BY RENNIE DYBALL
They say the only constant in life is change. But how does that apply to a sport rooted in tradition and some old-school tendencies?
Last month, an article on The Plaid Horse blog about body image hit a nerve with many of our readers. We heard from many of you, including eating disorder specialists and survivors. And the response was nearly unanimous: as an industry, we need to keep talking about this issue for the sake of our young riders’ health and wellbeing.
Watch an equitation final on Youtube and you’ll hear the commentators – big names in our sport – praising the thinnest riders in the class for having “the look.” But what message does that send to girls and young women? And how can we change it?
We reached out to several juniors and professionals for their thoughts on this issue, and the takeaway was both heartbreaking and hopeful. These young riders are under tremendous pressure to maintain a certain look in the saddle, even if that pressure isn’t coming from inside the horse world.
On the flipside, here’s a real opportunity to make a change for the better. The professionals’ responses were uplifting: We are breaking out of old norms and biases and becoming more accepting of different body types. An effective, fit rider can take more than one shape. And that’s how it should be, because “the look” for equitation – tall, willowy, long-legged – is simply not attainable for all. No Big Eq diet (can we never speak of it again, please?) can change a rider’s genetics.
Riders with body image concerns: As you’ll see below, you are not alone.
Trainers: Let’s keep this great momentum going. The times are changing and so is our industry. We have a chance to be an asset to children and young adults finding their way in a world where thin still = better. Luckily, strong is also being celebrated, and riders are being viewed as the athletes we are. And athletes need proper nutrition and fitness a whole lot more than we need to fit into a certain size breech.
When all is said and done, it’s easy to say you didn’t win a class because you don’t have “the look.” It’s a whole lot harder to learn how to ride well. And isn’t that what we’re all after?
Juniors open up…
“I definitely feel pressure to maintain a certain size… a certain weight and breech size in order to ‘make up’ for the fact that I do not have long, natural lines.”
“I have a bigger chest and bottom, but the rest of my body is thin. I see those assets as a downside because it gives me a disadvantage in the ring… in a show coat, my chest makes me look bigger then I actually am. I’ve gained 5 pounds and it makes me extremely anxious. The fear of gaining weight weighs over me.”
“Before puberty, I naturally fit the “thin” look, so I never had body image issues. But ever since I gained some weight (a normal amount for a teenager), there isn’t a day that I ride that I don’t wish I was thinner.”
“I am small and thin. I have been “blessed” with a fast metabolism, which has always made it difficult for me to gain weight. Topics like this have always made me a bit uncomfortable because I feel I have the opposite problem of pretty much everyone else, but I think changes need to be made. Until we can normalize people with normal bodies, we won’t be able to end this issue with horse shows being seen as just a beauty pageant.”
“From no one other than myself do I feel pressure to maintain a certain look, size or weight. I struggle with my weight constantly. Body image is the largest challenge that I have to face every second of every day.”
“To achieve the equitation look, I have gone to unhealthy extremes that ultimately failed, all in pursuit of a look that does not equate to performance in the saddle. While the non-equestrian world has taken great leaps in the subject of body-confidence and positivity, this has not translated over to the horse world as one might think.”
But the tide may be turning…
“In my experience trainers prioritize effective riding over anything else. So as long as their kid’s leg is still, they don’t care about what size their belt is. I’ve never been shamed by any trainer for my look or weight.”
“It horrifies me to think that a girl with an equal ride to my own could beat me in our eq flat because her breeches are a size 22 rather than my own 28. Luckily, this fear is often diminished by positive trainers congratulating the winner of a large, competitive class as she rides out with her blue ribbon in what may be considered plus-size attire. I am hopeful to watch the equestrian community advance out of old-fashioned ideas and into body inclusivity that rewards a fit and functional look.”
Amateur-Owner rider Stephanie Ray Peters also spoke to TPH about how she believes our sport is evolving: “I think the hardest thing for me being a junior was comparing myself to everyone else and putting pressure on myself to be similar. Most of the girls in my division were either tall and thin or very petite. You didn’t see many girls with my size and build riding competitively. But as you age out and get into the adult divisions, you’ll begin to see more diversity. I also think you have more confidence in who you are as a rider and there’s less pressure to assimilate. It feels like there’s more acceptance in the adult divisions, which is very positive, but there is a lot of room for improvement with the juniors and the equitation. Good horseback riding is good horseback riding no matter what size or shape. Good riding will always stand out no matter what you look like.”
What the trainers are saying…
Stacia Madden: “I think riders need to be physically fit to properly influence a 1200-1300 pound horse. I speak mostly of fitness and proper position as it relates to riding. Part of being strong emotionally and mentally is eating healthy and being physically fit.”
Traci Brooks: “I think that saying someone ‘isn’t built for equitation’ shouldn’t be in our vocabulary. There are a lot of great riders who aren’t supermodels. [At Balmoral,] we talk a lot about health (both physical and mental) and being athletes. Taking good care of themselves by eating healthy, getting enough sleep, not putting too much pressure on themselves, moderation without denying themselves.”
Hope Glynn: “I never talk about weight or physique. I only emphasize the importance of being fit and eating healthy, eating enough protein, and I lead by example. I truly believe being fit and eating correctly can improve your performance and not eating enough can directly inhibit your performance. The top riders in our sport do eat well and work out regularly.”
Sydney Shulman: “We are supposed to be athletes, managing live animals, and in full control at all times. I believe that the mindset is becoming more evolved, and being stronger/more fit to enable us to properly ride correctly is key. Focus more on your skill and accuracy then how you are shaped. I always use Margie Engle or Kent Farrington as an example: Both are not super long-legged athletes, but clearly it does not deter them from having horses in front of them at all times with loads of success and great rounds. Every rider has a different build or unique style, so it’s about using it to your advantage to make yourself the most successful and functional.”
We need to keep this movement going. As Exceptional Equestrian tack shop owner Cindy Lay put it, “Our customers come in all sizes. Our message is #remembertobekinder.” Kind is good. Strong is good. And change is good. Let’s embrace it.
About the Author: Rennie Dyball is the author of several books, including The Plaid Horse’s middle grade novel series, Show Strides. She’s also a contributing writer for TPH and a ghostwriter for celebrity books. Rennie lives in Maryland and competes in hunters and equitation.
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