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What does it mean to be a ‘horse girl’? It’s more than a silly kid who wants a pony.

My passion for horses started at summer camp some 40 years ago. Back then, I didn’t know exactly why I was so mesmerized, but now I think I do. Halimah Marcus and the other contributors to the new anthology “Horse Girls” get to the heart of it.

This is no collection of cliche musings about the bond between horse and human. These are essays — cerebral, emotional and deeply intimate — by writers including Jane Smiley, T Kira Madden, Maggie Shipstead and Carmen Maria Machado, all of whom have had a formative relationship with horses. These provocative memoirs explore big subjects: childhood, power, independence, desire. The authors don’t sugarcoat. The pain they express at times is palpable, and because they represent such a refreshing diversity of voices, there’s a story here for just about everyone. What unites this particular group of writers is that they took at least part of their road to wisdom on the back of a horse.

Jane Smiley’s new novel gives voice to her favorite animal, the horse

The title raises the question: What exactly is a “horse girl,” especially as we embrace the fluidity of gender? One definition might be a silly, superficial, girl-identifying girl who talks incessantly about horses, wears horse-themed accessories and pretends to be a horse on the playground at recess. She may or may not have ridden an actual horse. The authors of this anthology offer an alternative definition. After reading their stories, I’ve come to see a horse girl as a brave, young, empathetic seeker of freedom and connection, someone who may or may not identify as a girl but surely identifies with the power and potential of a massive animal with steely muscles and a soft nose.

I’m sure this definition is influenced by watching my daughters as they ride — in the ring, on the trail, around the dining room table. When I ask them what they love about horses, the first thing they tell me is that horses are individuals. Some horses are smart, some not so much. Some are funny, some shy, some energetic, some pokey and some can be all those things in one day. All are worthy, all are loved. I marvel when they describe what it feels like to experience mutual trust with a giant beast. And they tell me when they jump, it feels like flying.

Marcus begins the anthology reflecting on the homophonic nature of “riding” and “writing.” She once thought the two were mutually exclusive and that she had to choose one or the other. As it turns out, riding is a gold mine for writing. Nearly every author touches on shared themes of freedom, trust and fear; horses as a form of therapy; and the sensation of flying. But the broad reach of this book comes from the authors’ individuality. Some authors rode competitively in the ring throughout childhood, like Allie Rowbottom, who gives an intense and compassionate look behind the curtain of a champion. Nur Nasreen Ibrahim, on the other hand, spent the summers of her childhood on trail rides through the mountains of Nathiagali, a summer town for wealthy Pakistanis in the Himalayas, where she reflected on the relationship between horses and social class.

Sarah Enelow-Snyder is a biracial woman who grew up barrel racing in Spicewood, Tex., but gradually let go of riding in favor of activities to build up her college résumé. She wonders now how things might have turned out if she had grown up with the Internet and seen groups of Black women joyously competing in rodeos.

If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be the essay by Carmen Maria Machado about growing up as a queer, Latinx rider in Pennsylvania. Her reflections are as much poetry as prose, and practically every sentence is a revelation.

Why do so many people love horses? ‘Because horses.’

The one thing I wanted more of, which is probably a subject for another book, is how it feels to be the mother of a horse girl. Like soccer moms, horse moms faithfully shuttle their children to and from lessons, practices and competitions; beam with pride at their accomplishments; and comfort them on a bad day. On Saturday afternoons, I take a riding lesson with several other moms while our daughters watch us ride (no doubt wincing at our form). Then we moms sit at a picnic table together and watch our daughters ride, relishing in their strength and poise, simultaneously haunted with the fear that the next fall could be fatal. As horse moms, we live an inherent contradiction. On the one hand, our girls ride at a barn where the goals are to have fun, build confidence and foster a sense of community and responsibility. They are surrounded by empathetic, independent, self-confident kids of all races, sizes and genders. All are worthy, all are loved. What better place to raise our children? At the same time, we regularly, willingly place our children in the trust of an animal that, as Machado reminds us, “could crush you if it wanted to, or even if it didn’t.” How do we make peace with that?

I’ll have to wait for a collection of insightful essays by horse moms to help me make my peace. In the meantime, I’ll reread these stories of brave young girls and passionate grown-ups with strong voices and a fondness for horses. Anyone looking to connect with the fire in the belly of their girlhood, or anyone simply drawn to books about people and their passions, will find something to love about “Horse Girls.”

Tamra Mendelson is a professor of biology focusing on animal behavior at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Horse Girls: Recovering, Aspiring, and Devoted Riders Redefine the Iconic Bond

Edited by Halimah Marcus

Harper Perennial. 304 pp. Paperback, $17

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