Giddy Up, Girlfriend!

LEXINGTON, Ky. — In an intimate afternoon ceremony on a sunny Friday in July, a dappled gray gelding and his bay bride, swathed in a gown of artificial hydrangea petals, were wed by a steer wearing clerical vestments. Those present for the vows exchange included a chestnut ring bearer, a “flower filly” and friends Bella Bernaiche of Marshall, Michigan, and Georgia Padgett of Saluda, South Carolina, both 14, who coordinated the ceremony together.

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Giddy Up, Girlfriend!
Gray Chapman
, New York Times

LEXINGTON, Ky. — In an intimate afternoon ceremony on a sunny Friday in July, a dappled gray gelding and his bay bride, swathed in a gown of artificial hydrangea petals, were wed by a steer wearing clerical vestments. Those present for the vows exchange included a chestnut ring bearer, a “flower filly” and friends Bella Bernaiche of Marshall, Michigan, and Georgia Padgett of Saluda, South Carolina, both 14, who coordinated the ceremony together.

The most striking part of the tableau wasn’t that the bride, groom and officiant were inhuman, but that they were inanimate: made of plastic, measuring roughly 6 inches high from hoof to wither.

Welcome to Breyerfest, a treasured summer rite for those deliriously in love with horses to indulge their obsession alongside approximately 30,000 (mostly teenage, mostly female) kindred spirits: “horse girls,” as they are sometimes called.

The phrase can be one of admiration or derision, depending on who deploys it — not that the horse girl cares, bless her, being blissfully oblivious to the concerns that plague, say, the stars of Bo Burnham’s much-ballyhooed movie “Eighth Grade.”

Yet in recent months, the internet has found renewed zeal in poking fun at the archetype. “Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson dating feels like if the horse girl and the boy who flipped his eyelids from your school started dating,” one Twitter user observed. “Horse girls were actually a Pentagon experiment they were never meant to be released into society,” another joked.

From the outside, horse girls may be perceived as privileged (Princess Charlotte, a horse girl in the making), prissy (think early Taylor Swift) or weird (Tina Belcher), all for their pursuit of a wholesome hobby.

While cultural reference points have changed over the decades — from 1944’s “National Velvet” to two versions of “Black Beauty” to 2002’s “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” — the Breyer horse has remained a constant, at the center of the horse girl universe for most of its nearly 70-year-history.

If one were to assemble a ready-made Horse Girl Starter Kit, it would almost certainly include at least one standard Breyer, which typically costs between $40 and $70. Originating in Chicago but now owned by Reeves International in New Jersey with manufacture in China, the company has hosted Breyerfest at the Kentucky Horse Park here every year since 1989.

Breyerfest is, simply, revelry in a shared obsession. Many attendees are also there to shop: for more model horses, but also for tiny fabric horse blankets ($9), leather saddles ($50) and custom wooden barns ($500) — tiny surrogates through which to live out a painstakingly detailed fantasy, rendered exquisitely in 1:9 scale.

One does not have to own a flesh-and-blood horse in order to be a horse girl, and in fact, for many, a Breyer may be the closest she’ll ever get. She is not defined by her proximity to horses, but by manifesting her interest in a way that outsiders may not understand — may even mock.

Horse girls gallop and neigh on the playground. They doodle “Secretariat” in the margins of their algebra homework. They arrange toy horse marriages. And they chat, post, heart and dream.

Attendance of Breyerfest has more than doubled over the past decade, according to Rick Rekedal, Breyer’s executive vice president, who attributes this in part to — what else? — social media. “People have always loved Breyer, but now they have more tools to share it,” Rekedal said.

As online circles of model horse enthusiasts grow from obscure corners of the internet into flourishing communities, so too does the fervor of their members. On Instagram, memes, horsy in-jokes and stylized photography of model horses proliferate. On YouTube, unboxing videos and scripted dramas starring plastic horses rack up hundreds of thousands of views.

— Hoofing It

If Breyerfest is the horse girl’s bacchanal, the nearby Clarion Hotel is its open bar, from which the ecstasy of material excess flows like wine. Throughout Breyerfest, the hotel transforms into a kind of Kowloon Walled City, in which dealers cram their rooms floor to ceiling with shelves of model horses and open their doors to the madding crowd.

This informal bazaar began unfurling on a Thursday. By Friday evening, nearly every interior wall had been shellacked in “wanted” signs and advertisements trumpeting special-edition Breyers, handmade tack and a few tangential items and services, like shoulder massages and an herbal sciatica remedy.

Veteran collectors dragged wheeled Vera Bradley suitcases stuffed with purchases through the labyrinthine halls. Roving packs of wild-eyed tweens hunted in herds for “holy grails” and additions to their “congas,” or Rockette-like lineups of identical Breyer molds in different colors. Outside the impromptu shops, bewildered parents slumped against the walls; inside, sellers reclined in stocking feet on their double beds, eating from Styrofoam takeout boxes.

Lee Ann Masters of Waco, Kentucky, has sold inside the hotel for the past decade. Masters, 52, has attended Breyerfest annually since 2002, moving to this state from California to be closer to the event. “All my friends meet here every year, so at least once a year I get to see everybody I know,” she said. “We all get together, and we eat, drink, sell and buy.”

