The Dark Side of the Paddock

In April, I will turn 23. Mine is a generation raised upon the principles of irony, easy-to-access streaming pornography, and the idea that it’s not totally crazy to take care of imaginary shit. Think of the Tamagotchi you damn near prostrated yourself to your parents to get for Christmas and subsequently let die once school started because your teacher wouldn’t let you feed it in class. The Digimon, aka the roided-up, battle-ready Tamagotchi. Furbies. Pokémon. Pokémon. POKÉMON. This is one of the reasons I’m playing My Horse.

Then, there’s the fact that I have wanted to be a cowboy from more or less the moment I was sentient. In preschool, I refused to wear anything but full Western regalia. Until I was six, my absolute favorite objects were fake, ridable horses. There was the rocking horse, which wasn’t particularly mobile but scored points in terms of user-friendliness, and there was the stick with the horse’s head on the end, a Halloween staple to match my many years of wearing cowboy costumes. There may have also been a modified Big Wheel with a horse’s head on it, though no photographic evidence of such an object exists. My hometown’s mascot was even a toy horse. (Also, the fact that my hometown had a mascot at all is suitable cause for alarm.) From the ages of seven to nine, my family would go to Chincoteague Island in Virginia to watch horses run around for a week. I loved it. When I was 14, my parents took me to a dude ranch in Colorado where I actually learned how to ride a horse. It remains one of the highlights of my life.

Once I realized that being obsessed with horses was kind of weird (as someone bad at making new friends I found the process slightly easier if I wasn’t inexplicably wearing a cowboy hat), I cooled my jets, going underground with my affection for all things equestrian, creating a pressure chamber that burst at the seams in weird ways. Like the shorts. My favorite pair of shorts have my hometown’s logo on them (which is, again, a horse). They look real fratty. I don’t care.

Slowly, I realized that my horse was depressed. I knew he didn’t actually exist, but he was still my plaything.

Meanwhile, it seems that, culturally, horses are enjoying a “moment.” There’s War Horse, both a play and an against-all-odds pretty amazing Steven Spielberg movie. Red Dead Redemption was pretty big on horses. @horse_ebooks is probably the best Twitter account in the history of the internet. And then there’s the Brony community, a beyond-weird subculture where ostensibly bro-ish dudes are dedicated to the children’s television show My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, which was originally released to help push a line of toys. As with most things on the internet, Bronies tend to gather on Reddit. For those of you wondering, yes: there is a Brony convention, and it falls on my mom’s birthday in June. (Two days. All pony.) Throw in a couple choice YouTube clips, and you’ve got a poorly-researched New York Times think piece on your hands.

Enter My Horse, a mobile game with a title at least as self-explanatory a title as “Indie Game: The Movie” or “Metallica.” The premise of the game is this: There is a horse. It’s yours. You have to take care of it. If you don’t, your stable hand—an impossibly good-looking Fabio type who belongs on the cover of a romance novel—will gently chide you for not taking care of him. But it’ll be fine. Nothing really bad will happen to your horse. The game is basically an even lower-stakes Tamagotchi (if that’s even possible) for your iPhone. By all rights, this game should be about as interesting as having a non-valuable teddy bear stuck in an unbreakable glass case. But you know what? I fucking love goddamn My Horse.

Between my love of horses and the way the winds of the zeitgeist have been blowing, it was the perfect storm. Especially when you consider that, objectively, My Horse is a very good game. If someone told you they were playing a game where the only objective was to take care of a horse—not only that, but they were super into it—you’d think they were either kidding or being stupid on purpose (there’s a difference between those two things, trust me). But if they handed you their iPhone, well. Now we’re playing kino. You understand. What makes My Horse so much better than Tamagotchi and the like is that it employs the same tactile experience of having a pet: most of this game is about touching the horse. You pet the horse. This makes it happy. You clean the horse by rubbing it. This also makes it happy. Touch the horse repeatedly on the chest, and it rears up on its hind legs. This doesn’t make it happy, but it sure as shit made me happy. I named my horse Joey, because I saw War Horse on Broadway with my mom and I am uncreative.

 I feel that, after a month of obsessively playing My Horse, it’s not entirely unreasonable for me to say I could feasibly raise a child.

Let’s take a step back and look at the relationship between horse and human. Horses represent the symbiotic relationship between man and nature. We are dominant over our horses, but never cruelly so. Think of Hidalgo: Viggo Mortensen clearly loves his horse, but at the end of the day it’s him steering the horse through the desert, not the other way around. Or Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Danny Whitten might have got to sing sometimes, but there’s a reason Neil could cut all of their parts from Trans. He was the cowboy. They were the horse.

Still, there’s something peaceful about horses—how in teaching them, we learn something about ourselves (see Misty of Chincoteague, 1947). I feel that, after a month of obsessively playing My Horse, it’s not entirely unreasonable for me to say I could feasibly raise a child. Or at least keep an ant farm alive and running for more than two weeks, which I failed to do this past summer. I prepared Joey’s food. I cleaned him. I entered him into competitions, leveling him up for reasons that still aren’t completely clear to me. That’s just like taking care of a kid, right?

As I watched Joey frolic around his paddock, I noticed something on his face: a scar. I started freaking out. How did my horse spontaneously generate a scar? It must have always been there. Suddenly, Joey seemed to have a dark past. I stared at the scar. I took a picture of it. I posted it to my Tumblr. I took more pictures of Joey. I made an entire Tumblr devoted to him. Slowly, I realized that my horse was depressed. I knew he didn’t actually exist, but he was still my plaything. But it started to seem that Joey knew he didn’t actually exist, either. The power dynamics of our relationship were getting to him. His eyes began to look empty, his sleek brown coat in my mind developing a mechanical pallor. Joey was alone. No one understood him, not even me. I bought him a pair of devil horns from the game’s store, but that only seemed to make him more depressed.

Am I a Brony? Maybe. I’ve watched episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, at least. At the risk of being reductive, My Little Pony is about a bunch of really cute magical horses who go on really cute adventures and save the day with really cute, friendship-based magic. My favorite show is The Wire, which, being an ultra-violent crime soap opera, is the opposite of My Little Pony in every single way. I’d say that I’m more a Brony sympathizer. I understand where they’re coming from, ideologically speaking. I like cute stuff. And friendship. It’s hard for me to make friends, and My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic creates this unrelentingly positive world where friendship isn’t just magic, it’s the law of the land. And the ponies. Can’t forget about the ponies.

These days, Joey is at Level 47. But the 47th level of what, exactly? Of being a horse? How can he be judged against other horses if there are no other horses to be compared to? What’s even more depressing is Joey will never leave his paddock, other than to enter jumping competitions that, being a Level 47 Horse, he inevitably wins. He’ll never be free. Not like this. The aspiring cowboy I once was will never have a chance to take him out on the range. Joey’s three years and eight months old, and shows no signs that he’ll be getting any older. Joey will never die, yet he is dead inside. But whenever I pet him on his nose for five seconds straight and see a little green heart erupt out of nowhere, I feel a pang of love for my horse that I can’t ignore. Long live Joey. Long live My Horse.?