerite Henry (1940-1997)

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Marguerite Henry is the queen of horse books. The prolific author wrote 59 books about animals, mostly horses, and often from a historical perspective. Justin Morgan Had a Horse tells the origin of the Morgan horse breed, while King of the Wind is a fictionalized account of the Godolphin Arabian, whose bloodline contributed to the creation of the Thoroughbred breed.

Henry’s best known work remains Misty of Chincoteague. The story follows two children who set their sights on owning the legendary Phantom, a wild pony who has never been caught. The book — and the 1961 film based on it — introduced me and many others to Assateague Island, on the border between Maryland and Virginia in the United States. Every summer the wild ponies on Assateague are rounded up by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department and driven across the channel between the islands so that a portion of the ponies can auctioned off for population control. This annual event, called Pony Penning Day, is the backdrop of Henry’s sweeping story.

Many of the classic editions of Henry’s books were beautifully illustrated by Wesley Dennis. His art is best showcased in the author’s Album of Horses, a collection of anecdotes about horse breeds. Dennis’ horses are full of personality, and the harmony between his art and Henry’s books is sublime. That newer editions of Henry’s books don’t feature Dennis’ covers is a shame. —SDR

⭐︎ The Saddle Club (1988-2001)

The long-running (we’re talking 100-plus books) Saddle Club series follows the adventures of three best friends — Stevie, Lisa, and Carole — who all attend riding lessons at Pine Hollow Stables. In many ways, these books are the quintessential “realistic” horse girl fantasy. Max Regnery and his mother are strict, but essentially kind, owners of a stable that teach the girls (and the readers) lessons about proper horse care. Two of the girls go on to own their own horses, which I wager is the dream for many young riders, but certainly not the reality.

Alongside horse lessons, the girls learn how to be good people. In the third book, for example, the Saddle Club is torn apart as each girl pursues her own project. It’s when they come together and help each other that they really succeed. For those of you who read these books when you were young: they’re firmly written for young readers, but they hold up. The descriptions of riding with friends, of doing chores properly, and the joy of being around horses all hit the right notes. It’s cozy to slip back into the world of the Saddle Club. —SDR

⭐︎ The Thoroughbred series (1991-2005)

The 72-book Thoroughbred series takes a different approach to Horse Girls, focusing on the hypercompetitive worlds of racing and eventing. While the Saddle Club characters do compete in horse shows, the Thoroughbred series is fully invested in professional horse sports, with main characters who run stables and compete as jockeys. It also covers a vast period of time. The main character, Ashleigh Griffin, grows up over the course of the first 23 books, and after a 10-year timeskip, her daughter Christina becomes the main character. —SDR

⭐︎ I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade (1998)

The ultimate horse adventure book. Aimed at older teens, Diane L. Wilson’s book is much darker and sexier than the stable-centric series above. It’s about a 14th century Mongolian girl named Oyuna, whose beloved horse Bayan is stolen by Kublai Khan’s army. Oyuna disguises herself as a boy and joins the army to stay with Bayan, and an epic journey follows. —SDR

⭐︎ The Valdemar series (1987- )

Mercedes Lackey’s extensive Valdemar fantasy franchise emphasizes that its most prominent magical creatures, Companions, aren’t actually horses — they just look exactly like horses, and act enough like them to activate any Horse Girl’s hunger for their own Companion.

Like so many other magical animal partners in fantasy books, Companions choose their human partners and bond with them on a profound emotional level, communicating with them psychically and carrying them around on their many dangerous journeys. They’re wise, eternal, and magically gifted, but they’re also handy for riding and carrying stuff. They’re meant to tap into the reader’s desire for a pet, a partner, a best friend, a validation, a protector, and a steed all at the same time. The Valdemar books chronicle a long series of romances and palace intrigues, coming-of-age stories and war stories, but the equine Companions are as much a central focus of these stories as dragons are for Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, and they fulfill much the same symbolic function. —Tasha Robinson

⭐︎ Wendy (1986- )

There’s a whole suite of horse fancier magazines aimed at young girls, a treasured part of childhood for lots of kids around the world. Wendy is the German incarnation, and came up several times when we polled international readers about their Horse Girl favorites. The magazine is named for the eponymous hero of a German comic strip set at a Canadian riding school. —SP

Felicity: An American Girl (1991)

The Horse Girl canon (5) Image: American Girl via Polygon

Meet Felicity, set in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1774, made me determined to ride a horse.

