OTI Online
Fall 1996

What is it about women and horses?
by Norine Dworkin


The horse is the great leveler in equestrian competition. Female riders can compete against men and win because strength, size, and force are only part of what spurs a horse to victory.

THE AFTERNOON WAS DOING A SLOW BAKE AS Valerie Kanavy trudged up the steep canyon wall, leading her rangy Arabian gelding behind her. She was picking her way slowly, not only because of the heat, but so her horse wouldn't step wrong and drive a sharp rock into his tender foot. They had a long way to go yet in the North American Endurance Ride Championship, snaking 100 miles through scenic Arizona, and this rocky canyon was the make-or- break point.

A 20-year veteran of endurance riding, Kanavy, with her horse (nicknamed Cash, since that's how she paid for him - all $500 of it), had recently won two other 100-milers, one in southern Utah and one in Holland. There are moments when endurance riding is every fantasy on horseback: coursing through pounding surf, soaring over grassy plains, cantering mountain trails, and the real thrill - seeing parts of the world that can't be reached except on horseback. Unfortunately, this was not one of those times for the 49-year-old rider from Virginia. She was tired, sweaty, cranky, sore. And oh, yes - hot. Make that very hot.

Reaching the lip of the canyon at last, she spied some blackish clouds in the distance. A light summer splash to cool off her horse and reinvigorate her was just what she needed. Kanavy's prayers were answered - by the bucket! Within minutes, she was soaked, and the temperature plunged. Kanavy wasn't fussing about the heat anymore, but now she was very worried about being cold. The abrupt change in temperature could cause Cash to colic, or they could slip on the now-wet trail, or be injured by one of the baseball-size hailstones raining down on them. Still a good 30 minutes out from the next vet check, "Why am I doing this?" flashed neon in Kanavy's brain.

But as frozen, achy, and irritable as she was, she would not swap the adventure, the thrill, or the chase for lunching with the ladies or whatever it was women her age were supposed to do for fun. Climbing this canyon with her horse, toughing out the next 50 miles, and then feeling the adrenaline rush to the finish was like being on top of the world.

EQUESTRIAN EQUALITYEndurance riding, where winners must not only cross the finish line but arrive there with a sound horse, is dominated by women over 35. But this roughriding sport isn't the only equestrian activity that attracts women. Those with a taste for adventure and a deep love of horses are well represented throughout the horse world. Since women fought their way onto Olympic riding teams in the 1950s and '60s, they've steadily permeated every aspect of equestrian sports: barn managers, grooms, and event executives who keep things moving behind the scenes; trainers, judges, and riders competing in the show ring; even the journalists who cover the events. If it's connected to horses, you'll find women involved.

Although riding has earned a (somewhat) deserved reputation as a pastime reserved for debutantes and Junior League members, the sport (though still predominantly white) has broadened considerably over the years. Today women of all races, religions, and economic backgrounds who share a fascination for things equine can usually find a barn or riding club they're comfortable with. Young girls, older women, those with money, those without, professional riders, and weekend competitors - they all come.

Why? Because apart perhaps from fly-fishing and badminton (the only other sport where men and women can compete together in the Olympics as teammates), equestrian competition, a noncontact sport based on skill rather than strength, remains one of the very few equal-opportunity sports in America. "This is one of the few sports where women are absolutely equal - all the time," says dressage (pronounced dre-SAHJ) rider Anne Gribbons, who represented the United States at the 1995 Pan American Games in this dancerly discipline that's based on ancient training techniques designed to ready horses for battle.

In fact, in addition to dominating endurance riding, women represent a full 50 percent of the top 100 riders in show jumping (speed riding over obstacles) and combined training (a combination of jumping, dressage, and cross country riding over natural obstacles like ditches, banks, and water), according to the IBM/U.S. Equestrian Team computer rankings for show jumping and the Rider of the Year rankings from the United States Combined Training Association. "Everyone's the same when they get on the back of a horse," confirms Sally Ike, director of show jumping activities for the USET.

