A horse is a horse, of course, of course, except if it's actually a human. A woman known as Submiss Ann is a 54-year-old mother and grandmother and former children's party planner. In her off time, she enjoys pretending to be a pony.
Ann, who prefers that her last name remain private, often goes to deserted parking lots in the night with her trainer, Madac. They knot off a 100-foot clothesline at 5-foot intervals, set up a makeshift corral, and he takes her through her paces. She wears a headdress with long, blond, genuine palomino horsehair that matches her own long, blond human hair. She has a closet full of horsey stuff: stirrups and bridles and shoes with horse hooves on them.
She talks about this matter-of-factly, as if talking about dry cleaning.
"It's a very natural role-play," she says. "When I see my grandson, he'll push me to the ground, and he'll say pony Grandma! Pony! And he'll hop on my back, and take my braid, and we'll play pony. There's no reason that you have to stop that just because you get older. It still has the same fun."
Ann discovered pony play at age 50, and she isn't any old glue-factory nag. She sees herself as a Lipizzaner, a famous breed of Viennese horse known for its acrobatic prowess, which suits Ann's athleticism. She is slim and muscular with a long, bonny face and cheery aspect.
She submerges herself into the pony role, into the depths of pleasing her master. "It's a strong bond, like the one between you and your pet. When you walk your dog on a leash, does your dog feel subservient? Does your dog feel proud? There are many ways to look at that relationship."
Ann met her trainer, Madac, at a Hollywood party. There he was, this tall, handsome man, and she went trotting up to him and playfully put her reins in his hand. The introduction was less baffling than it sounds, as this was a party for sadomasochists, which Ann had been dabbling in during the weekends, when her kids were away at their dad's place.
In her mind, nothing compares to being a pony, to the incredible feeling of trotting across an obstacle course blindfolded while her trainer yells, "Giddyup." At those times, the conversation in her head drops out — the doubts, insecurities and nervous daily chatter. When her trainer says "Turn right," she turns right.
She closes her eyes as she speaks. "You're listening to the rhythm of his voice. You're getting into the mode of acting like a pony, moving like a pony. He may brush you with a face brush. You go over your gaits. It's like a game with infinite levels to it. Just like in ballet, there's always more perfection."
Ann's two children are adults now, but learning about their mother's predilections still gave them pause.
"Mom, why is there a pony cart in the back of the van?" her son asked not long ago. He was in college, and they were on their way to lunch.
"Well, uh, I'm going to this event and I'm going to dress up as a pony, and I have a person who's going to hold my reins, and I'll have a bridle, and a tail, and I'm going to pull the cart, and it's going to be like that," Ann answered, gripping the steering wheel.
"Oh!" her son said. "I've seen that. On the Playboy channel."
Some pony play is indeed erotic. Others, like Ann's, is not. In the larger world of humans-as-equines, sometimes a groom and a trainer and a slew of people will tend to just one pampered pony. Alternatively, a trainer might be responsible for an entire stable of ponies. Sometimes the ponies get jealous of each other and become rambunctious and have to be placated with carrots and affection.
This world has agility contests and jamborees and pageants and rodeos. It has formal dressage competitions. A wall in Ann's hallway is festooned with rosettes and ribbons from various such competitions she has won.
Ann trots over to her computer and pulls up a video of a horse (a real horse).
"She's now cantering. That's a pirouette. See?" she says. "This is what I'm emulating."
In the evening, the rest of Ann's herd comes over to her house, a bungalow in the tony Beverly Hills–adjacent South Carthay district. For the last couple of years, she has been making $150,000 a year as a professional submissive.
"In this world, how many people do you know who will give you obedience without hesitation?" she asks. "If you say jump, I may need to qualify and say how high? It's actually a valid question."
Everyone is excited about a foxhunt they have been planning in the Los Padres National Forest. One person plays a fox. People dressed as ponies chase after the fox, as do people dressed as hounds.
"Did you find glue for your mane yet?" one woman asks.
"I did, thank you," answers a cute, 31-year-old British biologist who goes by the name Pippa. Pippa owned, trained and competed on Thoroughbred horses in Wales. "I had a Welsh cob. I used to spend god-knows-how-many hours as a teenager grooming and plaiting her hair. People see pony play as a form of bestiality, which it isn't. I see it as a dance between dominant and submissive."
"How about you, Tinny?" Ann asks. "How's your purple harness coming along?"
"Fine. I'm also getting shoes shaped like hooves so I don't flare my fingers out. Master Michael smacks me for that," Tinny says.
"As he should," Ann says.
"I am interested in riding ponies," says a portly Japanese man.
Ann looks him over. "I don't think I can carry you. But you never know, there may be a big, buxom pony who comes along," she offers, consolingly.
"I understand," says the man. "Maybe I can lose weight by then."
When the weekend arrives, a dozen ponies chase the fox through a glen and over a creek. The fox is a lithe, redheaded 20-year-old woman in a bodysuit with a real foxtail knotted around her waist.
"Watch out. There's a bunch of costume weirdos out there," a park ranger says to anyone within earshot. Campers scratch their heads. Mountain bikers do double takes.
Pippa's trainer is an older woman named Raffi, who keeps her pony life secret. Whenever she meets her society friends for brunch, and they talk about their actual real-life ponies, Raffi is afraid she'll accidentally mention her own pony.
To earn Pippa's trust, Raffi "captured" Pippa in a big ceremony with other horses running around in a circle. "She is my pony," says Raffi in a protective way. "I own her. She is a real horse."
The human horses prance about and neigh and butt against each other in the sunshine. One trainer begins to brush her pony's hair, and another trainer pops pieces of carrot into his pony's mouth, at which point someone remarks that horsing around really is such a nice way to spend a spring day.