Ride and Die: A Look Into Why Riders Struggle With Body Image Distortion and Eating Disorders

Photo © Heather N. Photography


One hundred thousand dollars. For many people, this is a significant portion of their home, multiple vehicles, or even a lifetime of groceries. But for an equestrian athlete, this can be the cost of a competitive horse. Even more surprising is the cost of a horse… for a teenager. An equestrian athlete’s junior years can feel like make-or-break for their riding career, but have we ever taken a step back to think about the implication of this stress on our youth and the future of this sport we hold so dear? 

On top of the normal stressors of one’s teenage years, we are expecting these young athletes to cope with the added pressure to conform to the unrealistic expectations of a sport embedded so deeply in history and culture. This is extremely hard on riders, leading to exponentially high rates of eating disorders and body image distortion within this demographic. For example, a study exploring the rates of like issues among collegiate level equestrians found that a whopping 42% of them suffered from some type of eating disorder or body image distortion (Monsma). In comparison, the average rates of these disorders among college students found only 20% suffered from like issues.

What is expected of equestrian athletes is a lot to say the least. The strength of a football player, the grace of a dancer, and the coordination of a baseball player are all expected to be present in the body of a size double zero lanky teenager. Now, I am no scientist but I don’t think this is how the human body works. Despite this evident fact,  many riders still feel the need to conform to this mold and judge themselves against these unrealistic standards.  

A recent study, performed by researchers in the United Kingdom, shows that due to a weight restriction placed on the racing industry, jockeys experience rapid weight loss around the time of competition. This then leads to a negative change in the jockey’s mood and a similar change in their relationship with food. These both being risk factors for body image distortion and eating disorders. Despite things like explicit weight limits not being present in most riding disciplines, peer pressure can be just as powerful—even more powerful and controlling can be one’s own mind. It is extremely dangerous for riders to feel as though they need to be a certain size. As shown in the study cited above, these beliefs can be harmful to one’s mental health. They can affect physical health, relationships, and how they perform, in and outside of equestrian sport. 

Photo © Heather N. Photography

Clothing—specifically show attire—is a huge part of many equestrian disciplines. Every competitive rider knows the last-minute rush to shine your boots or the struggle of bathing your horse without getting water on your breeches. But have you ever thought about the effects of the required attire on the body image of riders? 

Most sports require attire that is in some way athletic. For example, soccer requires cleats, shin guards, and shorts made to run and play in. Football requires protective wear made to prevent injury among players, but I could never quite figure out the practical use of a show coat, or a stock tie for that matter. The history of the attire worn in many riding disciplines, including hunters, show jumping and dressage, dates back to the turn of the 19th century. At this time, the demographic of equine sports was primarily male. Despite the demographic of riding changing dramatically over the last 150 years, the clothing design has not been quite as lucky (Dashper and John). 

Most riding coats are still made to flatter a more masculine silhouette. A study exploring the influence of attire on equestrian sports explains that the readily available styles of “competition dress” are unflattering to “women with certain body types…and can emphasize the masculinity of this formal style” (Dashper and John). This discomfort then affects how riders view themselves in such attire. Leading to athletes feeling that it’s their fault that the clothing does not flatter their body which then can result in body image distortion and eating disorders. 

Now, not everything about formal riding attire is bad. This attire does unite the equestrian community and preserves a long history that defines the sport today. It also creates a sense of elegance and grace, which are core traits of what it means to be an equestrian. However, just by diversifying fit and size we can get the best of both worlds. A fellow equestrian talking about inclusivity in equestrian sports explains that just looking for clothing over a certain size can “make the faint of heart want to forget they ever thought horse shows were a good idea” (Smith).  So, just by being more inclusive, we can honor tradition but also help riders be confident in their own body.

Photo © Heather N. Photography

Now, this may be one solution to some of these issues, but what else can the riding community do to help riders struggling with body image distortion and eating disorders, or even better, prevent these issues in the first place? One very easy and accessible solution is to spread awareness and education about this issue. Most riders are completely unaware of the rates of body image distortion and eating disorders among their fellow athletes or even unaware of the symptoms of such disorders. This education isn’t just for riders either. If coaches are aware of such symptoms they can help to notice them in athletes before it is too late. Taking these small steps will prove life-changing for many riders. 

