Essay by Amy Gagnon as part of Contextualising Practice course.
My figurative painting practice concerns itself with feminist imagery, and in recent years, this has manifested itself through depictions of women engaging with animals, specifically, horses. This essay focuses on a new woman and horse painting called Horse Girl Sunset, and research surrounding the horse-girl trope. The research itself both informs and becomes an integral part of my creative practice. Therefore, this essay weaves together creative writing with a critical analysis of my practice in conversation with horsy feminist theory. In doing so it demonstrates how life experience, theory, and process inform my practice.
Prior to painting Horse Girl Sunset, I was gifted a certificate to attend a country horse-riding session in Whittlesea. Advertised as a ‘leisurely walk through the Mount Disappointment State Forest’ with ‘breathtaking views,’ I joined the group on a crisp Autumn morning (Uncle Nev’s Trail Rides n.d). I struggled with calming my nerves atop the giant stallion and growing accustomed to the riveting sway of the horse’s body, which jerked my stiff back painfully left and right. The staff members, five weathered, tan, country women rode their horses with grace and ease. After they had assisted the group in mounting and the basic riding instructions, we took off slowly for the three-hour trek through the beaten trail in the hilly countryside. The instructors led and trailed the group and ran up along the sides of the pack to ensure that everything was running smoothly. The youngest participant was a little girl who looked no older than eight years old, with blonde pigtails sticking out from under her black riding helmet. Her Daddy, a leathery, bronzed, agile man, had loudly boasted to the instructors about how he used to work there too. Rather than keeping within the pack of the slow, scenic trail walkers, he consistently kicked and hollered at his white mare, and jostled around from either side of the group, joining the instructors. Towards the end of the session, we were all moving at a slow, single file alongside an empty country road. The Daddy shot up to my right, galloping at a high speed, and his mare bit my stallion’s neck in a swift, vicious movement. My stallion brayed and reared, hoisting itself tall into the air and balancing on its strong hind legs as I clutched onto his back, fear and nausea coiling uncomfortably within my stomach. The man continued to gallop forward without apology, as my flustered horse slowly continued with four hooves to the ground. Punctuated by a sharp, agonising pain, I realised that in the movement, my acrylic pinkie nail had gotten caught underneath the bridle, and lifted clean off, revealing a bleeding, gory mess. Acrylic nails are drilled, sanded, and glued onto the nail bed with an adhesive akin to super-glue. In that moment, I viciously hated the man, I did not care what his riding experience was, he just had to shoot off, showing off to impress the beginner group. I thought of the irony of the moment, a dumb city girl with horse tattoos and pink fake nails on, who couldn’t ride her horse. Male ego wounded me that day, as I begun to ponder the importance of feminism in equestrian spaces….
Horse-Girl is a contemporary phrase widely used to understand the cultural phenomenon of women who are seemingly obsessed with horses. The horse-girl is regarded as innocent in her childhood obsession, a naïve and fun fondness for horses, unicorns and Pegasus. Girlish and nostalgic, this fondness is encouraged in young Eurocentric girls the same way in which a love of monsters and dinosaurs is fostered in young boys. As poised by contemporary artist and cultural researcher Perry Burlingame, it is throughout adolescence when the horse-girl becomes something ugly and strange. This obsession transforms into something perverse, which should have been abandoned years ago, as the young girl matures into an outsider woman (2019). The very phrase horse-girl implies that it is for the young and sweet girl, not the awkward and gangly teenager, or the woman who is old enough to know better. There is little scientific evidence to determine why so many young girls are drawn to horses, only cultural supposition. Speculation claims that girls are attracted to the power, strength, and beauty of the horse. There may also be a certain sense of pride through commanding the power of the equine through the tender care of the animal, and accomplishment of skilful riding (Duncum 1985). In any case, I have found horse-girls to be (at least in metropolitan Australian culture) outcast, alienated and undesirable. My practice, when depicting these images of women and horses, is often met with bewilderment in the institutional framework which is an esteemed high-education art university. My practice seeks to investigate the nuances and cultural implications within the horse-girl trope, through sexualised depictions of female riders. I also hope to participate in the reclamation of the horse-girl trope through my practice, as a female-animal relationship of feminist power.