That was certainly borne out in the Atlanta Olympics: Leading the dressage squad was Michelle Gibson, 26, of Roswell, Georgia. In an incredible showing, she came in fifth in the individual competition and anchored the team to a bronze. Anne Kursinski, of Flemington, New Jersey, and Leslie Burr-Howard, of Westport, Connecticut, both Olympic veterans (Burr-Howard powered the U.S. to its first team gold in show jumping in 1984), helped the show jumping squad to a silver. And in three-day eventing, Karen O'Connor, 38, of Middleburg, Virginia, shared the U.S. team's silver; in individual competition, Kerry Milliken, 35, of Westport, Massachusetts, won the bronze, and Mara DePuy, 23, of Millton, Virginia, placed sixth.

Historic Affinity

BUT IT ISN'T ONLY EQUAL OPPORTUNITY FOR OLYMPIC medals that draws women to equestrian sports. And their predominance raises intriguing questions about the historic attraction horses have held for women and whether this special relationship has helped propel them to victories in competition.

"There's always been a mythical and real affinity between women and animals," says Nancy Struna, professor of kinesiology and history at the University of Maryland. Etruscan women fancied chariot races; medieval women enjoyed the hunt; illuminated manuscripts, oil paintings, and drawings, from the 15th century on, clearly depict mounted women in the field, wielding falcons and rifles and effortlessly clearing fences. During that era, women were welcome on the hunt, then a leisurely parade usually no faster than a walk, notes Gillian Newsun, author of Women and Horses. But in the late 18th century, when hunting became faster and the obstacles higher, the sport became a male domain - only women of "questionable virtue" participated. It wasn't until the late 1880s, when Empress Elizabeth of Austria took a ride around the English countryside, that social mores changed enough to allow women to take advantage of new, safer sidesaddles and rejoin the men in the field.

By the turn of the century, however, it was a question not of whether women would ride but how. When in 1910 gutsy Eleanor Sears decided her sidesaddle perch was far too precarious for serious riding and dared to go astride, ministers preached fire and brimstone against the sins of such unladylike behavior. The astride-versus-sidesaddle riding battle continued for years until aside riding completely fell out of favor in the 1930s. Ironically, sidesaddle has seen a remarkable resurgence in the last 20 years, and those who participate view it as reviving a lost women's art. The epitome of a "girl" sport, sidesaddle is a beauty pageant for both horse and rider where almost as much attention is paid to the rider's accouterments (top hat, veil, gloves, the all-important chicken salad sandwich and flask of sherry tucked neatly into one's sandwich pouch - judges do check) as to the riding.

But the zenith of women's sports has always been the Olympics. Starting in 1950, women were allowed to compete in dressage. Then in 1964, two women joined the U.S. show jumping squad, and one woman rode on the threeday-eventing team, bringing home a silver medal for U.S. fans. The barriers were finally broken, and over the years the passion of the Amazons has yielded many women champions.

The Empathy Connection

IN OTHER SPORTS IN WHICH WOMEN EXCEL - TENNIS, speed skating, or skiing - speed and strength dictate separate leagues for men and women. But in equestrian competition, Struna points out, the horse is a great playing- field leveler, and physical gender differences simply don't apply. Most equine sports are essentially about the horse's performance. Traditionally male attributes of superior strength, size, and force are only part of the equation when it comes to spurring a horse to win.

EQUESTRIAN EQUALITY"I've tried to command a horse through strength, but it doesn't work," says Carol Lavell, a member of the 1992 Olympic bronze-medal-winning dressage team. "There's no way my 130 pounds can make Gifted [her 1,895-pound Olympic mount] go anywhere he doesn't want to go."