The story plays out in classic Horse Girl fashion, telling a romanticized tale of kinship between a girl and her steed. Felicity sneaks out in the early hours of the morning, day after day, to secretly tame an unruly horse who’s getting abused by her true owner. Felicity names the mare Penny because of her bronze color, and because she’s independent (just like the American colonies soon will be — get it???). In just a few short weeks, Penny goes from skittish and wild to a fence-jumping phenom, all thanks to Felicity’s care and patience.

Felicity falls off of Penny many times, but she never gets seriously injured. The love between Felicity and Penny allows them both to conquer all obstacles. Embroidery was difficult, sure. But horseback riding came naturally, at least for Felicity.

It would for me, too, right? —Maddy Myers

⭐︎ I Want a Pony, Pony Pals #1 (1994)

Pony Pals is very similar to the Saddle Club series, but aimed at younger readers: Three friends ride ponies and solve problems together. I love the ponies on the covers of these books, especially Acorn, Anna’s bay Shetland pony with his big fluffy mane. I want a pony! —SDR

⭐︎ Literally any book that can justify putting a unicorn on the cover

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Or a pegasus. Or a pegasus with a unicorn horn. Got one of those? That’s it. Your book is now part of the Horse Girl Canon.

The cosmic science fiction of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet; the alien worlds of Anne McCaffrey, Margaret Ball, and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough’s Acorna books; the fantasy realm of Mary Stanton’s Unicorns of Balinor series; the postmodern myth twisting of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn — unicorns and pegasi are where the nerd girl and the Horse Girl meet in ecstatic celebration.

The unicorn doesn’t even have to be a big part of the plot. Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, and more have wrangled a relatively incidental unicorn onto the covers of at least one edition. It doesn’t matter. A Horse Girl will and should check this book out of the library, you can be certain of it. — SP

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2. Horse cinema and television

Horses are as tricky to work with as any animal actor, and notoriously challenging to draw and animate. Yet their undeniable visual appeal and usefulness as a metaphor has spawned movie after movie — and then, of course, there’s the horse books turned film.

⭐︎ The many Black Beauty movies (1921, 1946, 1971, 1978, 1987, 1994)

A Black Beauty movie for every generation of Horse Girl. Pick your poison! — SP

⭐︎ My Friend Flicka (1943)

Based on the 1941 novel by Mary O’Hara, My Friend Flicka checks all the boxes of a Horse Girl coming of age story — but for a boy. A special boy, who is too sensitive for his hard-faced father’s liking and doing poorly in school, but a summer spent nursing his own filly back to health solves all his problems. A young Roddy McDowall starred in the classic film, which was followed by a 1956 TV series that ran reruns on Disney Channel through the ’80s. —SP

⭐︎ National Velvet (1945)

National Velvet is the quintessential horse girl story. A horse-loving girl named Velvet Brown sets her sights on owning a spirited horse. She wins him in auction, and then trains him to be a steeplechase champion — disguising herself as a boy to ride in the race herself. The film stars a young Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney (who’d later appear as a horse trainer in The Black Stallion). — SDR

⭐︎ Misty (1961)

The film adaptation of Misty of Chincoteague is a little dated, but feels as warm and fuzzy as a newborn foal, and it’s a visual feast for horse-loving kids. There are plenty of shots of ponies galloping along the beach and, of course, adorable ponies.

Like the book, Misty is the story of Paul and Maureen Beebe, two orphaned kids who’ve come to live with their grandparents on Chincoteague Island. They set their sights on buying the Phantom in auction on Pony Penning Day, and work hard to earn the money. But their plans are set awry when they find out the Phantom has a foal — Misty — and they must find a way to afford both horses.

I always find stories about doing chores somewhat satisfying — I don’t know what that says about me. But watching Paul and Maureen catching crabs and gentling foals in order to gradually earn forty whole dollars is soothing. Plus, the horse casting in this is great. Misty is tiny, golden, and fuzzy, with a little black nose. The Phantom, with her chestnut coat and flaxen mane, is striking.

In case you assumed this was a horse movie without a big race: Nope, there’s a pony race in this. Maybe two! — SDR

⭐︎ The Black Stallion (1979)

The Horse Girl canon (8) Image: Criterion via Polygon

Film critic Pauline Kael said that The Black Stallion “may be the greatest children’s movie ever made.” Unfortunately for modern audiences, the reputation of the 1979 film is marred by racist caricatures in the opening act — characters that were complete non-entities in the 1941 novel, which doesn’t dally in sinking the ship and getting Alec and his stallion alone on a desert island.