My practice is drawn towards horses, partially because of the shared alienation of both women and horses, which is then also cast upon devoted horse-girls. Feminist theorist Lynda Birke suggests that animals and women are connected as ‘others’ in society. A prime example of this othering can be found in the degradation of women through animal nicknames laden with hatred, such as pussy, chick, or bitch (2002, p.430). The equestrian medias continuance of the horse-girl trope in female riders may be seen as diminishing the sport of horseback riding, or making it seem girlish and lesser (Plymoth 2012). Within the equestrian world, there is an evident disdain for mares (female horses), and preference for stallions (male horses). In a 2019 case study conducted by nine equestrian researchers, they uncovered evidence supporting the preference of male horses. Of 1,233 survey respondents (94% females and 75% experienced riders of eight years); ‘[w]omen riders express a preference for combining female riders with castrated male horses’ (Fenner et al. p.14). Mares on the other hand were seen, without a scientific basis, as being less predictable and trustworthy, and second to their stallion counterparts. There is no significant scientific research to prove a sex-based disparity of temperament, training and learning capabilities within horses, which points to this preference being found as a personal gendered prejudice (Fenner et al. 2019). There are similarities between women and mares, as both tend to be generalised as emotional, unreliable, and treated by men as something to ride on.
A sweeping, long canvas is stapled haphazardly to the damaged white studio walls. Cut brutishly on the studio floor, from a roll of cotton-duck canvas purchased cheaply in bulk. The canvas is prepared labouriously with white gesso primer, after using hot water to remove the creased lines from the fabric. After each layer superficially dries, the canvas is sanded back by hand, before being gesso primed again. As each layer is sanded back, the imperfections, split seams, rough surface and dried brush hairs are revealed, before sloppily being covered up once again. The process is repeated seven times, and yet the cheap fabric is still barely viable to hold the layers of oil paint it’s intended to hold. Once the gesso has dried, thick masking tape is laid onto the canvas, blocking it off into a slightly wonky frame, allowing sides for the canvas to eventually be stretched. Two and half weeks have passed. The imperfect canvas is now ready for its image.
The new piece in question, Horse Girl Sunset, is a 185cm wide by 102cm high oil painting on hand-primed, unstretched canvas. This landscape work depicts a fair-skinned, nude woman sitting atop the back of brown, elongated stallion in the centre of the composition. The woman’s bright pink, fair skin is tinted and glowing red around the edges with sunburn. The stinging red, sunburnt buttock of the woman is marked with a white, branded star icon. The rear of the stallion she mounts similarly brandishes a dark, star mark in his fur. The large-breasted woman is leaning forwards, gripping onto the neck of the giant stallion with one ballooning arm, and the other arm tucked devilishly between her crotch and the horse. Beyond the femme rider is a scenic, acidic-green rolling hill, dotted with smaller horses in the distance, leaning down to graze on the grass. The sky above blazes a candy-coloured lilac, diffusing into a vibrant orange red sunset. Punctuating the skyline, atop of the hill, are rounded forest-green trees and a small, grey shed structure. Sweeping down across the long hill, from the top left to the bottom right of the image, small at first, then large and detailed, is a wooden fence. This dinky wooden fence separates the paddock in the background from the foreground of the woman and horse. The woman is gazing lopsidedly at the horse with smudged, azure-blue eyeshadow, and a painted grin of smeared, crimson-red lipstick.
