Friday, August 13, 2010

Classing horses

As a parenthropologist, I am thinking about what it means for little girls today to be "horse crazy" - and of course, I am asking why American middle-class girls, like my daughter and her friends, read books that tell stories about girls and horses, play with toy horses, beg for horseback riding lessons (not to mention ponies), and so on. Here are my continuing notes on this topic.

Today, I am wondering about the classed dimensions of the horse world. Michael Korda, in his 2004 book, Horse People, notes that more than 5 million households in the United States own a horse or horses - and that the U.S. population of horses stands around 13.5 million. "That seems like a lot of horses in a country where most people had made the switch to the automobile by the end of World War I and in which horses – with a few exceptions like police horses, or carriage horses in places like New York’s Central Park, or among the Amish, are no longer working animals, strictly speaking" (1).

The number of horses suggests that the sociological reality of owning (or at least caring for) a horse involves a certain amount of diversity - but it also makes me think about horses as symbols of particular kinds of lives.

One kind of life that horses represent is an English aristocratic life, as Korda suggests:

“In England, you have to understand," Margaret says – giving me a look that means, Take this seriously! – “there’s a whole lifestyle that revolves around ponies, like the one in the Thelwell cartoons, full of cross-looking little girls in pigtails, with velvet hard hats and jodhpur boots, and tiny, fat Shetland ponies, each with a mind of its own. In the English countryside, a pony gets passed on from child to child as it gets outgrown, like clothes in a large family, so most of them don’t stay at one place all that long” (75).

From a child’s point of view, a pony in those days involved some of the same desires that center on learning to drive and owning a car today for teenage Americans – freedom to come and go as you please, responsibility (“You can have it, but you have to look after it”), a sense of power and control, on top of which, unlike a car, a pony is warm, furry, accepts – indeed expects – treats, and responds to love, affection, and attention (76).

The whole notion of a little girl and her pony is deeply entrenched in English life, and also provides an early statement about class, status, and athletic ability, very much part of the Diana the Huntress syndrome that permeates a certain stratum of English society when it comes to little girls (77).

An Anglo-American aristocratic life becomes represented in The Private Passion of Jackie Kennedy Onassis: Portrait of a Rider, by Vicky Moon (2005):

Almost every little girl dreams about owning a pony, but for Jacqueline Bouvier, it was a given…. In the privileged circle into which she was born, riding was a necessary social grace, as was playing a decent game of tennis, knowing which fork to use, and writing a proper thank-you note.

In other words, horses seem to represent the good life - and the accessibility of horses to the daughters of middle-class families (as well as aristocratic families) becomes a sign of social mobility.

Also, the riding ability of the girls themselves itself might serve social mobility: In Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1871), the poor-but-genteel March girls manage to become accomplished riders, even without their own stable of horses, and they are invited on riding parties, at which their skills are praised. Amy is mortified, however, when, on their round of calls to the wealthier families in their neighborhood, Jo reveals that they practiced on a saddle mounted on a low-lying branch of an apple tree.

In the 1940 film, "The Philadelphia Story," the aristocratic Tracy's "man of the people" fiance is shown to be lacking in class because he cannot ride a horse.

1 comment:

  1. Note the many associations between horses and royalty in consumer culture for little girls. Our oldest loves Bella Sara and if you haven't checked out their web site, you should. To desire a horse and to ride is also to desire castles, magic, etc.