The film does still contain some of the best horse-acting captured on-screen. Of the scene where Alec gets the stallion to eat from his hand for the first time, Roger Ebert wrote:

It is crucial here that this action be seen in a single shot; lots of short cuts, edited together, would simply be the filmmakers at work. But the one uninterrupted shot, with the horse at one edge of the screen and the boy at the other, and the boy’s slow approach, and the horse’s skittish advances and retreats, shows us a rapport between the human and the animal that’s strangely moving.

If the film has another fault it’s that no one cares what happens once Alec gets rescued! In a straw poll of Polygon staff, people will admit to remembering that the film ends with a Big Race. But the island sequence is iconic, indelibly cemented in horse film history — and referenced in Disney’s new adaptation of Black Beauty (we’ll get to that in a second). — SDR

⭐︎ Bibi und Tina (1980)

Witch girl, meet horse girl! Bibi Blocksberg (1980), Germany’s still-ongoing children’s radio play series about a prank-loving young witch, spun off Bibi und Tina (1991), Germany’s still-ongoing children’s radio play series about a prank-loving young witch, her friend, and the Horse Girl Stuff they do. Most recently, Bibi and Tina have hopped across language barriers and onto Netflix for films and a TV series, and even video games. —SP

⭐︎ The Last Unicorn (1982)

The Horse Girl canon (9) Image: Shout Factory via Polygon

This glorious, weird adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s book is a must-watch. The animated film is about a unicorn who learns she is the last of her kind. A great Red Bull supposedly drove all the other unicorns to the ends of the earth, and they haven’t been seen since. Along with a crappy wizard named Schmendrick and the outcast Molly Grue, the Unicorn journeys to King Haggard’s kingdom to find out what happened to the rest of her kind.

The animation vaguely nods at the famous Unicorn tapestries, filtered through … drugs, I think? There are odd, creepy characters, singing butterflies, boobs where you least expect them. The Unicorn herself is hyper-stylized, with a long, curling mane and toothpick legs. The imagery has always stuck with me, most notably the unicorns trapped in the sea, cresting with the waves. What I always manage to forget is that the soundtrack is performed by the band America, and the movie has a theme song. Great stuff.

The voice cast is stacked: Christopher Lee, Mia Farrow (voicing the Unicorn as a 1940s starlet, filtered through a long-distance telephone), Jeff Bridges, Alan Arkin, Angela Lansbury. But it’s Tammy Lee Grimes’ performance as Molly Grue that’s the most affecting. One scene hits way harder as an adult: Molly breaking down when she sees the Unicorn for the first time, voice cracking as she curses her for not appearing when Molly was still young and unbruised by life.

Then there’s the talking skeleton in King Haggard’s castle that barters for fake wine, gets “drunk,” and starts blushing! GIVE me the wiiiiiiNE! —SDR

⭐︎ My Little Pony: The Movie, and continuations (1986-1987)

We’ll talk more about My Little Pony as a cross media franchise in a bit, but for now, pay some respect to the very first film adaptation of the toy line of cuddly plastic ponies with brushable manes. The poor theatrical performance of My Little Pony: The Movie may have lost Hasbro millions of dollars, but at least it starred Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, a pre-Simpsons Nancy Cartwright — and firmly associated MLP with an epic fantasy storyline for the first time. —SP

⭐︎ Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken (1991)

This 1991 drama has all the hallmarks of a classic horse story for little girls: teen girl runs away from home and tames a wild stallion so she can become a circus performer. In retrospect, this movie is absolutely bonkers. The sport that teen runaway Sonora wants so desperately to do is … jumping on the back of a galloping horse as it dives off a tall platform into a pool.

Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken made an indelible impression on the generation of horse girls who watched it, because in a fateful stunt-gone-wrong, Sonora fails to close her eyes when she dives… and her retinas get detached! Whoopsy! [Ed. note: For years of my childhood I thought that if I simply jumped into a pool with my eyes open from, like, ground level, I would go absolutely blind.]

The film is based on a true story, and the real Sonora Webster who, like her film counterpart, continued to dive for years after losing her sight. An inspirational, if strange, story that would probably not get made into a film today. —SDR

⭐︎ The Silver Stallion/The Silver Brumby (1993)

The Silver Brumby is one of Russell Crowe’s earliest movies, but if you think I gave a rat’s ass about that when I was 10, you are wrong. This is a story about feral horses — called brumbies, in Australia — menaced by Man. It’s framed as a bedtime story told by a mother to her daughter, but the young girl, Indi, gradually realizes that the tale is true.