When collecting imagery to inform my paintings as references, I often look to the Google Images search engine. The phrase ‘horse-girl’ or ‘woman on horse’ turns multiplicities of images of the traditionally American, blonde woman, done up pretty in her riding gear, sitting proudly atop of her noble steed. After several years of investigating horse imagery, and searching for the perfect, garish reference to inspire a new work, I’ve become familiarised in this catalogue of imagery. When undertaking this new painting I decided to try adding a new variable into these generic searches; ‘woman on horse sexy.’ This opened a pandoras box of disgusting, bestial, pornographic, and disturbing imagery. I had found my reference inspiration. The imagery I found when hunting for my reference of a nude, large-breasted woman, sitting bare-back atop a horse nauseated me. I had to remind myself, that these images didn’t exist purely in a humourous, kitsch, and gaudy place of fun, but as genuine erotic material for men to indulge in. The rest of the composition followed swiftly, with the aid of quickly Google searching ‘horse ranch desktop background,’ and ‘horses on a hill.’ My collage of distorted, appropriated, and imagined imagery formed itself in quick, ballpoint pen sketches, playing with proportions and expression.
The horse as a figure is inherently masculine and dominating. Alarmingly tall, and absurdly muscular with a barrel-shaped figure, the stallion is a beastly powerhouse. Marked by their rippling muscles, horse representations in ‘The Western’ art genre are conventionally male, and the rider, distinct through ornamented gear, traditionally feminine. The emphasis between male horse and female rider is inherently heterosexual and pushes notions of women exploring their sexuality through riding (Birke & Brandt 2009). As put by cultural writer Tami Spry; ‘[t]hat horse is between your legs, and he is moving up and down and back and forth. There’s no getting around it; it has… the practice and social construction of sexuality’ (2012 p.482). Freudian theory would suggest that the horse becomes a phallic extension of the woman riding, and symbolic to the feminine longing for power (Burlingame 2019). Suggestive too of sexuality in women-horse relationships is ‘the cliché myth that girls “lose their virginity” on horseback due to broken hymens’ (Burlingame 2019, p.2).
In the mounting motion required to ride the stallion, the woman assumes a powerful position; mounting, rather than mounted (Landry 2001). The sense of pride, power and boasting displayed by female equestrians of the 1940s is compared by scholar Donna Landry to ‘a certain dominatrix effect, and a certain exhibitionism’ (2001, p.468). My depiction of the woman sitting nude atop the large horse is innately sexual in nature. The pornographic reference material for the painting’s composition is evident through the unnaturally large, perky breasts of the woman, and the cheesy, vacant-eyed grin plastered across her face. I sought to emphasise the masculinity of the stallion through the absence of a flowing mane, and the accentuation of the huge, large muscles of the animal. The resulting elongated horse image is unnatural and alien-like in nature, with a bulbous, shiny red hairless head, and intense, Indian-yellow eyes void of a pupil. The painting is not intended to arouse or please a male audience, but instead to evoke a sense of discomfort, and questioning of why something so wrong and bestial has been created. I intend to subvert the male gaze’s sexualisation of the horse-girl trope, by creating an uncomfortable, eroticised image.
There is a disturbing encouragement of bestiality within the language of imagery where attractive women ride horses. Bestiality, also known as zoophilia, is defined by scholar Anil Aggrawal as ‘[a term] denoting human sexual contact with animals. Zoophilic behaviours include not just coitus with animals, but a whole range of other sexual activities’ (2009, p.285). These connotations of a bestial nature perhaps taint the accounts of equestrian women who experience sexual empowerment and enlightenment through participation in the male-dominated space of riding. There is a muddied boundary separating outright bestiality and harmless displays of interspecies affection between woman and horse (Kinniburgh 2016). Similarly, there is a fine line between sexual degradation and sexual empowerment when dealing with this imagery. I have found that within this loaded language of eroticised paintings, the decision lies with the viewer to see the work as either liberating or objectifying. While my practice is intended as a critique and subversion of the male-gaze, it could still be seen as employing the sexualisation and distortion of female bodies for men’s erotic pleasure.
