There are horse girls and there are Internet horse girls.
The Secret Land of Horses
horsesThe Chronicle of the Horse
Regardless of which identity these ideas settle on, always in the end there is an identity in question: a horse owner. A rider. A horse girl. Dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs? Too common. Cows? Badass, but not horses.
The girl I once was, the girl who rode horses online instead. She is as foreign to me as deep water. Someone who once requested over thirty chapter books—all about horses—from the public library. So many books that she could not take them all and had to return half of them at the circulation desk. I have always known the immediate reasons that moved her—how I felt that I knew horses, that they were a part of my life, despite not owning or riding any—even as the comprehensibility of her obsession fades from me day by day.
Those veiled ages of ten to fourteen, teenaged but not a teenager. I suppose there is a reason why the protagonists of the horse books I so loved were always this age when their adventures began—no matter whether the ultimate goals of their quests were trophies or horses of their own or just womanhood.
I think I came across Horseland first. A lazy summer day, young leaves golden outside, and sixth-grade me, inside, Googling horse games and browsing through the results. (Remember the size of laptops then, in the late aughts?) I was not at the vanguard of Internet exploration. My cohort was not early enough to have known Geocities, and we deemed MySpace for the older kids we avoided in the hallways. Facebook was still in infancy and I once declared, to my later embarrassment, that I’d never join something like that. But still. Still, sometimes, I remember that feeling of Googling horse games when I open the window and June air rushes into the room. When the world was very large and the Internet supposedly kind.
I don’t remember how I later came across Howrse and Horse Isle and Bella Sara and Ponybox, but I did; I played and leveled through them like colored karate belts; spent my days swimming in them. While other kids my age were on Runescape and Gaia Online, and still others were actually riding horses, I cleaned out virtual stables and raced steeplechase with my arrow keys.
Looking back, I realize with shock and maybe even a small bite of pride that the world of horse MMORPGs was something not even I could have made up for myself, besotted as I was. These games contained references to famous horses in pop culture that few others outside of our world would have appreciated: NPCs included Hidalgo (from Hidalgo), Artax (from The Neverending Story), and Epona (here referring to the Roman goddess—of horses—as well as Link’s trusty steed). I felt vindicated, finding useful all the trivia I had accumulated over the years: Where did Akhal-Teke horses originate? Turkmenistan. What is the name for the long fringe on fetlocks? Feathers. What temperament are draft horses? Cold-blooded.
But more than merely finding a similarly infatuated community, horse MMORPGs were where I learned that, online, nobody knew what you looked like, where you were from, who in your school was mean and who was nice, and, of course, whether or not you actually rode or owned horses. We were all geeks, and online that was okay; maybe even cool. We were geeks, in deep enough that horse game cheat-sites sprang up, not unlike the ones from Club Penguin’s pax romana. Horse MMORPGs were where I learned how to survive on the Internet; where I first realized that the world runs deep as well as wide. That the world, and the Internet as a proxy, was not just the transparent shallows of Google. That there are subforums and private email lists and places where you cannot openly search or probe. Places where a person’s very participation was a clear marker of their identity—even if little else about them was knowable.
And Horse Isle, fittingly, was the first time I got scammed. My parents would never have permitted me to purchase a game membership (which allowed you to own more than five horses! A whole ranch!)—and so when I saw someone in the game selling a subscription for in-game cash instead of real cash, I jumped. I tentatively messaged the other player, asking: Is this real?
I thought about people I knew or had heard about: calls too good to be true, exhortations to put down the money now for your child’s future, or else; that a deposit would first be necessary. I had spent countless hours completing menial game tasks for these millions of dollars; if I had taken myself any more seriously, I might have called it “hard-earned.” This digital money certainly didn’t grow on in-game trees. I gulped and clicked the button.
That first time, it was real. After that subscription ran out, emboldened and buying again, this time from a different player, I gave away millions of pixel dollars for nothing.
In 2010, Howrse had accumulated sixteen million registered users, almost two million of whom were active daily. About 80% of the game’s audience was between the ages of twelve and twenty. 90% of the audience was female. In 2010, Howrse’s CEO Olivier Issaly said that when he relayed these demographics to others in the games industry, the response was “Wow!” because there were so few game products then that targeted young girls.
