Riders, Body Image and “The Look”

If this is what it means to “have a butt,” so be it. Photo © Shawn McMillen


A couple weeks ago, I went to my local tack shop for spur straps and somehow found myself in the dressing room, mentally debating whether to buy a new show coat that I didn’t really need.

Sound familiar?

As I held that ridiculous modified squat to mimic riding a horse while trying on clothes, I admired the the navy soft shell, marked down from a No Way price point to a Maybe If I Sell My Old Hunt Coats on eBay one. I wanted an educated second opinion on the fit – and a shopping enabler, let’s be honest.

So I asked one of the store employees, who checked me out from all angles before deciding that I needed a long, rather than the regular length. I slipped off the coat I’d been eyeing and tried on the long coat she handed me. She nodded her head. “Much better,” she said. “You’re curvy, so you need the extra length.”

Whoa. I’m sure I’m not the only woman who thinks twice about that “c” word. Did she mean I have boobs? Thank you, captain obvious, I’m a grown woman with two young children. Or was she calling me fat?

It didn’t stop there. While discussing the fit of the coat she went on to tell me that I “have a butt” and that I needed the long length because I “have a lot of body to cover.” Needless to say, I did not purchase the coat. I was only considering buying the first one because it made me feel good about how I looked in it, but this woman made me feel the opposite. Probably not the best sales tactic, for future reference.

But in the days that followed, something surprising happened. Though her words stung at first (at my next lesson, I found myself scrutinizing my reflection on horseback in a trailer window), I didn’t fall down a shame spiral like I might have years ago. I realized that I truly do not care what this woman thinks of me and my Tailored Sportsman size 30 butt. I’ll probably never fit back into those size 28s from my pre-baby days, and that is just fine with me. It took me 38 years to feel this way, but boobs, butt, it’s all part of the whole picture. I’m pretty sure that comfort level has only come with age and life experience.

A couple days after the tack shop incident, celebrating a successful first show on Symphony. Photo courtesy Rennie Dyball

Still, the tack store curvy talk did get me thinking about how I got here — and about body image in our sport as a whole. When I decided to return to riding after having my first child, the thought of wearing practically nude-colored breeches was enough to keep my post-baby butt out of the barn. Luckily, I found some flattering schooling breeches in black, but I was still self-conscious about how I looked during every single ride. When I finally did wear tan breeches again for a lesson, in preparation for my first show in a decade, my trainer sent me a video of one of my courses.

I had a field day with it when I got home, literally zooming in on my butt and thighs on the iphone screen, watching myself canter around and examining the screen for signs of cellulite and jiggle.

No more.

In 2015, at my first show in a decade. Photo courtesy of Rennie Dyball

If fat-phobia is one of the last acceptable prejudices, then the equestrian world is one of the last places for it to thrive. Watching a recent Maclay finals on Youtube, I was struck by how often the commentators, top riders and trainers in our sport, mentioned how the thinnest of the riders in the class had “the look.”

What look is that, exactly? And what message are we sending to young riders who might not be blessed with that particular build?

In the black breeches I constantly wore to feel thinner (what a waste of time — so many more important things in this photo!)

Obviously I am not advocating for riders to be out of shape or ill matched to their horses. We are athletes like any others and we need to be fit, especially for our equine partners. But I think we can all agree that there is a range of healthy weights and “looks” that are acceptable in the saddle, ranging from thin riders to those with average, athletic or even curvy builds.

Will our sport ever stop preferring “the look” of a skinny rider in the saddle? Maybe someday. Maybe not. But for now, I think we as a community should take a page out of modern parenting books when it comes to young girls and body image. How do you talk to your daughter about the way her body looks? It’s been asked. You don’t.

Used to think I looked so fat in this photo. Now I just see the joy of of a great show day. Photo courtesy of Rennie Dyball

So, to the tack store employee and to everyone else, let’s stop talking about the way girls’ (and women’s) bodies look in our saddles and breeches, our boots and our hunt coats. If a rider is fit and healthy and her horse can carry her, let’s talk about what she can do.

About the Author: Rennie Dyball is a freelance writer, editor, and the author of several books. She currently leases the world’s cutest OTTB and competes in the low adult hunters and equitation.

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