Another solution to this issue is to change what is being displayed in the media portraying equestrian athletes. While the media has done a better job of representing females in equestrian sports over the last few years, they still could do better. These women are sexualized through how they are being displayed in advertisements and media—shown not as athletes but rather as models. A study exploring modern influences on low self-esteem among young females explains that young athletes being exposed to more and more “unrealistic” or “stereotypical” representations of “the ‘perfect’ female athlete body type”  due to social media and the internet is leading to long-term issues (Koulanova et. al). Therefore, the inclusion of positive role models and displays of equestrian athletes that are less sexualized and more diverse can prevent riders from judging themselves against unrealistic standards. 

Overall, body image distortion and the increase in eating disorders is a dire issue among riders. If we as a community do not seek to change some of the traditions of this sport we hold so dear, or at least implement new traditions, we may not have a sport worth fighting for much longer.  Riders are struggling in silence with these issues and we are doing nothing to help them. If we, as a community, don’t stand up to fight against this silent epidemic that many of our friends, colleagues, and competitors are facing, then our sport is going to burn in a hellish fire of sickness and silence. Do you really want to look back and realize ten years from now you could have saved your best friend from lifelong trauma or even have saved yourself? No. So stand up and fight. 

Annabelle is a rising junior at Richland Northeast High School in Columbia, SC and has a passion for equestrian sports, riding at Three Fox Farm in Blythewood, SC. She loves the community, challenge, and spirit of hunter riding, but most importantly she loves her horse Tao and the journey that they have been on together. In her free time Annabelle has fostered a passion for creativity, especially in photography and journalism.

Work Cited 

Caulfield, Michael J., and Costas I. Karageorghis. “Psychological Effects of Rapid Weight Loss and Attitudes towards Eating among Professional Jockeys.” Journal of Sports Sciences, vol. 26, no. 9, July 2008, pp. 877-83, https://doi.org/10.1080/02640410701837349. Accessed 7 Oct. 2021.

Dashper, Katherine, and Michael St john. “Clothes Make the Rider? Equestrian Competition Dress and Sporting Identity.” Annals of Leisure Research, vol. 19, no. 2, 14 Oct. 2015, pp. 235-50, https://doi.org/10.1080/11745398.2015.1095103. Accessed 25 Oct. 2021.

Davies, E., and R. Collins. “Participation, Self-esteem and Self-concept in Adolescent Equestrian Athletes.” Comparative Exercise Physiology, vol. 11, no. 1, 1 Jan. 2015, pp. 47-53, https://doi.org/10.3920/CEP140021. Accessed 7 Oct. 2021.

Koulanova, Alyona, et al. “Ideas for Action: Exploring Strategies to Address Body Image Concerns for Adolescent Girls Involved in Sport.” Psychology of Sport and Exercise, vol. 56, Sept. 2021, p. 102017, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2021.102017. Accessed 25 Oct. 2021.

Monsma, Eva V., et al. “Physique Related Perceptions and Biological Correlates of Eating Disorder Risk among Female Collegiate Equestrians.” Journal of Athletic Enhancement, vol. 02, no. 02, 2013. Journal of Athletic Enhancement, http://doi.org/10.4172/2324-9080.1000107. Accessed 1 Oct. 2021.

Radmann, Aage, et al. “Social Media Influencers in Equestrian Sport.” Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, vol. 3, 21 Apr. 2021, https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2021.669026. Accessed 11 Oct. 2021.

Smith, Kristen. “Body Shaming the Show Ring.” If the Saddle Fits, Kristen Smith, Sept. 2015, www.ifthesaddlefits.com/body-shaming-the-show-ring/. Accessed 21 Oct. 2021.

Streno, Melissa. “Why Do Some Athletes Struggle with Body Image?” True Sport, United States Olympic Committee, 1 June 2020, truesport.org/body-image/athletes-struggle-body-image/. Accessed 11 Oct. 2021.

Worthman, Carol M., et al. “When Can Parents Most Influence Their Child’s Development? Expert Knowledge and Perceived Local Realities.” Social Science & Medicine, vol. 154, Apr. 2016, pp. 62-69, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.02.040.