Source: Helena Lopes
Horses have been an integral part of the human military for thousands of years, carrying Warriors into battle and whatnot.
So how come that, despite these close ties to a stereotypical “manly” job, horses these days are depicted as a thing mainly for girls, from toys to tv shows? When did this change occur, if there even really was one.
Question asked by: Merandil
In order to address this question, it is necessary to limit it to a time and place. From the context of the question (which looks at books, movies and the like), the question is aimed at current Western culture.
The answer lies in changes in perceptions of gender relations in the West over the last century or so, as well as changes in technology over the same time.
There are in fact some studies written in this exact subject – the most recent being Horse Crazy: Girls and the Lives of Horses by Jean O’Malley Halley (University of Georgia Press, 2019): https://www.worldcat.org/title/horse-crazy-girls-and-the-lives-of-horses/oclc/1112670547
Her basic thesis is that the “horsey girl” (her terminology) is a girl who has found a socially acceptable way to defy the gender expectations of girl-dom — girls may find freedom and power in a highly traditional way (the horse has long been a symbol of freedom and power for men), engage in muscular exercise and challenge – all without falling critically afoul of societal gender norms. While I don’t agree with everything in her work, this basic thesis has merit.
The basis for social acceptance of a love of horses by girls in particular was laid through, among other things, the so-called “pony book” genre. The forerunner of this is the seminal Black Beauty, an 1877 novel by English author Anna Sewell – one of the best-selling books of all time. Black Beauty was above all a book that caused the reader to empathize with horses (it had a huge impact on the anti-animal cruelty movement); it became more socially acceptable to see horses, not as mere transportation, but as beings in their own right; and women (and girls) tended to be at the forefront of that. The socially acceptable female gender role of nurturing made empathy for animals a natural, and acceptable, extension.
Note as well the title of the book “Black Beauty”. Horses have always been seen as beautiful, graceful animals (as well as powerful). Here, the beauty of the animal is emphasized.
In this way, horses come to symbolize both empathy for others (the relationship between a girl and her horse), beauty and grace, and power and freedom (the age-old feeling of control over a massively powerful animal to travel at speed). This is an intoxicating mixture, which allows girls to both meet and defy gender norms, and explains the powerful attraction horses have for some girls.
Of course, all this must be seen in context – a context in which female expressions of freedom and power were, as a result of the rise of feminism, becoming more socially acceptable.
At the same time, changes in technology were rendering the horse more or less obsolete as a functional mode of transportation. When Black Beauty was written, of course, horses were still the primary mode of transport – and being condemned to be a cart-horse a realistic fate. By the late 1920s, of course, the use of horses as transport was on the decline, replaced by the motor car.
And it is exactly at that time that the so-called “pony book” genre caught on: http://www.collectingbooksandmagazines.com/ponybook.html
These books were published from the late 1920s, starting with Golden Gorse’s “The Young Rider” in 1928; they have never entirely fallen out of fashion.
These books were expressly aimed at young girls, and they mark the true inflection point – where horses became, in the West, a “thing for girls” (though they never ceased being a “thing for boys” as well, of course).