When people ask me who my main horsey influences I am likely to reply; Philippe Karl, Mark Rashid, Tom Widdicombe. And then I pull myself up and remember actually, there is a long line of very important horsewoman who have been (and continue to be) hugely influential in terms of how I am, and how I want to be, with horses. I want to pay tribute to all those women who have committed themselves to a life of early mornings, hay in their socks and hair, and no money or social life.
There can sometimes be a ‘humorous’ dismissal of women in the horse world. We are too soft; we love our horses too much; even our bloody pelvises aren’t the right shape (for the saddles designed by men I wonder?). There is one trainer (an out and out misogynist) who says women shouldn’t be allowed near horses. There may be some truth in some of the criticisms levelled against us, but I would like to stand up for all the things which women bring to working with horses, and to celebrate our efforts to do what we love.
If you think back to the first person that really influenced you regarding horses, it was probably a woman. For me, it was Mrs Banks – proprietor of Devonish Pitts Riding School. I remember being mildly terrified of her, (I think she is actually a very nice woman) but I learned to ride and respect horses under her tutelage. Over the years there have been many, many women who have inspired me – friends, clients, teachers and mentors. Often they motivate me with their sheer determination and ability to ‘get on with it’, as much as by their riding. I wouldn’t say I know much about Mary King; other than she seems to be able to jump enormous solid fences with a smile on her face, in between having a family. And for that I take my hat off to her.
Now I’m not saying it’s easier for men to work with horses, but….I think the odds are often stacked against us. How many women do you know who are mucking out their horses in the pitch black before taking their kids to school, or dashing to work, or caring for their elderly parents, or a combination of them all? I think one of the most impressive feats I have seen was of a student of PK’s leaping off her horse at the end of the session to dash off and breastfeed her child. Now if that isn’t dedication I don’t know what is.
I know women who ride while their child is in a pushchair at the side of the school; women who manage incredibly high powered businesses, working all hours of the day and night, so they can dress like a scarecrow and ride cross country at the weekend. There are women (some of them TINY of stature) who are out there in the wind and rain dragging logs out of the woods with their enormous equine partners. I stand in awe of female friends who scrape and save every last hard earned penny so that they can ensure their horses do not go without. I also know women who are pretty much terrified of riding but still, through sheer grit, get back on and try to improve. I think that’s what courage is really about.
We might imagine that in this liberated world women have a fully equal footing to men, but the reality is a often a little different. Working with horses allows women and men to stand shoulder to shoulder – the horse doesn’t care about your sex; it just cares about who you are and how you behave. Horses lend us their strength, beauty and good grace, regardless of whether we squat or stand in the corner of the stable for a sly wee. I am sorry that some men and women have resorted to instruments of pain and containment to force submission into their horses. There is another path we can walk with our horses that is ultimately about something which improves us as humans – whether female or male.
When I was training for my chain saw licence the instructor told me that women are often better chain saw operators as we cannot use our brute strength to force a tree down, we have to use our brains. I was quite taken with this, although when we had to drag the trees out of a knee high bog and up ½ a mile of impenetrable woodland I think the blokes had something of an edge on me – but you get the point. There is only one male student on the current intake of trainee Légèreté instructors and he is a very fine horseman indeed. However, on the first course, Philippe Karl told him he needed to ride more ‘like a Lady’. What, really hormonal and tearful I hear you cry? No, I think what he meant was that male riders have a physical strength which they need to learn to manage; they must focus more on delicacy and softness. Likewise, us girls might need to learn a little more about clarity and neutrality…
Why are most of the big name trainers men I wonder? Possibly, being absolutely dedicated to travelling and training all over the world is just not practical for many women due to family commitments; it is invariably women who end up in the main caring role. I also suspect that we – a largely female equine audience – are somewhat seduced by male trainers (especially foreign ones, oh my!). Maybe we just need to check ourselves and remember that every female trainer has been through what you are going through. They have probably had to work out how to hammer a bit of broken fencing up in the pouring rain. They have had to develop the confidence to drive a socking great lorry full of thousands of pounds of horseflesh up the motorway. They have had to get out there every day and ride and ride and ride, regardless of how terrible their period pains are (sorry boys), how drained their bank account is, how frazzled their body is, or how much else they have endlessly on their plates.
I therefore would like to add some people to my list. Mrs Banks; Ginny (of Ginny and Shantih fame); Sarah Widdicombe; Anne Sewell; Crissi MacDonald, Karen Musson, Leslie Desmond; all of those fine ladies studying with Philippe Karl who have taught me so fabulously or inspired me endlessly; Dr Deb Bennett; Kathleen Lindley Beckham, Marijke De Jong; Emma Massingale – the list goes on. And of course, all of my female clients and friends, who on a daily basis, show so much dedication, care and courage.
So, the next time someone tells you that you ride like a girl, thank them and take it as the huge compliment. Either that or kick them in the nuts.