The Search for Gender Equality Within Equestrian Sports

Photo by Lauren Mauldin


One thing that the #MeToo movement has proved is that we can’t just expunge the few bad eggs and move on- the sheer multitude and pervasiveness of stories that were shared shows that sexual misconduct and abuse are the result of the systematic inequalities that exist in our industries and culture. In order to fix this wide problem in a permanent and meaningful way, we have examine the system. We need to point out moments in the system where we need to think critically about gender and how it interacts with our sport.

Professional sports are perhaps the most blatant example of gender inequality; in most sports, female athletes are paid barely a fraction of what their male counterparts make. Women’s teams and divisions are poorly marketed and have smaller followings than men’s teams, which leads to a smaller revenue. The successes of female athletes are undervalued; in many cases, women’s sports are just seen as less intense. Many people believe that these problems are insurmountable- it’s just the way things are.

As horseback riders, we have a unique insight into how we can begin to address inequality in professional sports. Equestrian sports are currently one of only two Olympic categories in which men and women compete directly against each other and according to the same rules (sailing is the second sport). It’s been 66 years since dressage became the first event to become desegregated in 1952, followed by show jumping in 1956 and eventing in 1964, and our sport hasn’t yet fallen apart. In fact, many would agree that riding has only benefited from the wider pool of talent. In a lot of ways, we are the trailblazers for gender equality in athletics. This means we have an even greater duty to examine how equality actually functions in our sport.

In theory, equestrian sports are equal. Men and women compete in the same divisions at almost all levels, from walk-trot to Grand Prixs. We all compete for the same prize money (or points, or ribbons) and we all follow the same rule book. However, there are some aspects of our sport in which this is not true. For example, only women are allowed to ride for NCAA teams and receive athletic scholarships. Theoretically, this is done to promote gender equality in college athletics, and because of Title IX many schools use riding to balance out large men’s teams such as football. While Title IX does a lot of important work, I don’t believe that resegregating one of the only functionally equal sports should be the final solution. We should be able to make our sport equal at all levels, including collegiate.

Our sport loses ground in other ways as well. Although the junior and amatuer levels of competition seem to be entirely made up of women, men still dominate top levels of the sport professionally and internationally. Men are often seen as the authority on riding as most of the governing bodies are male dominated, and they are more likely to be considered top trainers. Dressage is the one of the few disciplines where the number of women is constantly equal to or higher than the number of men at the Olympic level, while the ratio for Olympic equestrian sports as a whole has never risen above 1:1. Part of this could be due to slow growth and the passage of time- as each generation of riders grows and develops and produces new professionals, perhaps we will see more of a change.

However, this imbalance could also be the result something academics call “Male Flight.” Meaning that once a professional or athletic domain becomes associated with femininity, men are less likely to enter that domain. The most surprising example of this is cheerleading. Prior to World War I, cheerleading was strictly a men’s sport, and was seen as equal to football. However during World Wars I&II, young men were called away to serve, leaving a gap in the sport that was filled by women. After the wars, once women had established their place in the sport, men stopped participating. Cheerleading routines changed from intense gymnastics to “cutesy” chants and the sport lost a lot of its original rigor. While cheerleading has subsequently recovered a lot of its intensity and co-ed appeal (competitive cheerleading is now absolutely incredible to watch), male cheerleaders are still seen as atypical.

At the junior and amateur level, classes are often have a female majority if not totality. Photo by Emily McNeill.

Similarly, junior and amateur levels of hunt-seat riding in the US currently have a higher female:male ratio than they have in the past. Young male riders can be seen as outliers or have assumptions made about their sexuality, both by those inside the sport and outside of it. Ironically, this assumption has enabled our community to accept openly gay athletes ahead of other sports, many of which still struggle with intense homophobia.

Like cheerleading, riding has undergone a “devaluation” in the eyes of the public. Though equestrian athletes know riding to be intense and demanding, we’ve all heard multiple people try to argue that it’s not a sport. While it’s nice to fantasize about throwing dissenters onto a lazy horse and teach them how to trot without stirrups so they can understand the true meaning of “leg day”, we have to wonder if there’s an underlying system at play. Are they really saying that it’s not a real sport because they truly believe that horse does all the work? When you consider the long history and prestige riding has enjoyed for centuries, it’s hard to believe that popular culture has suddenly forgotten the rigor of riding for no reason. Could this trend have coincided with the prominence of female equestrians? I don’t know. Maybe the prevalence of motor sports, a more modern invention, have distorted the public’s memory. We would need to do more research as a community in order to answer this.

Men are more likely to be considered top trainers and professionals. Photo by Vyla Carter.

Another symptom of male flight is that when an area is female dominated, men still get preferential treatment. For example, in the US, women make up 74.8% of elementary, middle, and high school level teachers. Though the total number of public school principles is about half female, only 30% of public high school principals are women. The idea of “penis points” has become a well-known joke in the equestrian sports, something to laugh about with your barn friends when you’ve laid down the trip of your life and the judge still picks someone else. We’ve all experienced this moment, and we all know intellectually that the feeling isn’t limited to when you are beaten by a male rider. Sometimes that’s how it goes. But it is still concerning that we as a community have come up with a short-hand for when men get preferential treatment, and it points to another opportunity for research and reflection.

In many ways, I believe that riding can be seen as a win for equality. Our sport has the structure and functionality necessary for true gender equality, which is far more than other sports are able to say. Although outsiders to our sport may think differently, riding is intense and multifaceted. Our horses demand everything from us, and their needs don’t change based on our gender. We must embody both traditionally feminine traits (compassion, communication, empathy, self-sacrifice) and traditionally masculine traits (physical strength, bravery, confidence, spatial reasoning) in order to succeed in barn and in the ring. To deny one side or the other is to put both yourself and your horse at risk. Examining the way gendered traits are balanced in equestrian sports can help us look beyond feminine and masculine gender roles in other areas of life, and perhaps even come to a better, more complex understanding of the human identity in general.

Our sport requires strength, bravery, and athleticism, but also compassion and empathy. Photo by Nastia Wermer.

Our sport isn’t perfect. There is still work to be done. We need to do more research on gender in riding, especially in the US and at non-professional levels of the sport. We need to devote more resources to protecting members of our sport and holding those who perpetuate sexual misconduct accountable. Most importantly, however, we need to know that we can do better. Our sport proves that we don’t have to accept something just because “that’s the way it is”. We are a community rooted in tradition, and yet we adapt to change that many other sports do not consider.

Our sport still has come a long way, but we owe it to the next generation of riders to keep moving forward. Photo by Emily McNeill.

Let’s keep adapting. Let’s keep the conversation moving forward and allow our sport to involve so it remains an innovative example for others.

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