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American Girl book cover for Felicity Saves the Day featuring an illustration of a girl on a horse Image: American Girl via Polygon

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The American Girl books lied about horseback riding

What I learned from my Horse Girl moment with Meet Felicity

The Horse Girl Canon is Polygon's celebration and exploration of the books, films, TV, toys, and games that have become essential to the cross-generational "Horse Girl" life.

There is a big difference between the Horse Girl fantasy of popular fiction and the experience of actually riding a horse. I found this out the hard way.

In elementary school, I wasn’t into horses or the Horse Girl Canon. I was into historical fiction, especially stories about young women, and very especially the ones that bucked gender stereotypes. So I read all of the American Girl doll books, because pretty much all of them fit that mold.

I can’t say if the tie-in books succeeded in their aim to teach young children about various oppressive historical circumstances, but Meet Felicity, set in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1774, made me determined to ride a horse. I came for the history lesson about colonial America and got hooked on Horse Girl Propaganda.

In Felicity’s time period, slavery is legal, the Revolutionary War is brewing, and well-to-do white girls in the American colonies have to learn how embroider clothes and make apple butter in order to be more marriageable. Felicity rebels against these feminine pursuits, wanting instead to wear breeches and ride horses. The story’s chief conflict arises when a local drunken misanthrope takes in a beautiful, skittish thoroughbred and starts violently mistreating her. Felicity does something about it.

Specifically, our heroine steals a pair of breeches from the apprentice at her father’s shop and sneaks out in the early hours of the morning, day after day, to tame the horse. She names the mare Penny because of her copper color, and because she’s independent (just like the American colonies soon will be — get it???). Although Felicity has no patience for sewing or calligraphy, she finds that she does have the patience to sit in stillness with Penny, coaxing her out of her shell.

Original art from Meet Felicity
Original art from Meet Felicity (1991)
Image: American Girl

Eventually, Penny lets Felicity ride her, and over time, Penny can even jump over the fence that ensnares her. Felicity then confronts Penny’s abusive owner, arguing that she should get to keep the horse since she tamed Penny. The owner refuses to let Felicity have the horse, threatening to kill Penny if Felicity comes near her again. The book ends with Felicity setting Penny free in the middle of the night, watching her horse ride away into the darkness of the wilderness, finally free.

But hey, don’t worry, Penny returns in the later books. This young girl and her horse are bonded for life. Obviously!

This story worked its magic on me. Maybe it was because of Felicity’s rejection of “girly” pursuits, something I could relate to as a young kid in the ’90s who didn’t feel at home with the way womanhood had been defined in so much of pop culture. But more likely it was the way that Felicity seemed to fall in love with this specific horse, to form a bond that defied reason. In just a few short weeks, Penny goes from skittish and wild to a fence-jumping phenom, all thanks to Felicity’s care and patience.

When the book described Felicity learning to jump over hurdles with Penny, or picking up the pace to a gallop, it sounded thrilling. Felicity falls off of Penny many times, but she never gets seriously injured. I don’t even remember Felicity describing this process as difficult. Embroidery was difficult. Horseback riding came naturally to her.

It would for me, too, right?

Not so much. Here are some facts about horses that Meet Felicity left out, all of which I discovered once I actually took a horseback riding lesson at an overnight summer camp as a kid.

1. Horses are large

This never seems to come up for Felicity, who is 9 years old at the beginning of the series. She doesn’t mention how big Penny is compared to her and how difficult it is to even get onto Penny’s back. In the illustrations, Penny doesn’t look that big. Felicity only looks a foot away from eye level with Penny.

When I got to summer camp and I went to the stables, I immediately realized that horses are extremely big, especially compared to a 9-year-old girl. So big that you can barely even get onto them, let alone look into their eyes and form a deep cosmic connection with them. At least, not without a footstool.

2. Falling off a horse is a big deal

The plot-related danger in Meet Felicity was toward Penny, not from Penny. When Felicity falls off of her horse, she gets right back on, and that’s all a part of the emotional journey they take together. As opposed to, you know, something that could result in a life-threatening trampling injury that a 1774-era doctor might not be able to effectively treat.

In real life, I have not fallen off of a horse. As soon as I managed to get up onto one, I clung on for dear life. It looked like a very, very long way to fall.

3. Horseback riding is difficult

Before we meet Felicity, our heroine has some experience riding horses. She’d ridden the old, slow horse that lived in the family barn. I had also ridden an old, slow horse around a trail with my parents once. I wasn’t totally green. Also, Felicity rode bareback, whereas I got to sit in a comfortable saddle. Which should be much easier?

Wrong. It felt wrong right away, and it never got better. I learned to trot and to canter. But the faster the horse went, the less control I felt I had, probably because that was actually true. I never learned to move with the horse, as Felicity seemed to do right away. I remember the trainer barking orders at me from the ground, telling me to make the horse go faster. I remember thinking, very strongly, that I did not want to do that. So I didn’t. I never got up to a gallop. Not even close.

4. Few people get to form an intense, emotional bond with a horse

Felicity and Penny jump over a fence
Original art from Meet Felicity (1991)
Image: American Girl

As soon as Felicity saw Penny, she knew that Penny would be her soul-horse. Soulmate horse. Whatever you want to call it. They had an instant, undeniable bond, OK? And I wanted that.

When I got to the stables at summer camp, I asked which horse I’d get to ride. Soon after meeting that horse, I referred to it as “my horse,” and the trainer instantly corrected me. It wasn’t “my” horse. Not even just for today. And I wouldn’t necessarily get to ride the same horse every time.

Could I adopt one of the horses, I asked? By which I meant, could I have one horse I got to ride and clean up after? No, she said, in a tone that I remember cutting me to the bone. She explained that I could come by and clean the stables for all of the horses.

That sounded very fair to me. But it did not sound like a way for me to form an intense emotional bond with just one horse. And anyway, none of the horses in that stable filled me with the same feelings that Felicity had described about Penny. Something just wasn’t clicking.

If I had actually gone back to the stables often enough, maybe it would’ve happened for me. But I get why I didn’t. The horses were very big, and I was very bad at riding them. I did not wake up extremely early every morning and sneak down to the stables, as Felicity would have, to give a horse an apple or a sugar cube. I did not slowly train a horse to warm up to me and teach her how to leap over a bale of hay or a fence. I did not become a Horse Girl. I didn’t become an equestrian, either.

Meet Felicity romanticized the difficulty of what Felicity accomplished with Penny. As a kid, I felt let down by that. But as an adult, I have an appreciation for it. There were plenty of other activities I did as a kid that were difficult and that I didn’t abandon, even though they scared me or challenged me. The point of Meet Felicity, in addition to teaching me ... something, I don’t know what exactly, about the run-up to the Revolutionary War, was to embrace the hobbies that you’re passionate about, even if they’re not what other people expect you to do. I write about video games now, so I guess I did do that.

I never did find a horse soulmate in real life. But that’s OK. It worked a lot better as a story in a book.