Masters, who works in retail for FedEx, bought her first Breyer horse at 12 after saving up spare change she earned by trading in glass Coke bottles. She estimates she has bought and sold more than 3,000 model horses over the years, some fetching prices as high as $2,800, though she still has her original Man o’ War from her Coke bottle days, tearing up when she talks about him.

“They’re that good childhood feeling,” she said. “And they’re just pretty.” Woe betide those who interfere with her enthusiasm. “When my ex-husband said, ‘It’s me or the horses,’ I said, ‘Have a nice day!'”

At the park the next morning, lines at the gates were forming by 7 a.m., two hours before opening. One group of adults had camped out overnight in order to be first. Nearby, a little girl wearing a pink unicorn horn cantered in tight circle, pawed at the concrete with a Teva-clad toe and whinnied shrilly. Among the waiting were Ann Braun and her daughter Sophia, 12, who drove 541 miles to Breyerfest from Laurel, Maryland. Sophia, who wore a “Keep Calm and Canter On” T-shirt, works at a barn in exchange for free riding lessons and saved her money to cover the $70 three-day admission.

She has “around 15” Breyers at home but planned to bring an additional 10 or 15 home with her — including, if her luck held, Thoroughbred racehorse Icabad Crane, whose $70 Breyer facsimile was released at this year’s Breyerfest in a special run of only 1,700 models. “I love how they’re based off of real-life horses,” said Sophia, who actually takes the toys off the shelves. “I know some people keep them in a box, but why spend money to not play with them?”

Shortly before 9, the crowd perked up at an unmistakable drumbeat: hooves on concrete. A row of mounted police lined up at the entrance to welcome the attendees into the park. The gates opened. The horde heaved forward past Fluffy, Breyer’s giant inflatable horse. Day 2 of Breyerfest had begun.

Beyond the gates, there were blank model horses to paint in the crafting tent. There were rides on real ponies. There were long lines to meet actual, live celebrity horses. The air was redolent of Coppertone, wood shavings and manure.

In the covered arena, throngs of people shuffled past vendors selling T-shirts (“All women are created equal, but only the best ride horses”) and Lilliputian halters made out of strips of ribbon no wider than a toothpick. Spectators watched from the bleachers as a cavalcade of exhibitors performed. Among the latter was Liz Skelton, 62, of Harrodsburg, Kentucky, who was demonstrating sidesaddle: an antiquated style of riding she says is experiencing a resurgence, thanks in part to the popularity of “Downton Abbey.” In the ring, she wore a scarlet gown; her quarter horse, Mr. Darcy, had a jaunty fedora affixed to his bridle and a dusting of red glitter on his rump.

Back at the stables, Skelton smiled as a gaggle of young girls in pigtails and hair bows crowded Mr. Darcy’s stall to feed him treats and take selfies. “I think the nicest thing about Breyerfest for little girls is getting to meet the horses,” she said, her dangling horseshoe earrings glinting in the sun. “The look in their eyes ... you can tell the ones who don’t have horses and really want one.”

Inside Alltech Arena, about 100 children had been frenetically unpacking and arranging their models since dawn for an all-day competition that replicates the entire horse show experience in miniature. (Except for the prize ribbons, which are full-sized.)

Eleanor Harvey, the manager for today’s show and a curator at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, has participated in such demonstrations since her childhood. “Some of these kids grow up with real horses, and this is an extension of what they do,” Harvey said. “Some of us, this is vicariously what we would’ve liked to have done.”

A few entries vividly depicted models clearing a fence or maneuvering around a barrel (for “Performance” classes); others were presented sans accessories, judged on their condition and their appropriateness for the class’ designated breed. Nearby, a young girl used a fluffy pink makeup brush to dust off her Saddlebred’s flanks before judges descended.

Throughout the space, parents were draped in folding chairs, stranded without Wi-Fi or electrical outlets for up to eight hours. Among them was Brian Martin, 45, of Montclair, New Jersey, chaperoning his daughter, Ella, 13, and her friend, Cate Bates, 15. Back home, the girls share a leased pony named Leo, but in the world of Breyer they have entire stables of horses to themselves. Ella has around 100 Breyers; Cate estimated she has about 250.

Here in the exhibition hall, their “show strings” were fanned out neatly before them on towels and Bubble Wrap. “This is one of our favorite weekends of the year,” said Martin, remarkably serene for someone who had been sealed inside a convention center full of young equine enthusiasts since sunrise. He told me that Ella saved her allowance all year for Breyerfest, toting a wad of crumpled $5 and $10 bills in an envelope along for the journey.

— ‘Horse internet’ IRL

Cate and Ella are intimately familiar with the horse-obsessed corners of the internet. Cate has her own Breyer-specific Instagram account, and Ella is an avid viewer of model horse YouTube channels. (Facebook, Cate explained, is more for “the older people” — she only joined when she had to create an account for school, after which she made a beeline for the many model horse enthusiast groups scattered throughout the platform.)

