74% of the horse riding population in the UK are women. In fact, I was surprised the figure wasn’t higher. Almost all of my clients over the last 15 years have been women. It is worth bearing in mind the higher numbers of men in racing, hunting, and professional competition, and a much higher number of women among the amateur, leisure riding community. Overall, horseyness is seen by most of the British public as a naturally female thing, but it need not be so. Around the world, horse care and horse riding are much more commonly associated with masculinity; think of the rodeo, ranch work, Canada’s mounties, mongolias herdsmen, Spains’ bullfighting traditions (awful as they are) – all involve a strong cultural association between horse and man. Why does the UK (and, to some extent, Europe more wideley) believe it is horses and women who have a natural affiliation?
An interesting part of the story is the impact of the second world war. Women had proved themselves highly capable of taking on men’s roles on the home front while men were away fighting. The war was a great leveller of class and gender. It became more reasonable to expect women to be capable of bravery, strength and resilience. After the war, a large number of men, including upper class men (those taking part in equestrian sports), were sadly lost. Their absence was felt widely, including in equestrian sports activities. Equestrian communities were more willing to accept and welcome women to keep the sports thriving and attended. It also helped that equestrian sport, at that time, was taken up by those with plenty of money and status. Women from this sort of background had much more freedom to bend the rules than other women, and riding for pleasure and exercise had long been considered an appropriate pass time for a well born woman, so it wasn’t such a stretch for them to start to gradually infiltrate more masculine domains of horsemanship such as official competition. In 1952 women were allowed to compete in Olympic equestrian sports (32 years before they were able to compete in cycling, for example). Even though equestrian events are the only Olympic sports that test men and women on equal footing, we still see a higher number of men in professional roles and international competition, and a much larger proportion of women in care based roles and lower standards of competition.
Still, it is amazing how far things have come and how much things have changed from British historical associations between horses, work and war. Nowadays, during my recent PhD research, a lot of my participants felt that a link between women and horses was natural. They said that women were more likely to be ‘into’ animals, more likely to be able to live up to the care responsibilities, and more able to communicate with tact and emotional sensitivity, so it was natural that they would be more drawn towards horses. However, it is becoming less acceptable in Britain to presume that such sweeping differences between the genders are natural or normal, and it is interesting to see how these associations are culturally constructed. For instance, ponies are part of the imagery that is targetted to young girls and not to young boys – think of my little ponies [pic?], all of which helps to reinforce gender stereotypes that can end up having a very limiting effect on both boys and girls presumptions about what they are capable of. Women are associated with nature, emotionality, and ‘soft skills’ while men are associated with technology, politics, and science. Girls are being told they are born to care, just as boys are being told they aren’t.
Still, for most women, horsemanship does not feel like an activity that makes them feel second rate. Quite the opposite, many women described it as how they could “really be themselves”, “finally get some me time”; and “achieve things I am proud of”. Riding offers women all sorts of opportunities to feel empowered. Not least, it requires physical strength, endurance and bravery and all of my female participants seemed proud of their robustness and resolve – getting up early, going out in all weathers, and getting back on after a fall. “We aren’t girly girls!” they seemed to collectively affirm when I talked to them about it, “we’re tough, horsey woman!” It has to be said that some women seem committed to proving this point, to themselves, and to everybody else, to a rather extreme degree and will put their bodies on the line in the process.
I particularly like looking at the expression of the men in the background of this shot.
