The Horse Girl — you know her: She has a long, thick braid that runs down the length of her back. In her bedroom, detailed illustrations of various equine breeds, from Arabian to Welsh Pony, hang from the walls where other girls pin up posters of One Direction. The Horse Girl’s Barbie Mansion isn’t a mansion at all; it’s a miniature wooden stable where porcelain steeds frozen mid-gallop decorate the pasture. Their names are Thunder, Buddy and Brown Sugar, and the Horse Girl has crafted elaborate backstories for each and every one. The Horse Girl doesn’t have time for a crush, or the cheerleading team, or this year’s biggest sleepover — she’d rather be at the barn brushing her best friend. Sometimes, in her private fantasies, the Horse Girl becomes a horse herself.
In recent years, the Horse Girl was vaulted from obscure middle school memory to cultural touchstone, a modern archetype by way of meme-ification. Yet through all the mockery, nobody stopped to ask: What about Horse Boys?
Yes, that’s right. Horse Boys. We all knew a Horse Girl. But who among us can say that they knew a Horse Boy? And what is a Horse Boy, anyway? Does the male equivalent of the Horse Girl even exist?
As a proud former Horse Girl, I took it upon myself to find out. Who was he? How did he get into horses? Did he get along with the Horse Girls? And did he grow up to become a Horse Man? Locked away in the experience of the Horse Boy, I believed, lay some illuminating truths about the male experience. And I needed to uncover them.
“Have you ever seen the show Bonanza?” David Camara, a large-animal vet technician in Maine, asks me.
I haven’t. It’s an old Western TV series set on a ranch, he explains, centered around horse culture. “The story goes, after my mom was seven months pregnant, she couldn’t watch that show anymore because when the theme song would play, I’d start to kick.”
The point of that story is that there was never a question about what Camara’s lifelong interest would be. “It’s been horses since day one.”
Camara is an adult now, but he was once, without question, a Horse Boy. The obsession started as short rides around his grandfather’s property when he was six years old. It was during those first years at the barn that Camara learned there wouldn’t be much male companionship in the horse world for him. “There was one other boy who rode, but he lasted, like, three months, and then he stopped coming,” Camara recalls. While for other boys riding was a passing interest, for Camara it became an honest-to-God passion. But horse culture wasn’t big in the Massachusetts town he grew up in, even with the girls. “In my school, there might have been three kids who rode.”
I assumed that Horse Boys, if they did indeed exist, would be a rare breed, like the golden Akhal-Teke. But perhaps Horse Boys were marginalized in a more extreme way than Horse Girls because of their extreme rarity. Horse Girls, while teased by the popular crowd, have each other. Their tribe of fellow equine-obsessed freaks insulates them from bullies, creating an aloofness to others’ disapproval of their chosen hobby. This is the hallmark of the Horse Girl attitude: It’s not on her radar that liking horses might not be cool. As Camara makes clear, fellow Horse Boys don’t have such a tribe to turn to.
“I was ‘the fag that rode horses,’” he says, with the kind of matter-of-fact remove I assume comes with years of emotional distance. “All that shit. It kind of put a target on my back, but it wasn’t gonna deter me. It wasn’t an option to not push past it.”
The way Camara describes his childhood makes the life of a Horse Boy sound pretty lonely. But he assures me it wasn’t, because he had his horse.
“The horses were my escape from all that,” he says. “I’d talk to my horse, I’d have a therapy session. My horse is what got me through high school, with all the bullying and crap that goes on. He’s literally the only thing that got me through.”
As Camara grew up, he befriended the Horse Girls. But those barnyard relationships weren’t always easy to navigate. The girls didn’t have to deal with the same social disapproval. “They were all totally fine,” he says, explaining that they weren’t bullied like he, a Horse Boy in a girly world, was. “There wasn’t a stigma with them horseback riding.”