2010: a decade ago. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the horse gaming community is still going, still alive. That there are even new games, as well as Facebook communities that nest into each other like Matryoshka dolls: Star Stable players—Star Stable Adult Players. Horse Isle—Horse Isle I—Horse Isle I Pinto Server.
In a talk at a game development conference, Alice Ruppert, a game designer who also runs a website that reviews horse video games, asserts that horse games are “bad”—and that this is important. “Stereotypically masculine hobbies such as soccer get several big budget game releases every year,” she observes. “While traditionally feminine game interests, such as horse riding [ . . . ] are relegated to low-end [budget] games.” She points out that most horse games do not meet gaming industry standards, often featuring poor overall design and dated graphics.
I have been absent from horse gaming for long enough that I am not qualified to comment on the caliber of these games, but I understand why Ruppert links horses to girls. I understand because sure, there was a smallness to riding online and not in real life—a feeling that what I was doing was somehow lesser than and not important; that I should aspire to afford real horses and real riding—but more importantly, I understand why Ruppert links horses to girlhood because horse boy is not a term we use casually, in everyday speech.
Ruppert links horses to girlhood because horse boy is not a term we use casually, in everyday speech.
I have been absent from horse gaming for long enough—and sure enough that I will never play again, will never have the time to—that a world in which more and better horse games exist is not one of immediate concern to me. But a world in which girls and young women are affirmed, are not made to feel small by either abstract notions of femininity or by their present realities, is one that absorbs me. It is one, I find, that still hovers on the horizon.
Today, scrolling through forums reminiscing Horseland after its dissolution, I find a kindred spirit announcing: I was that girl who played horse role-playing games on the web.
That girl. That girl! In 2018, the term “horse girl energy” trended on the Internet, and invoked braided-hair, plaid-clad girls; girls who might scream Give me Western tack or give me Death or I don’t give a piece of manure what people think about me!
But that girl was not me, was not many of the people I played with online. We often cared a lot about what people thought of us, of what we didn’t have. More importantly, we bear no markers of having been a horse girl—let alone of horse girl energy. Maybe we still own oxidized horseshoe jewelry, but we have no pictures to show off and say, “So that’s when I came in third in dressage.” There are horse girls and there are Internet horse girls.
Sometimes all of it baffles me, how keenly I felt it, how I still feel it—how I loved something so much that it became a part of my identity, that it became so woven in with my girlhood, but that I was not able to show it. How it mattered that I could only demonstrate this part of me online, where the rest of me—what I looked like, where my family was from, who in my school was mean and who was nice, and, of course, whether or not I actually rode or owned horses—was invisible. That things could be so evenly cleaved and obscured by a single computer screen.
Only after five years of friendship did my college roommate and I uncover each other’s pasts as horse girls, confessing our love for Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. She, too, had never taken riding lessons.
“And what was that board game?” she asked.
“Herd Your Horses?” I returned without missing a beat.
The last time I saw a horse, a real horse, was the summer after my first year of college. I was home and dreamy-eyed after a brief taste of the world outside. A friend had recently found a Thoroughbred breeding farm near her house, and the owners were warm and let her go up to the horses. I slept over at her place. In the morning, we set off down winding paths and under a sky too blue for the time of day.
When we reached the stables, we saw a big bay standing with his head over the fence. My friend stroked him first, and I followed behind, thinking all the while how strange it was to see this beauty, this largeness, up close. To feel under my hand the coarse fur that computer screens never captured. Then, abruptly, he clamped his teeth down on my arm—hard.
My untamed horses on Horse Isle could buck me off, and my horses on Howrse could get colicky. From my books, I knew that horses kicked people; sometimes terribly, even fatally. But I had totally forgotten—or rather, I suppose I never really knew—that horses could bite. I suppose I never knew what horses were like at all, but for so many years the Internet had fooled me into thinking that I did. For a moment, in shock and before the pain registered, I forgot to laugh. And then, when I remembered to, I couldn’t stop.