Equestrian: The Sport Where Gender Stereotypes Have Turned

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.

References

International Olympic Committee Records

McHugh. A. (2013). Men, Women and Horses. Found at: http://www.equine-world.co.uk

Personal Communication: Melissa Hanscome (2014)

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4 responses

  1. This topic is of great interest to me since I also enjoy participating in and observing equestrian events. I had never considered before that most professional riders are males while in amateur events, participation is mostly female. I recall only ever taking lessons with other girls my age, not boys. However, I always remember watching Miller and Lamaze (men) on television. One might initially think that this is a classic case of men getting more television time than women, but since they compete together, this generalization does not apply.
    In class, we discussed how there are different constraints to leisure and sport for different genders and age groups. I wonder if the lack of women in professional equestrian might be due to them choosing family and mothering over pursuing a professional equestrian career (not that a woman could not have both). The problem with this hypothesis is that it does not seem to apply to other sports. It would be interesting to see more research done in the area of participation rates in amateur and professional equestrian by gender. It would be nice to see more females advancing (or choosing to advance) into the professional realm of equestrian.

    – Amanda B.

  2. Hey Andrew!

    This is a great read today especially after discussing mixed sports during class. We competed together way back and I can certainly say that as a member of the Equestrian community I recognize anyway involved in horses or riding to be completely tough. It’s hard work! You and I both know that. It’s unfortunate that many other people do not recognize this.

    It’s also very true what you say about men being more successful at a professional level of equestrian… and in all disciplines too! I wonder if that has to do with leadership and coaching dynamics that we have talked about in class – how men tend to be hired and respected more often at a professional level. I can even say myself that I found riding under male coaches (Ian Miller and Kevin Crosby) was far more demanding. The male coaching style is aggressive and tough – but definitely pushed my limits further and challenged me as an athlete. Although my day-to-day female coach was very talented and also approached coaching from a “tough” angle.
    I also have to think back to my time spent in the Hunter Ring. Hunters are a style of horse jumping that is judged on fluidity and appearance – for any readers that may not be aware. We were to dress neatly with blazers that showed off out feminine figure and have hair that was perfectly pinned back and present our selves with a made up face. Although make-up and appearance are NOT apart of the score card – they definitely gave you added bonus points. This is just another way that Equestrian at a non-professional level (because Hunters are NOT apart of the Olympics) gives way/encourages the ring to be dominated by more females.

    Anyway, just some thoughts to go along with your post… It’s nice to have someone who can relate to the sport of Equestrian in this class as it is such a minority sport here in NB!

    Thanks for the opportunity to chat about Equestrian!

    Victoria

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful article. I am a mother (I ride recreationally) of a boy who loves to ride. He’s only 8, so I assume any teasing is yet to come (I hope that we don’t have to endure this), but already, I’ve been told “your son is a natural, but most of the guys who ride are gay”, implying that he may be gay – at 8!!!! Personally, I know he’s not, but even if he was, I would be proud of him in the ring and out of the ring. Just a little side story to add to the discussion.

    I think that soooo many cartoons and toys really orient equestrian with “girly”. Anything equestrian for boys are “cowboys” and kids grow out of that around 6. My son, by the way, loves to ride western too…so whatever he chooses in the end, I’ll be happy to support him. I’m just proud that my son has the ability to do what he loves and not let any silliness bother him. I keep telling him that most of these girls at the barn are really great, and he’ll be friends with them while his male friends will be jealous!!
    🙂
    Lisa
    (tackandtweed.com)

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