My Secret Life as a High School Horse Girl

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ere it not for the sad fact of being born 15 years too early, dry shampoo could have changed the course of my life forever. Once upon a time, in the early 2000’s, not only was Y2K a terrifying and very plausible reality (look it up, kids), but dry shampoo was still decades away from hitting the U.S. market.  

I first learned of its existence years later, bumming around Paris while studying abroad, when a friend pulled a white aerosol can from the pharmacy shelf and handed it to me, leaning in conspiratorially. “You can put this in your hair any time of the day or night, and it’s like you just got out of the shower,” she hissed, as if we were handmaids out for a shopping day in Gilead. “Seriously. This stuff will change your life.”

Oh, how right she was.

Today, dry shampoo is a mainstay in medicine cabinets around the globe, including my own, and its ability to vanquish any foe – from gym grease and 'shower fatigue' to summer helmet hair – is downright legendary. Now, instead of running from the barn to dinner at your friend’s house with streaks of sweaty hair plastered to your forehead, you can breeze in with a sweet-smelling chignon, as chic and elegant as if you’d just stepped off the runway in Milan.

Helmet hair, it seems, is now a thing of the past, and that’s not all. Instagram has shone a bright light on previously misunderstood facets of the equestrian world in all its photogenic glory. Rider-celebs like Kaley Cuoco and Bella Hadid have made horse sport not just accessible, but downright glamorous, and high school kids at the barns where I’ve ridden are all too happy to follow suit, sharing videos of their weekend show rounds and horseback selfies in their favorite #ROOTD.

It’s not hard to see that a shift is taking place in the equestrian space, and it’s making me wonder. Will my future, pony-riding daughter be forced to deal with the same struggles that I did in high school?

Like many young girls, I started riding at age nine with a passion and fervor I’ve since failed to replicate in most any other facet of my life. And, like many young girls in adolescence, I also brimmed with insecurity, a desperation to be liked and fit in, and the emotional maturity of a toddler. Though not unusual, taken altogether with my secret, abiding love for horses, these factors did little to ease my time in high school.  

I had seen other “horse girls” in the grades above and below me, girls who had more readily given in to their role as high school’s own equestrian pariahs. They put up good-naturedly – courageously, even – with those turds of boys who’d walk by and neigh at them, or sniff the air before asking, thoughtfully, “Does anyone smell manure?”

"It’s not hard to see that a shift is taking place in the equestrian space, and it’s making me wonder. Will my future, pony-riding daughter be forced to deal with the same struggles that I did in high school?"

Some of the girls wore braids and baby pink sweatshirts embossed with stylized horse heads; they tucked away their math homework in folders decorated with Lisa Frank mares and foals. Though the thought of being caught publically with similar testaments to my ‘authentic self’ terrified me, I knew where these girls were headed when the school day ended, because I went there too.

We were at the barn every afternoon in rain or cold, sleet or snow, occasionally waking before 5 a.m. on Sunday mornings to pack and drive – with the help of our saintly mothers – to dusty hot or freezing cold show rings around New York State. There, we’d winnow away the weekend hours and hard-earned family dollars, all in the hope of returning home with a 50-cent jumping ribbon that might as well have been spun from gold.

Sometimes, at horse shows, these girls and I would see each other, greeting enthusiastically and chatting avidly about our horses and the classes we had coming up. But in the hallways of high school, we’d speed past with lowered eyes and shy smiles, like secret participants on some relay race team that only we knew.

I was by no means the cool girl in school, and wasn’t looking to be - my aims were far more modest. All I wanted was to be one of the nameless faces that was neither prom queen nor chess club nerd, neither victim nor bully. My close group of girlfriends were student-athletes, and so I became one too – routinely shedding my soccer jersey for a polo shirt and jeans in the car, or shimmying into riding pants under my tennis skirt.