The central horse is a golden stallion called Thowra. From a young age, Thowra is taught caution by his mother because his special coloring sets him apart, and makes it harder for him to hide in the bush. Lo and behold, the Man (Crowe) sets his sights on Thowra and will do almost anything to catch him.

The Silver Brumby is a spectacular watch because it features literally so many slow-motion shots of horses running. Even today when I see a horse galloping I get goosebumps all over my body. Sometimes I tear up, for absolutely no reason. I cannot stress enough that I am in no way exaggerating. The image is that powerful in my psyche. As pointed out by the Tumblr “The Cinematic Horse,” horses don’t really gallop this much. That would be tiring for them! But it looks darn good.

My bone to pick with this movie is that there’s a villainous horse called the Brolga, and the narration tells us he’s ugly. And yet he is played by a horse who is exquisitely beautiful. Yes, he kills Thowra’s dad, but I demand justice for the Brolga. —SDR

⭐︎ The Horse Whisperer (1998)

When I was seven, I was scared to watch the beginning of The Horse Whisperer. My friend had told me, in hushed tones, that there was a really scary accident and one of the horses died.

The Horse Whisperer is really not a children’s film, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were other kids like me who wanted to see it because it has the word “horse” in the title. Robert Redford plays a grizzled old horse trainer who tries to help the injured Grace MacLean (Scarlett Johansson) reconnect with her horse Pilgrim after a tragic accident. Meanwhile, Grace’s mom Annie (Kristen Scott Thomas) and Robert Redford fall in love, I guess? That’s not why it’s on the list. The big thing here is Grace regaining the courage to ride Pilgrim, and my mom — like many others, I imagine — covering my eyes so that I didn’t have to see a horse die. —SDR

⭐︎ The Silver Brumby (1994-1998)

This very loose animated adaptation of the Silver Brumby books aired on Australia’s Network Ten from 1994 to 1998. There are web 1.0 websites still going strong in dedication to the series, which is how you know it belongs here. —SP

⭐︎ Ready to Run (2000)

The Horse Girl canon (10) Image: Disney

In this Disney Channel Original Movie, 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.

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.

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. Here’s a look where this issue is today. —Tyler St. Bernard

⭐︎ Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron (2002)

This animated feature — the story of a wild Mustang stallion (intermittently voiced by Matt Damon), his escape from captivity, and the bond he forms with a young Lakota boy — was a modest success for DreamWorks Animation. But if you were a Horse Girl in the early ’00s, this was the only movie you ever wanted to watch at a sleepover.

Showcasing the talent of legendary character animator James Baxter (yes, the one enshrined in the Adventure Time episode “James Baxter the Horse”), Spirit features some of the best looking animated horses in cinematic history. And, in an unusual move for an animated animal movie, none of the horses talk, instead communicating their emotions and intentions through, you know, normal animal ways.

Spirit’s importance to an even younger generation of Horse Girls was cemented with a 2017 Netflix series, and will continue with the feature-length Netflix movie Spirit Untamed in 2021. —SP

⭐︎ The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003)

The Horse Girl canon (11) Image: Warner Bros. Pictures via Polygon

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings built the foundation of the modern fantasy genre. But you know what it doesn’t have?

Even one single goddamn unicorn.

There simply aren’t quite enough girls, or enough people forming strong bonds with horses, for the Lord of the Rings books to be Horse Girl Content. Though that’s not to say that folks who were both Horse Girls and Lord of the Rings fans weren’t excited about The Two Towers hitting theaters 2002. If memory serves, I stitched a white horse to a green tank top to wear to the theater, a sartorial interpretation of the banner of Rohan.

But it took the transformative power of cinema to turn Tolkien’s masterpiece into Horse Girl Media, through an actor who loves horses, horse girls who loved movie making, and one absolutely unnecessary plot detour. Fact: Movie Aragorn is a Horse Girl. — SP

⭐︎ Seabiscuit (2003)

Modern thoroughbred racing has a lot of reckoning to do to become a safer sport. But I have a soft spot for stories about the history of racing — and the film world may currently be the safest place to watch horses run very fast. Seabiscuit is the story of an underdog horse, a small Thoroughbred who nevertheless embodied the spirit and speed of his grandsire, Man O’War (see above).