Thus the traditional explanation is that women's success with horses is based on communication skills, intuition, and a certain knack for diplomacy (commonly considered feminine attributes). In a 1924 article in Country Life, Lt. Col. M. F. Taggart suggests that "ladies possess naturally the qualities of horsemanship more than men.... They grasp the rhythm, and cadence and balance.... The delicacy of touch and the sympathy, which is a necessity for good hands, are both feminine attributes."

British writer and noted equestrian Pat Koechlin-Smythe gives the concept a 1990s twist: "Often a special empathy that a woman has with animals and especially with a horse will bring out the best in the partnership. It's been proven that certain horses will perform well only with a woman rider because they need to have confidence in the understanding and knowledge a woman can impart."

The idea that women coddle their horses, are more understanding, better able to communicate, more sensitive, and more attuned to the horse's thinking is a generally accepted precept of horse sports. A gross, essentialist generalization to be sure, but nevertheless a point of view consistently offered up as explanation for the bond and success women have with their horses. "If you observe male and female riders, you find that women focus more on the relationship with the horse, whereas men focus on the task," says Ann Reilly, a sports psychologist in Middleburg, Virginia. In fact, Reilly recommends riding for young girls because "it prepares them for caring for something else; it's a commitment for taking care of something outside of ourselves."

Although this seems a thin explanation - and one that pushes women back into traditional roles - no one interviewed for this article was willing to completely dismiss the special-relationship issue. "Horse riding is something that combines opposing qualities - tremendous strength with being gentle," says dressage rider Betsy Steiner.

Interestingly, female horses have also been on the receiving end of the same kind of presumptions about athletic prowess as female athletes have. In a culture that consistently overvalues the male of the species, mares have been derided as not big, fast, or sturdy enough, and because of estrus, every handling difficulty is attributed to the horse's being "on the rag." Yet a good number of horse people maintain that there's really no difference in riding a mare, a stallion, or a gelding (castrated stallion). The Amazons, ancient Persians, Greeks, and Bedouins all prized the mare as the mount of choice. And while mares have not yet broken into the top ranks of show jumping, they have more than proved their mettle in flat racing, hunter classes, and polo.

Sexual or Spiritual?

IT'S LONG BEEN AN AMUSED ASSUMPTION THAT WOMEN'S attraction to horse sports has sexual overtones, a seemingly erotic tango between horse and rider. Indeed, many of the descriptions about riding mirror those of flying - a classic sexual metaphor. "The horse represents the quintessential combination of phallic and romantic," says Dr. Ethan Gologor, a sports psychologist and professor of psychology at the City University of New York. "The horse is a phallic animal: sleek, long, powerful, fast, voracious. All of which are attributes of the classic phallus. And what's the fairy-tale fantasy? - that the maiden will be whisked away by the prince on his steed."

Do women fetishize the horse? Does the horse merely serve as oversize vibrator? Sylvia White, an amateur hunter rider from Los Angeles, will have none of it. "Just because your crotch is in contact with the saddle doesn't mean it's erotic," she says. "Riding is too much work to be sexual." White thinks the real attraction is not sex but power. "There's a two-ton beast between your legs, and you make it go where you want it to. Our society and culture have few safe places where women can exhibit power and have it be perceived in a positive way. When you're riding, the need to control is an asset, not a liability."

For many women riding is a power trip, an exhilarating flirtation with domination. But desire for power and control isn't merely the reflection of the domineering female, subjugating patriarchy (in the guise of the powerful beast) through whip, bridle, and high boots with spurs. Rather, it's a strong metaphor for that most basic foundation of women's continuous battle for equality - the right to make choices, to call their lives their own, to experience freedom. Sexualizing women's quests for these elements of control merely makes them less threatening.

Gologor likens riding to the emancipation inherent in learning to drive: "It gives the rider a sense that the world is much more open to them; they can go anywhere just like the man. So much of women's history is restriction - from corset to kitchen. Here's the opposite."