POWER WHILE RIDING
There is a sexual liberation, or perhaps just strong sense of empowerment, accounted by many female riders. For some girls, riding provided the chance to challenge the conventional notions of femininity, and instead get rough while riding horses, improving their self-esteem (Birke & Brandt 2009). Spry equates the experience to ‘one of the few performances of empowerment available to a girl’ (p.483, 2012). In a 2014 research study into the therapeutic benefits of riding, participants found that the bonding relationship of mutual trust horse and girl empowered younger riders (Westerman et al.). Cultural speculation, and indeed the premise of the horse-girl trope, emphasises upon the transcendent, loving and spiritual connection between a woman and her horse. While not to diminish female empowerment, and a bond between woman and equine, it’s important to also acknowledge the danger in romanticising these relationships. As poised by cultural author Nikki Savvides, women challenged gendered stereotypes by joining the fields and stables of working-class men, and the idealised horse-love stereotypes do not reflect on the real-life accounts of hard-working women (2011).
Horse Girl Sunset cannot possibly evoke all these nuances and muddy discourse surrounding the feminist theory behind the horse-girl trope. It instead seeks to highlight some of these complexities within the trope through its exaggerated sexualisation. I purposefully chose to eroticise my femme rider, to raise questions of ethics, and to poke fun at the male-gaze in which the horse-girl is often seen through in traditional depictions of erotic equestrians. My painting does not offer relief nor a solution to these issues of sexism, misogyny, and bestiality. Instead, it sits uncomfortably in the precipice of it all, basking within it. I do not seek to provide an answer to these questions raised, but hopefully in the continuance of my outsider fascination of the horse-girl trope in the name of kitsch art – I can at least assist in asking the questions.
Aggrawal, A 2009 Forensic and Medico-Legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices, CRC Press, Florida.
Birke, L 2002, ‘Intimate Familiarities? Feminism and Human-Animal Studies’, Society & Animals, vol. 10, no. 4, pp.429–436.
Birke, L & Brandt, K 2009, ‘Mutual Corporeality: Gender and Human/horse Relationships’, Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 32 no. 3, pp. 189–197.
Burlingame, P 2019, I Wish I Was a Cowboy, Masters Thesis, Syracuse University, New York.
Duncum, P 1985, ‘The Fantasy Embeddedness of Girls’ Horse Drawings’, Art education, vol. 38, no.6, pp.42–46.
Fenner, K, Caspar, G, Hyde, M, Henshall, C, Dhand, N, Probyn-Rapsey, F, Dashper, K, Mclean, A & McGreevy, P 2019, ‘It’s All About the Sex, or Is It? Humans, Horses and Temperament’, Plos One, vol. 14, n. 5, pp.1-18.
Kinniburgh, M, 2016, ‘Equine Erotics, Possible Pleasures: Early Modern Bestiality and Interspecies Queerness in Plate Five of L’Academie Des Dames’, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, vol. 16, no. 4, pp.72–95.
Landry, D 2001, ‘Horsy and Persistently Queer: Imperialism, Feminism and Bestiality’, Textual Practice, vol.15, no.3, pp. 467-485.
Plymoth, B 2012, ‘Gender in equestrian sports: an issue of difference and equality’, Sport in Society, vol.15, no. 3, pp. 335-348.
Savvides, N 2011 ‘“Loving-knowing” women and horses: Symbolic connections, real life conflicts and ‘natural horsemanship’’, Humanimalia, vol. 3, no.1, pp. 60–76.
Spry, T 2012, ‘Unseating the Myth of a Girl and Her Horse, Now That’s True Grit’, Cultural Studies, Critical Methodologies, vol. 12, no.6, pp.482–484.
Uncle Nev’s Trail Rides n. d, Home Page, viewed 2 June 2022, <https://www.unclenevs.com.au/>.
Westerman, P, Westerman, D, Hargreaves, H & Verge, M 2014 ‘Horses and People Healing Each Other: The Impact of Participation in a Therapeutic Riding Program’, Reflections: Narratives of Professional Helping, Animal-Human Relationships, vol.14, no.4, pp. 57–63.