Both told me that, thanks to social media, they feel as if they’ve found their tribe of people who “get it” — not like in school, where Cate says her classmates sometimes “look at me like I’m strange” when she tries to explain her hobby.

“Horse internet” is familiar territory for Maddy Stover, Breyer’s social media manager. Stover, 25, competed on Southern Methodist University’s equestrian team and continued show-jumping after graduating.

She recalled feeling floored when she first encountered the array of Breyer fan accounts on social media. “It was unbelievable to me, these girls who would photograph them and love them and take care of them like real horses,” Stover said.

Here there are neither nervous bathing suit selfies nor brows on fleek. In fact, there are barely any selfies at all — just toy horses, often seeming to serve as vessels to re-enact the struggles in their young owners’ lives, accompanied with diarylike captions.

The horse girl has also pivoted to video. There are more than 300,000 Breyer-related ones on YouTube, according to Rekedal. Many are reviews and unboxing vlogs.

But amateur filmmakers like Emma Davis, Megan Mixon and Renee Bouchard also write, shoot and edit scripted series in which Breyer horses experience high-stakes drama and dialogue as fully formed characters (aided by human voice-over and hands).

“I think it lets us find our people,” Davis, 19, said of the model horse community on social media. She frequently voice-acts for her friends’ Breyer YouTube series, and drives 10 hours every year from her hometown, Middletown, Delaware, to attend Breyerfest. Mixon, 19, and Bouchard, 18, are both inspired by the YouTube account CinnamonMewMew, whose Breyer horse movies and series have drawn hundreds of thousands of views over the past decade.

Mixon, of Union, Kentucky, is raising funds for her scripted drama, “Necrosis,” while Bouchard, of North Chittenden, Vermont, will soon release Season 2 of “Blood Moon,” a medieval saga of samuraiesque horses jockeying for power and defeating an evil force. Each of them budgeted around $1,000 to spend on new models at Breyerfest.

Jillian Morrell of Long Beach, California, shares Breyer horse reviews, unboxing videos and films on her YouTube page, StormyStrike. Morrell, 22, has never owned a horse but estimates her Breyer collection has surpassed 1,000. “I was actually bullied a little bit in middle school for it,” she said, “but I feel like the internet in a way helps expose that this is what people really do and it’s not that weird.”

Georgia Padgett and Bella Bernaiche, who dreamed up Friday afternoon’s horse nuptials, also found each other through the internet. Georgia is a barrel racer who works as a stablehand and Bella owns a former cutting horse she is training to jump.

Both girls agreed that one must love horses unconditionally, of course — and, Georgia chimed in, “to have posters of them all over your walls.” (Her bedroom prominently features champion barrel racing horse Scamper.) It’s also about “knowing your stuff,” Bella said.

In the past year, the two girls, who live 760 miles apart, have spent hours on FaceTime talking about their model horses, constructing fleece “pony pouches” in which to safely transport their Breyers, and planning the aforementioned wedding of two of their models, Quill and Sangria.

When Georgia tells peers about her model horse-collecting hobby, “they look at me with crazy eyes,” she said with a laugh. As soon as she turned 13, she set up a social-media profile. “I was like, ‘Breyer Instagram, I’m coming.'” Heather Bernaiche, Bella’s mother, remembers seeing Breyer horses at her local Tractor Supply store, but otherwise, “I didn’t know any of this existed at all,” she said. When Bella’s interest in Breyers began to usurp her American Girl doll collection, Bernaiche was initially skeptical.

But after attending Bella’s first model competition last year, she was impressed by her daughter’s commitment and handiwork. Other children Bella’s age, Bernaiche said, tend to hang out on their phones all night or traipse around the mall, “which I won’t let her do by herself.” As a parent, she sees the hobby as a wholesome alternative, and a positive way to connect with peers (though she does monitor Bella’s Instagram interactions).

Besides, it’s educational. The encyclopedic knowledge that the average horse girl possesses is astonishing. A dedicated Breyer fan can identify genetically distinct coat color patterns — roan, piebald, cremello — and name the original mold itself. They can eyeball a model’s breed based on its physique.

They rattle off names of real horses whose Breyer likenesses they collect like baseball cards: renowned dressage competitors, prolific Arabian broodmares, Queen Elizabeth II’s favorite Fell pony.

For many, one’s tenure as a horse girl is merely a phase to be shrugged off in the perplexing fitting room of personalities that is adolescence. For others, maturity may winnow the obsession out into a polite interest (or an expensive weekend pastime), rather than an entire personality, those “Keep Calm and Canter On” T-shirts replaced by more understated tall boots and bit-buckle belts. A horse woman, as it were. And a small, deeply committed few never temper their obsession. They may even find themselves selling at the Clarion one day.
What is so wonderful about horses? “Amazing” came up most frequently. “Beautiful” and “gorgeous,” too. Often, the question is greeted with a few bewildered looks: What isn’t there to love about horses? Who even asks that?

All identify as horse girls. Unanimously. Unequivocally. All of them are acutely aware of the perceptions some outsiders have of their kind. None of them appeared to be fazed.

“Yup,” Davis declared proudly, a towering Fluffy looming ominously over her shoulder. “We are the crazy horse girls.”

Long may they rein.

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