It's that "opposite" that lures riders like Kanavy into rugged canyons in the middle of freezing hailstorms. "My dream was never connected to horse showing," says the contented champion who earned a bronze medal for her perseverance in the canyon. "When I'm sailing across green grass and western mountains, the feeling is potent. It's something that releases the spirit and takes us places we can't get to on our own."

Perhaps when that fairy-tale princess was dreaming of her Prince Charming to ride off with into the sunset, what she really wanted all along was to get her hands on that horse.

WHY DONT WOMEN LEADERS IN 1994, 22 INDIVIDUALS were indicted in a major equestrian scandal involving the killing of show horses for insurance money. Four of those indicted were women. Lesser acts of abuse - blistering a show jumper's lower legs so it will really smart if the horse knocks a rail, cutting an Arabian's eyes to make them look larger, affixing special shoes to make a Tennessee walking horse's gaits more animated, and drugging lame horses to get them around the show ring - are committed regularly, all in the name of the competitive edge. Having "empathetic" women in control of the sport has not led to any radical increase in sensitivity to the animal-abuse issues that exist. This problem cannot be written off as a "glass ceiling" phenomenon. Today most major organizations representing equestrian interests are helmed by women. Even the American Quarter Horse Association - that bastion of cowboydom - is primed to elect its first female president in 1998. And so it should be, as membership in these groups is more than 75 percent female, according to Equestrian Resources, a Virginia-based market-research firm.

So what's the problem? "In this sport there's a spectrum of aggressive behavior that starts with something as innocuous and acceptable as wearing spurs," says |anet Edgette, a Pennsylvania based sports psychologist who rides jumpers. "In between is hitting the horse with a stick and smacking when it bites you. But when it comes to putting ginger in its tail to make it stand up, or blistering the legs, it goes over the line. Some riders allow their competitiveness to override their judgment, and then they find a rationale that makes them believe they're not doing anything wrong."

Leagues away in point of view are radical animal-rights groups that believe horses shouldn't be ridden or bred at all - let alone for competitive purposes. Some of these groups have made it a practice to disrupt equestrian competitions by chaining themselves to the obstacles - ultimately creating a dangerous situation. Batya Bauman, past president of Feminists for Animal Rights, a group that she says stresses education, not disruption, sees her opposition to equestrian sports as part of a larger philosophy. "There's nothing so wonderful as seeing wild horses in their own environment with their own agenda, not ours," she says, equating equestrian sports with the objectification associated with beauty pageants. "The horse does not say, 'OK, ride me.' It's a one-way street. The only good reason to own a horse is to rescue one that's on its way to the glue factory."

BUT PATRICIA ROGERS, FOUNDER AND PRESIDENT of the Equine Rescue League in Leesburg, Virginia, has seen firsthand the results of well-meaning folk who want to set their horses free. And it's not pretty.

Her organization, with whose help up to 50 abused and neglected horses find room, board, and rehabilitation and frequently adoption, recently rescued approximately 35 horses from a 400-acre field where their owner had turned them loose. "He was letting them be free, but in doing so causing them great pain and suffering. Turning horses free is not the answer," she says emphatically. "They're at a point where they can't take care of themselves."

To hear the animal-rights advocates tell it, the horse-show world is an endless parade of violence and degradation. Yet even Rogers, who has seen some terribly abused and neglected horses pass through her stable and wholeheartedly supports a moratorium on breeding performance horses, believes that at its heart, equestrian sports are inherently harmless and immensely enjoyable. "There are cruelties in the show business, but wherever you have people making a profit or acquiring prestige through their animals, you're going to get a certain percentage of abuse. It's just human nature. [Equestrian sports] need to be cleaned up, but riding won't hurt a horse as long as it's done in a humane manner." - N.D.

NORINE DWORKIN, recipient of the 1994 Simon Rockower Award for Excellence in Journalism, writes nationally about women's issues and equestrian sports. She is the former editor of Horse Show magazine.

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