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A pink dog-headed girl sits on the back of a horse on the side open range, on the cover of Coyote Doggirl, Drawn & Quarterly (2018). Image: Lisa Hanawalt/Drawn & Quarterly

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Tuca & Bertie creator Lisa Hanawalt on achieving her horse girl dreams

Lisa Hanawalt has a horse

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.

In 2019, Lisa Hanawalt created the universally lauded, award-winning animated series Tuca & Bertie. Then she bought her own horse, Juniper, checking off two lifelong bucket list items in quick succession.

“I was afraid that if I actually got a horse, I’d have nothing left to strive for,” she wrote on Instagram at the time. A speech bubble hovered over an image of Hanawalt’s bird-headed stand-in as she cradled the nose of a recently purchased horse and chirped, “I’m ready for death now!”

Hanawalt was not actually ready for death; the comic is also about how making Tuca & Bertie and buying a horse was anything but the end of her ambitions for her career or personal life. But between Hanawalt’s experience as a Horse Girl and Tuca & Bertie’s exploration of the Adult Woman, she was someone I had to talk to for Polygon’s Horse Girl Canon.

Her horse-loving bonafides might not be at the forefront of Tuca & Bertie, but it’s threaded through much of her other work. Hanawalt’s collections of humor comics, like the recently republished I Want You, are laced with appearances from animal-headed people — many of them horses. Her graphic novel, Coyote Doggirl, follows the adventures of a canine-headed cowgirl and her beloved horse. And then, of course, there’s Netflix hit Bojack Horseman, where Hanawalt shares producer and production designer credits, and its now-iconic horse-headed star.

Hanawalt and I sat down to a Zoom chat about the best horse stories, the best horse video games, and what it’s like to finally achieve every horse-loving kid’s dream.

This interview has been edited for clarity and structure.

On filling the Horse Girl void without a horse

Hanawalt: For years I couldn’t ride. I rode when I was young. I was definitely a Horse Girl before I took my first riding lesson, and that just made it a full on obsession.

I worked a summer at a rental barn so that I could pay for a half-lease on one of their rental ponies. It was kind of different from all the girls who had their own ponies. You did what you could.

But then I kept quitting, because I was too scared. And I had accidents and then I just would be too scared to ride. And then I quit for a long time, I quit for like 17 years, between high school, college, you know, and I didn’t start up again until about five years ago. So in the meantime, yeah, [I watched] horse movies.

Horse video games were a big one. I was literally playing Red Dead Redemption 2, and I was about halfway through it when I finally got my horse. And then I immediately lost all interest in playing the game. Because the parts of the game that I liked were the horse parts, where you’re just riding through this landscape and you’re getting your horse to go faster and you’re taking care of the horse, brushing it. It’s just like, “Well, why do I need to do this virtually? I’m picking live, real manure out of my horse’s real hooves. What more could I want?” That media really did kind of fulfill that need.

When I’m riding, my trainer will pretend she’s in Game of Thrones and I’ll pretend like I’m in a Western.

On her favorite horse stories

Shadow of the Colossus has a horse in it — although I’m very picky about the way the horses are animated. In Shadow of the Colossus the way its legs work are a little bit dog-like and that turns me off. Red Dead Redemption is the best horse animation I’ve seen. And the best variety of horses, although it’s very funny that you can train them to do like, high level dressage [laughs] while you’re doing Western riding, I find this really amusing. I like the ones in Skyrim. I love horses in games. It’s great.

Red Dead is up there. It’s funny because I don’t like the game that much. I don’t like the cutscenes. I’m just like, “Bleeeeaaahhh, who cares?” [laugh] Same with Breath of the Wild. I love the horse part; don’t care about the game, the puzzle solving. I’m not a great video game player.

Comic book illustration of a cowboy on a horse in Red Dead Redemption. “OK, I’m holding the square button, do a leg-yield!” says the cowboy. “Dressage? With fresh kill on my back?” the horse protests.
An exclusive preview of one of Hanawalt’s upcoming diary comics.
Artwork: Copyright Lisa Hanawalt

I’m trying to think, what are my... This is corny, but I really liked Dances with Wolves as a horse movie? Because the horse in it is really great. And Kevin Costner bought the horse after the movie. I love that there’s a small genre of films where the rider likes the horse so much that they buy them after they ride them in the movie. What’s his name? There’s like a whole bunch of them. Who’s that actor who was in The Mummy? Brendan Fraser. He also bought a horse after he rode it, like in a TV show.

I have a whole ongoing mental list of famous actors who are also horse people. I don’t know why I care, but I feel like you can see in the movies when the riders actually really like horses. John Wayne hated horses, and so I don’t like watching John Wayne movies.

I like The Horse Whisperer, that was fun. That was a book I read when I was too young, and I was like, “Oh, there’s sexy parts. Horses AND sex, my two favorite things.” At one point I made a whole legend for which horse movies there are, and which ones have Mickey Rooney in them, which ones have a wild or unruly horse, which ones have a contest or a race or a competition. Which ones have the color of the horse in the title. A lot of them follow a similar path and honestly, most of them are not very good, which is too bad.

On drawing horses

I’ve been drawing [horses] since I was like, six years old. I had my My Little Ponies, so I would draw them. And I did draw comics of a horse-man, wearing a sweater, living with his mule-man roommate. And that was when I was like, seven years old. So, my work hasn’t changed very much.

When I was designing for Bojack, they had tried a few different designers. And they were good, but they just couldn’t get the horse face looking right. I think drawing horses with expression in their faces is a particular thing that maybe only if you really love horses you would do? I don’t know.

bojack in front of a white board with the words “professor bojack” written on it Image: Tornante Television/Netflix

I don’t know [why artists find horses difficult to draw]. Because they’re not that difficult for me to draw. I think their legs are a little complicated. Just figuring out their anatomy, I mean, it’s very specific. I don’t — I draw them all the time. So I don’t find it difficult. [Laughs] Not to flex. I find humans much more difficult.

On her horse comics

“Better get a move on,” the girl says as she saddles up her horse. “We are a team! We are family. This is a symbiotic thing,” she says as they ride off.
In Coyote Doggirl, a pink coyote girl rides the range with her beloved horse.
Image: Lisa Hanawalt/Drawn & Quarterly
TOP CAUSES OF FREEWAY ACCIDENTS. Avoid these common drivingn hazards: 1. Rubbernecking to observe horses in freeway-adjacent pastures (pretty pretty so pretty) 2. passing trailers while looking to see if they contain horses (tires screeching).
I Want You is a collection of art and short comics from Hanawalt’s early career, including this treatise on seeing horses while driving.
Image: Lisa Hanawalt/Drawn & Quarterly

[Coyote Doggirl] came from watching Westerns, which I mostly watch for the horses, and most of them don’t acknowledge the horses enough. They just use them as modes of transport. So I wanted one where it really was more about the horses. And I had gone on a vacation in upstate New York with my boyfriend and we went on a little short pony ride and it just rekindled this love of horses and riding for me. So, drawing that comic was part of my way of fulfilling that need.

Most of my characters are ... a lot of them have aspects of myself in them, or people I know, or I’m close to. Horses, I think, can be very insecure and anxious. So that’s something I relate to. You know, they’re just like, “What’s that?!” They’re prey animals, so they don’t trust things. [laugh] I relate to that. Yeah.