One of the things that can be particularly empowering about horsemanship is that horses’ don’t judge women’s bodies any differently from men’s (mostly – unless the horse has had particular experiences, perhaps). Horses care about how safe people make them feel and how clearly people can be understood. What their handlers or riders are wearing, or their beauty credentials, are nothing to do with it. Lots’ of women told me they found this liberating; the idea that the horse knew ‘the real them’ in a way that broader society, perhaps, didn’t. Horses’ responsiveness to people’s bodies also means horse riders are presented with an opportunity to develop their communicative capacities and personal states in order to get more of a positive response from the horse. For a lot of people, this involves learning how to have conviction in your cues, and how to hold a sort of relaxed, assertive, confidence in the way that you move. This seems to be deeply empowering thing for many women to learn, and on the Intelligent Horsemanship courses, we often hear that when women have had breakthroughs in these skillsets it can go on to have profound impacts on the rest of their life. Horses can teach women how to be assertive, and empower them beyond the stable yard. When I shared the photo above on facebook, one of my friends told me; “I’ve worked with some less than enlightened men over my career who’ve tried to bully me, but in my head I think; “I work with a half tonne animal that could kill me in a heartbeat. You sir, will not be a problem!”
The huge financial and time commitment required by horses might be seen as a challenge – but in my research I could see how there was a silver lining to these burdens in terms of empowering women. This is because many women see time with the horse as ‘me time’ and so the horses’ high needs actually give them a way to prioritise their own needs over and above the needs of the partner, children, or work lives. It was common to hear women say the horse comes first, before anything else. In practice, this meant women had grounds to carve out time and money for their own domain of activities. This wasn’t always a comfortable dynamic for women, who sometimes felt stretched between expectations of them as ‘good wives/girlfriends’ and ‘good mothers’ compared to ‘good horse owners’. The tension was particularly interesting because horse riding women were not replacing caring responsibilities in the home with non-caring activities (where they might be able to resist the idea that women are supposed to be caring altogether). Instead, they seemed to be taking ownership over their capacity to care, and applying it to a realm that they had chosen, and where they had authority over who, when, and how they would offer their devotion. The irony of the situation that women escape (or neglect – some say) their ‘proper’ care roles in the home in order to dedicate themselves to care roles in the yard was widely recognised, for example, in all those memes you have probably seen on facebook that see the funny side in a shockingly kept home and a beautifully kept stable.
Horses have featured as a means of womens’ liberation often in literature. In Victorian novels’, as well as in the more modern genre of pony-girl books, it is often aboard a horse that girls find their wings, often proving some snot-nosed boy wrong in the process, or enabling them to escape various romantic dramas and find sollace in the barn. Just like the pony-girl books, many of my participants’ life stories entwined horseyness with coming-of-age stories. Horses were the means through which many women first acted in a truly independent way, often pursuing equestrian endeavours despite/without their parents, or else, proudly taking up adult-like responsibilities in being the teacher, pilot, and carer of their ponies, rather than the one being looked after and told what to do.
All this comes together to make the stable yard feel like something of a female stronghold, where women can be strong, dirty, resilient and in control, as well as the authors of their own capacities to care and nurture. There are two possible downsides of this story of empowerment. Firstly, that men can feel unwelcome in equestrian spaces. It was sadly common during my research to hear husbands, boyfriends, fathers and brothers ridiculed for their ineptness when they occasionally visited the yard. Women were quick to see men as ‘naturally’ incapable, reinstating gender stereotypes by suggesting men naturally did not have the capacity to be tactful, were too forceful, or too analytical, to get the ‘feel’. We know, of course, this is rubbish, because of all the men at the top of the sport, but it didn’t stop a lot of women feeling that the average man was just not cut out for horsey life. It would be more empowering for us all if we presumed men CAN be capable of feel, tact, patience and responsibility and didn’t see novice men as laughable as they learn. Women can be just as guilty of forming girls cliques as men can form men’s clubs, and men can feel unwelcome. The other negative aspect – getting on my high horse a moment – is that if some women are finding the horse world a relief from the rest of their lives, it shows us what work still needs to be done in society itself. It isn’t enough that women feel liberated by riding a horse. We ought to be thinking about what it is we need an escape from, and whether there are changes that could be made in the rest of life so that women feel as empowered in the home and in their work as they can in the saddle. Finally, it is good to recognise that the horse world has provided some sort of sollace for many of its participants, and to defend and protect that safe space. We must remain vigilent against any sort of bullying or bitchiness that could threaten the capacity for the yard to be the only place that some people have ever felt powerful.