I did double duty at the barn, as well, once lugging my senior health class project around the farm while I painted fences in the sun. The life-sized baby doll (intended, no doubt, to scare the libido out of the student body at large) needed to be “changed” regularly and shrieked at half-hour intervals. Unfortunately, the doll got so hot lying in the grass field that it crapped out, emitting only the occasional, robotic-sounding whine when I shook it. I was sure I’d broken the damn thing and failed the class, but thankfully, after some time in the shade, it began working again. 

To this day, I think my takeaway from this experience is the right one: if you have to paint paddocks in the sun, leave your kid in the tack trunk.

As a teenager, Fridays were friend days, reserved for those all-important, character-building activities that teens require in the same way that they need fresh air, water, and vending machine junk food. Mostly, these included malingering around the local mall or screeching through The Shining in someone’s dark, finished basement. F.O.M.O is a natural part of the teenage condition, and though riding often dictated that I show up late or leave early from these group outings, I rarely missed one.

"To this day, I think my takeaway from this experience is the right one: if you have to paint paddocks in the sun, leave your kid in the tack trunk."

My closest friends knew I rode and occasionally teased me about it, especially on those nights when I’d cut out before 10 p.m. before a horse show the next morning. But even with my friends, I worked to keep the illusion of my two worlds separate. I rarely talked about my horses, and like a Boy Scout, I always came prepared, packing troves of makeup and Abercrombie & Fitch sweaters to dash on in the car at a moment’s notice, making my disguise complete.

I still keep my lasting tribute to these years, my senior yearbook, on a shelf in my bedroom at home. It lists the varsity sports teams I played on, some clubs I can’t remember, and a broody, Dave Matthews Band lyric I still don’t fully understand. I’m there, smiling; wearing a black, scooped-neck shirt and pearls, because, as my mother told me, both are classy and timeless, and everyone who goes “too trendy” in their yearbook photo lives to regret it.

The smiling, dark-eyed girl in the picture there is me, but only partially. It’s as if I was Clark Kent, photographed in my boring newspaperman’s suit and glasses, not the red and blue spandex leotard and cape that helped me bust through cement walls and rescue coworkers who’d fallen off buildings.

There is no record there, in the small print, of the many adolescent hours spent mucking stalls with calloused hands, or grooming and bathing horses in the cold. There’s no trace of the teenage sorrows that really got to me; not the boy troubles, which barely registered, but the times I bit back tears after a particularly harsh lesson, or the day I found out that the young horse I loved had been sold.

"In riding, as in life, only Beezie Madden gets to be Beezie Madden."

Thankfully, for most closeted horse girls, myself included, things got a little easier in college. Even though the class size at my liberal arts school was small, I no longer lived in fear of the cool boy sitting next to me, picking a piece of hay off my shoulder, or sniffing the air mockingly when I walked by. From time to time, I’d wear a pair of nondescript riding pants to brunch under a hoodie, and on a couple of occasions I’m still ashamed to admit, I’d call my no-nonsense trainer the next morning with “car trouble” after a late night out at a soccer house party.

Maybe this was me, growing into myself, or growing more confident in both circles of my life. Perhaps I’d just learned to care a little less about it all.   

Today, I still ride almost every day, and I’m still close with my high school friends - horse girls and 'muggles' alike. I often wonder whether my youthful antics were warranted or misplaced, cowardly, or even cruelly self-serving. But 16 years later (good lord), I’ve decided to let my shy, impressionable, well-intentioned teenage-self off the hook. In riding, as in life, only Beezie Madden gets to be Beezie Madden.

The rest of us horse girls? All we can hope is that we’ll get a little better with time.

Written by Nina Fedrizzi

Nina Fedrizzi spends her days writing about horse sport, food, and travel. She began her career at Travel + Leisure and is a former editor at NF Style. When she's not tapping away on her MacBook, Nina can usually be found on a horse, sleuthing out the local pho, or refusing to unpack her carry-on. Watch her do all three on Instagram @ninafedrizzi.