As ESPN reported in 2003, the race scenes in Seabiscuit were intensely choreographed:

Ross and McCarron drew up NFL-style playbooks for the jockeys and the production staff, so everyone would know where each horse was supposed to be in each part of the race. After trial and error they realized most of the horses were good for three takes of a certain shot before they tired.

Between the so-close-you’re-there race scenes, Seabiscuit’s run in the forest, and a mustang round-up at the beginning of the film, Seabiscuit is a one-stop shop for the sheer pleasure of watching horses gallop. —SDR

⭐︎ Hidalgo (2004)

Hidalgo is a middling movie with all kinds of problems: A white actor in the role of a half-Lakota character, extremely dubious claims to historical accuracy, and a fairly dated overall plot about good old American gumption and forthrightness winning out over a bunch of conniving Arab sheiks.

What makes it a Horse Girl story is one thing and one thing only: That Viggo Mortensen himself is a Horse Girl, who bought one of the horses that played Hidalgo because he loved it so much and then published a whole book of horse photography he’d done himself while on set. —SP

⭐︎ Wildfire (2005)

By this point you should be used to stories of troubled girls who overcome their emotional trauma when they meet a special horse who trusts them and ONLY them, and then their ability to direct that horse’s extraordinary abilities (usually being, like, real fast) becomes existentially useful to everyone around them. This is essentially the plot of Wildfire, which ran for four seasons on ABC Family, with Kris, a teen delinquent; the ranch-running foster family who are her only hope of staying out of the System; and Wildfire, a rescued-from-the-glue-factory but soon-to-be-prizewinning racehorse. —SP

⭐︎ Horseland (2006)

Horseland began as a browser-based horse game, and also has a book series, but we’re calling it on the list for its moralistic cartoon adaptation that followed a color-coded multiracial group of girls who all rode horses at the same stables, complete with character designs that screamed “I was focus tested during the Bratz heyday.” —SP

The case for How to Train Your Dragon

The Horse Girl canon (12) Image: Dreamworks Animation

“Um, those aren’t horses, they’re dragons.” Sure, but just as Horse Boy books like The Black Stallion cross over into Horse Girl reader territory, a franchise utterly focused on finding a big, powerful animal to ride, an animal who’s also your most loyal and non-judgmental friend, easily fits in the Horse Girl fan canon. Toothless, the black dragon at the center of the story, has plenty of catlike characteristics, particularly in his facial design. But he’s just as much a dog in terms of behavior, and he’s a horse in terms of being a strong, dangerous menace to people he doesn’t like, and a devoted companion and steed to his chosen partner.

Squint a little at the first How to Train Your Dragon movie, in fact, and it looks exactly like every novel where a Horse Girl has to find a way to use kindness and persistence to tame a wild horse that no one else thinks is worth approaching. And taken as a whole, the franchise starts to feel like a history of horse domestication, with humanity initially fearing dragons, then partnering with them, and finally integrating them so thoroughly into society that it seems impossible that they ever lived without them. It just feels like someone wanted to make a Horse Girl series for boys, and felt like actual horses weren’t lethal and badass enough, so they took the existing Horse Girl canon and ran a search-and-replace of “horse” to paste in “dragon” instead. And it works. —TR

⭐︎ Free Rein (2017)

This BBC teen drama follows the adventures of the various kids who frequent a riding stable in an unnamed “island off the coast of England,” and checks many of the Horse Girl story boxes, including having to Save the Stable, defeating horse thieves, and protecting wild horses, a girl out of her element who bonds with the wildest horse around. —SP

⭐︎ She-Ra (2018)

“In the original show, Adora already had a horse when she was in the Horde and that was the horse that eventually turned into Swift Wind,” Stevenson told us back in 2018 when her rebooted fantasy series first hit Netflix. But when plotting the reboot, that didn’t sit right with her. “None of the other soldiers have horses, but she does. So it made sense to me that she would meet the horse who would become Swift Wind somewhere outside the Horde.”

It was a reasonable choice that spiraled into Horse Girl madness. —SDR

⭐︎ Black Beauty (2020)

The Horse Girl canon (13) Image: Disney via Polygon

I really wanted to elicit that mystical relationship between a horse and a human [with this film]. I really, really hoped from the beginning that the actors would be not only willing, but would want to have that authentic relationship, and to build that authentic relationship.