On top of that, Camara got stuck in the role of the guy best friend who’s not seen as a romantic option, he says. “I was the guy that they would all come to, saying, ‘Jason’s being such an asshole, he treats me like crap, but I love him.’ I spent years and years talking to them and saying, ‘You gotta know your worth, do what’s right for you,’ and watching them go back to the assholes.”
You could say Camara was stuck between a stall and a hard place. Especially because the overprotective mothers of the Horse Girls didn’t want Camara romantically interested in their daughters. “I had to assimilate,” Camara explains, describing how he made himself seem as innocuous as possible so he wouldn’t lose access to his only social group — the girls at the barn. But as a result, the Horse Girls assumed Camara wasn’t straight. “I guess I adopted a couple mannerisms. So everyone was convinced that I was gay, and that meant that I was safe.”
Another former Horse Boy echoes a similar need to assimilate into the social group that was predominantly made up of girls. “It was pretty much me and a bunch of women. I fit in quite well with them,” says Jesse Chamberlain, now a full-on Horse Man as he manages a stable in Maine. “Sometimes I forgot that I was a guy. Sometimes I honestly was one of the girls.”
Chamberlain’s priorities at the barn weren’t socializing. He had a robust group of friends at school, and when he showed up to the barn, he was there strictly for the business of getting better at horseback riding.
Chamberlain might downplay the effects of his Horse Boy status, but the lack of male camaraderie was enough to deter other boys from continuing with the sport.
Steven Zalan, an engineer who grew up taking riding lessons in the summer with his sister and cousin in New Jersey (but does not consider himself a Horse Boy), wasn’t passionate enough about horses to push through the awkwardness. “I realized it was mostly girls around me,” he recalls. “By instinct, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s not a thing for me to do.’ I probably thought it was a little girly.”
Zalan was just as happy playing more mainstream sports with the boys, so it wasn’t a tough decision to let horseback riding go. Plus, he says, he was never given an impressive steed. “I remember as a kid looking at everyone else’s horse and realizing I got the shitty horse.”
So what’s the difference between a Horse Boy and a boy who once rode horses? It all comes down to whether you love horses so much that you’re willing to face loneliness and bullying just for the chance to be in equine company.
“I don’t know how to explain it, except that I don’t know how to live any other way than with horses,” Camara tells me when I ask him to describe what makes horses so special. “It’s part of my DNA at this point.”
Chamberlain echoes his sentiments. “Once you do it long enough, it’s, like, in your blood. You can’t walk away from it.”
They both agree that horses are far-superior company to human beings. “I prefer horses to people,” Chamberlain says. “There’s a bond, but until you’ve experienced it, you can see it but you can’t explain it.”
“My horses are my world,” says Camara. And he means it. When he was dating, he made sure his prospective romantic partners knew they’d never come between him and his horse. “I’d have to tell them, ‘Just so you know, my horse is here, and you’re not on that level. And you never will be.’ But you tell that to a Horse Girl and they’re like, ‘Same to you.’”
In the end, he married a Horse Girl, and between the two of them, they own three horses. I picture the two of them riding off into the sunset together, both totally cool with the fact that the moment is about their connection with horses, not with each other.
After my initial investigation, I can confidently say that Horse Boys are real. Though they have largely been left out of the culture conversation up until now, maybe it’s time we give them the same treatment we’ve been giving Horse Girls for years: some harmless gleeful teasing. Chamberlain says he’d like to see a meme or two that aren’t gendered, too. “If I see a Facebook meme that says ‘Ride Like a Girl,’ I usually put my two cents in.”
Meanwhile, Camara is doing his best to encourage the next generation of Horse Boys when he comes across them at shows. “Whenever I see a young boy at a horse show, I say, ‘Great job, great to see you out here showing’ — little positive things.”
For the rest of us, it’s time to finally recognize the Horse Boy in all his glory. He’s out there doing his thing and putting up with all the Horse Girl drama. He’s basically a hero. What is there left to say? He’s a boy. And he loves horses. He doesn’t expect you to get it.