By: Andrew Connors
We commonly hear of sports like hockey, football and rugby for example, where masculinity dominates and female participation leads to negative stereotypes of participants being lesbians or butch. Equestrian is a confusing 360-degree reversal of these negative stereotypes. Equestrian is a sport commonly stereotyped as a very feminine sport and male riders are commonly regarded as “girly men or gay.” Equestrian sports actually require extreme amounts of toughness and masculinity. Amateur equestrian events rarely feature male riders, but professional events often have more men than women. Why is this? There is little to no research answering this question. It is important to note that equestrian is the only sport where men and women compete against each other. So readers understand why I decided to blog about this topic in an attempt to raise awareness; I will give you a short background about my experiences with these stereotypes and gender issues in equestrian.
Growing up on a horse farm, I started riding horses as soon as I was old enough. Through elementary school at riding camps and competitions, there were lots of boys like myself also riding horses. As I became older and also participated in more traditional male sports, the amount of boys my age participating in equestrian dropped drastically. At this point I was commonly teased for being “gay or a girly man” by my classmates and even teammates on sports teams. The stereotypes and teasing definitely got to me, and I would commonly talk to my parents about quitting. They encouraged me to continue and I still today continue to show horses at the amateur level.
Negativity and teasing aside, I always felt tough riding horses. The danger of falling off is very real, and it is a serious work out. Equestrian requires maintenance, training, maneuvering, and over powering of a 1,500 pound animal with an unpredictable mind of its own. In the UK and other similar countries, roughly 75% of equestrian (professional and amateur combined) participants are female (McHugh, 2013). All equestrian riders must be tough and work hard. It is not an easy sport for either sex. On a positive note, statistics in the UK show that male participation is increasing.
Men dominate the Olympic equestrian podium although only 25% of participants overall are male. In the last 4 Summer Olympics 11 of the 12 Show jumping medals won have been by male riders (IOC). Who could forget Eric Lamaze winning the gold medal for Canada at the 2008 Olympics? Canadian Olympian Ian Millar holds the record for most Olympic appearances at 10. These are 2 of the most well knownequestrian competitors in Canada and the world. One question that should be asked – is this the case because the sport requires so much masculinity to become professional? The answer remains unclear.
Since equestrian participation rates are so high for females and low for men but tendencies show more men as professionals, I decided to interview and share thoughts a professional female horse rider. I asked about her thoughts and if she agreed with regards to these numbers. Melissa Hanscome is an American Quarter Horse Association professional and pointed out that in AQHA, amateur competition females strongly out number men. But in professional AQHA competition, men strongly outnumber women. I myself have noticed this trend as well as I compete as an AQHA amateur in classes with 50 competitors and I often am the only guy. But professional competitions often have more men than women. Studies actually do show that male riders are more aggressive and dominant in equestrian competition where females are found to be easier going and less aggressive (McHugh, 2013).
This is a very interesting topic to me but very difficult to find answers to the many possible further research questions. Since equestrian allows participation for both men and women to compete together, shouldn’t numbers be the same in both amateur and professional competition? Equestrian unfortunately seems to be another sport where professional ranks are male dominated. However, this differs from most sports because of the fact that men and women compete together. But this is an interesting phenomenon because the participation rates for men overall are so low and female participation is very high. Equestrian professionals and associations should look into increasing amateur male participation and encourage more amateur female riders to develop into professional competitors. I hope I have raised awareness of another gender sport and recreation issue. During the next summer Olympics or other televised equestrian you may see, observe with consideration of these numbers and thoughts.
International Olympic Committee Records
McHugh. A. (2013). Men, Women and Horses. Found at: http://www.equine-world.co.uk
Personal Communication: Melissa Hanscome (2014)