Jo riding on the beach, actually doing the stunt herself — I really wanted her to be able to do the stunt herself, and to not have that be blue screen, on a mechanical horse. She did the stunt! She galloped down the beach, with tracking vehicles. And she was only allowed to do it once! We were all in the tent, just hoping that nothing went wrong.

To have the authenticity was extremely important to me. And Mackenzie [Foy, who plays Jo] and Iain [Glen], they wanted to be part of that. Iain got into the round pen with — not a completely wild horse, but a horse that had never done Join Up before. And we milked out a hair and makeup test day to be able to film that for two hours, because we knew that our shooting schedule would not accommodate two hours of Iain in a round pen trying to see if this thing would work. And it did, and he’s delivering his dialogue as you’ve got this Paint horse coming up to him. That’s real. And Cody, our Liberty trainer, it was the first time I saw him cry. And he turned away — he was behind a tree! And he was just so touched that it had actually happened. —Ashley Avis, director of Black Beauty

The Horse Girl canon (14)

3. Horse games and toys

Some horses gallop across bedroom floors or electronic screens, but they still touch a Horse Girl’s heart.

⭐︎ My Little Pony

The Horse Girl canon (15) Photo: Alyssa Nassner/Polygon

Let’s talk about My Little Pony. Let’s talk about epic dynasties and perilous quests, about evil witches and terrible beasts, about dragons and dangers, about the sort of stakes that aren’t usually included in toy lines geared at little girls*. When the original My Little Pony toy line — preceded by her larger sister, My Pretty Pony — galloped onto the scene, it was something like we’d never seen before.

My Little Pony filled a niche no one had realized existed, except for maybe its creator, Bonnie Zacherle, and her team at Hasbro. Zacherle and company provided children with opportunities for non-specific pretend play set against a complex fantasy world. The design and marketing choices also rendered that world functionally optional, and eventually bolstered the theme with complex playsets that could fit into any desired mold. The brightly colored, chunky equines were for fantasy-loving little girls who didn’t want to learn to be better mommies as much as they wanted to learn how to fight monsters and go on epic quests.

Today it’s impossible to imagine a toy landscape without My Little Pony. There have been times when no Ponies were being produced; Generation 2 is especially infamous for failing to gain traction with U.S. toy buyers, and was in production for only two years in North America, although it continued for several years more in Europe. But on the whole, My Little Pony has been introducing children to a world of fantastic adventure for almost 40 years. —Seanan McGuire

⭐︎ Hobbyhorse riding

Hobbyhorse riding. It’s huge. And it’s all about roleplaying horse ownership and horse friendship, when real horses aren’t an option for many. —SP

⭐︎ Herd Your Horses

The Herd Your Horses board game afforded me hours of entertainment as a kid — even before I actually learned how to play it. The goal of the game is to amass a herd of horses and evade hazards to reach the end — The Game Of Life, on four hooves. But it comes with 55 horse cards, and they are beautiful. I would make my own herds with these cards, disregarding the game’s rules entirely, and get lost in the fantasy of horses like Joan of Arc, Ebony, and Morning Dove. —SDR

The Horse Girl canon (16)

⭐︎ Breyer horses

Breyer horses are perfect for imaginary games. There are lots of horses to choose from — the one I specifically remember is a black horse called Vigilante, who came with a little saddle. Surprisingly, I never broke any of my horses, though I do remember being afraid of scratching their paint when I put them away in their box.

Horse Girl synergy: they made a Breyer horse out of Misty.

Here’s the funny thing about Breyer: The outfit was founded as a molding company in 1950, and produced everything from TV knobs for Zenith television sets to special items fulfilling government contracts. The first Breyer horse was commissioned as an ornament for a mantlepiece clock that same year. The company eventually teamed with Woolworths for the first line of horse toys.

As we would all love to do, Breyer pivoted to horses. And the process of making a Breyer horse hasn’t changed much in the last 70 years. But it remains fascinating. —SDR

⭐︎ Barbie Horse Adventures (2003-2008)

Sometime in the mid-2000s, I groaned at a TV ad for Barbie Horse Adventures on PC. “I’d probably like that if it wasn’t ... Barbie.” My father got it for me for Christmas. I played the whole damn thing. —SP

⭐︎ Howrse (2005- )

This browser-based horse breeding simulator kicked off in 2005, and had over 12 million players five years later. One of the earliest games with a western audience to fund itself through microtransactions, its parent company was acquired by Ubisoft in 2011 and it’s still going strong today. —SP

⭐︎ Star Stable Online (2011- )

The horse game genre has been around since the early 2000s, when the unexpected success of titles like The Legacy of Rosemond Hill, Mary King’s Riding Star, and My Horse Farm proved to kids’ games publishers that there was money to be made off of young girls who wanted to spend more time with horses than their real-life circ*mstances allowed them to. Today, Star Stable Online is a standout. The Sweden-based, horse-focused MMORPG franchise has produced single player games in the past, as well as books and music, and will even get an animated series soon. Despite its supposedly niche target audience of “female, horse-loving, teenage PC gamers,” SSO has been thriving for almost 10 years now, employs a team of over a hundred people and reports half a million monthly active users.

Most horse games are cheaply made and usually just flat-out horrible to play where tutorialization, user experience and gameplay balance are concerned. Though they are supposedly aimed at young children, they can be awfully finicky to control. All too often, the horses in them either use faulty asset packs that result in cringeworthy movement, or otherwise look like they have been modeled and animated with about as much reference footage as medieval drawings of rhinos and elephants.

The failure of horse games prompted fans to take matters into their own hands. As a video game producer, hobby horse game critic, and creator of The Mane Quest, allow me to give you a closer look at what horse games are, what they are lacking, and how passionate gamers and creators are finding their own fun where the industry doesn’t provide for them. —Alice Ruppert

⭐︎ Shadow of the Colossus (2006)

Shadow of the Colossus isn’t just one of the greatest games of all time — it’s also a game that encourages you spend much of your gameplay hours finding serenity and satisfaction in riding your loyal horse fast across beautiful landscapes. And while Agro’s legs might be a little wonky, we can forgive it for how he is always by Wander’s side.

Also doing stunts off his back is vital mechanic. —SP

⭐︎ Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)

To creep up on a herd of horses in Breath of the Wild, one must be patient and quiet. They’ll run if they spot you. The tension ratchets up as you get closer, hoping that you won’t move too quickly and give yourself away.

That tension explodes when you jump on a horse’s back. It starts bucking, trying to throw you off. Not all horses are built alike: Some are tamed almost instantly, while others fight you.

If you fail, you’re thrown, and the herd goes galloping off.

But if you succeed … suddenly you’re bareback on a beautiful, still-wild horse and the world opens up to you. Sprawling grasslands fly by under the horse’s hooves. It’s freedom. —SDR

⭐︎ Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018)

The Horse Girl canon (17) Artwork: Copyright Lisa Hanawalt

I was literally playing Red Dead Redemption 2, and I was about halfway through it when I finally got my horse. And then I immediately lost all interest in playing the game. Because the parts of the game that I liked were the horse parts, where you’re just riding through this landscape and you’re getting your horse to go faster and you’re taking care of the horse, brushing it. It’s just like, “Well, why do I need to do this virtually? I’m picking live, real manure out of my horse’s real hooves. What more could I want?” That media really did kind of fulfill that need. —Lisa Hanawalt

Bonus: “Everyone hates my big stupid horse in Red Dead Online” (2019)

The Horse Girl canon (18) Image: Polygon

Red Dead Online’s Horse Content did not go unnoticed by Polygon’s Cass Marshall, who developed a strong bond with Hayseed, a beautiful Belgian Draft stallion that you can absolutely trust. It felt only right that we induct the story into the canon as an example of the glorious possibilities of interactive horse media.

Red Dead Online, much like Red Dead Redemption 2, gives the player a horse as their primary means of traveling through the world. In Red Dead Online, your horse cannot die, and players carefully weigh the pros and cons of each horse for each competitive task, unless you are me, in which case I just picked a giant horse and all of my friends f*cking hate him. Meet Hayseed, my loyal friend.

My first two horses were a lean gray stallion named Wild Eye and a chestnut PS4 special edition horse named duch*ess. Wild Eye was basic, and everyone was using the chestnut horse; I wanted to be special. Is the purpose of a shared game world not to express your individuality?

No one else is using the big Belgian Draft horse, and as it turns out, that’s because it kind of sucks.

Hayseed’s stats are lower than those of most other horses. His long-term stamina is garbage, he has a definite curve to his turns, and in a straight sprint down a path he will lose to most racehorses. Hayseed has one advantage, and it’s a potent one: He is so large that I can use him as a brick wall. —Cass Marshall

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The Horse Girl canon (2024)
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