Issues concerning gender are extremely apparent within the sporting world. The separation of men and women has always been a factor that has effected mostly all sports. Even after Title IX passed, equality for both genders is a battle that we continue to deal with today. What sets the equestrian world apart from all these other sports, aside from the fact that they involve a horse, is that the gender binary line is nonexistent?
Equestrian is the only sport in the Olympics where both genders can perform together as a team or against each other equally (16, Adelman and Knijnik); although women were not permitted to compete until 1956, today both genders are on equal ground. This sets this show jumping apart from all other sports in the sense that there is true equality. In the Olympic Show Jumping, men and women can choose to team up together and compete against other teams. This is not apparent in any other sport besides equestrian. Men and women also compete individually against each other in this sport. Given the even playing field in this sport, many of the other qualities in show jumping are also not gendered. This includes the “uniforms” that they wear, the stadiums that the competitions are held in, the equipment they use, and the way they are judged. The uniforms within this sport are relatively simple. All riders wear a helmet, long boots, breeches, gloves, and a hunting/show jacket. By requiring both genders to wear identical uniforms, this levels the playing field I terms of judgments being made about sexualization of either gender, as is apparent in other sport’s uniforms; volleyball players for example. The male gaze is not able to be present because the women are dressed in the same way and treated as athletes on the same playing field as the men are. As the uniforms for the humans are the same in this sport, they are also the same for the horses. The saddles are all unisex and more designed for personal comfort than gendered for men and women. The stadiums designed for each competition are held exactly the same for the entire competition; this includes the height of the obstacles as well. The judging is based on the time of the run, as all runs have to meet but cannot exceed a certain time frame, and the amount of faults given within a run. Faults can be given for horse refusals, hitting, missing, or knocking over an obstacle, or for falling off the horse.
While all this information could lead you to believe that there is no gender binary in this sport, which is not completely true. It may not be apparent within the sport, but from an outsider’s point of view and as social norms have come to view it, there may be one area where gender is not completely unnoticed. When one speaks of horses and riding, in this culture it is easy for one to quickly think of riding as a girl’s sport. That it is a feminine sport and that not many men ride. While this may be true now, it was not always like this. When hunting started in England, where show jumping’s root lie, only men were involved in the sport. As I stated previously, women were not allowed to compete in the Olympics until 1956. But now, in the USA, 80% of all equestrians are women. This shift from being a male dominated sport has only happened in the past 30 years; or in other words since women could compete in this sport in the Olympics (14, Adelman and Knijnik). This is where the binary comes back into play. Women are portrayed as being soft and in touch with their emotions. One theory is that women are able to bond closely with the horse and that with why it quickly became a sport dominated by women (19, Adelman and Knijnik). Another theory is Ellen Singleton’s analysis of the cultural norm of “feminized horse fiction” being fed to little girls at an early age (19, Adelman and Knijnik). Books are continuously being written about girls and women sharing a close bond with a horse so much so that it could be seen as a domesticated relationship (Singleton). There is no one answer for this jump in women’s involvement within this sport, but it is apparent that women have come to dominate the equestrian show jumping world.
So is there a “gender norm” within this sport? Both men and women seem to be giving up their lives and devoting their time to this sport, not unlike most serious athletes within all other sports. I feel as if the norm within the equestrian world and show jumping is to just devote all your time, money, mind, and body to the sport. The best performances and best athletes are those who have dedicated their lives to becoming the best they can be. Since the playing field within this sport is not gender biased, each individual rider is judged solely on their performance; so it take all the more practice to prove yourself when there are no gender limitations in your way. One consistent thing I noticed within this sport is the strong bond between horse and rider. When I was riding, the bond I shared with my horse Bella was intense. I knew her every move, why she behaved the way she did, and we learned about each other together. It is only when rider and horse become one in the way they move and act can they truly become excellent riders. When I followed a rider earlier I this project, she had been riding her horse since she was 11 or 12 years old. The bond they shared was amazing and beautiful. She was the only person that had ever rode her horse, ever. The bond between horse and rider and not gender specific, men are just as capable as women are to grow a strong bond between them and their horse.
While gender may not be an issue when it comes to growing a bond between the horse and rider, money can be. As I said before, I had a close bond with my horse when I was riding, but my situation was different than most serious riders. I was leasing my horse from the stable I was riding at. So once I stopped riding, Bella was no longer my horse. Money is a serious concern when it comes to being involved in the equestrian world. There is a definite class separation in this sport. It is very expensive to not only buy/lease a horse, but also to obtain the proper riding equipment. My lease ran about $200 a month, and that was not including the fees for actually riding there. My helmet ran about $200, boots about $100, chaps about $50, and breeches $50. That right there runs about $400 and that does not include my show jacket or any equipment for my horse since I borrowed those from the stable. Typically show jackets run about $150-$200 and saddles start between $1000 and $2100. In a sense it is easy to see how quickly the fees can rack up in this sport. While I did borrow a saddle from the stable, it is not the norm when you are a serious rider to borrow or rent things from the stable, that makes you look as if you are an amateur, which is not viewed highly. Even those who took riding lessons and not specific lessons in the sport side of equestrian were looked down upon. As if they were not true equestrians. Leisure riding is not the same as sport riding and is not treated the same in the sporting world. The financial side of this would easily keep most people away from becoming a true athlete and not just a leisure rider. This bring us into the class separation within this sport. Everyone cannot afford to spend thousands of dollars on riding equipment let alone also buying a horse and having to house, feed it as well. By cutting off a majority of the people who cannot afford this sport, it is easy to view this sport as “high class”. Just the price of the saddle is enough to turn most people away. This class separation is not new in show jumping. From its roots in Europe, riding was always seen as an activity for the royal and not the “everyday folk”. It wasn’t until Americans, men and women started using horses for work and for transportation. Not just royals had access to horses here, most of the working class had them out of necessity. But even though in the US the horses were used by the working class, using them in the competing sense was still only done by the upper class.
In conclusion, I have learned much by studying this sport this quarter. While it has not only given me further insight within the sport, it has also rekindled my love for horses and my appreciation for show jumping all over again. The financial side of the sport is what has kept me from rejoining the equestrian world. This has definitely opened my eyes to the class divisions within the sport that you don’t really notice until you are unable to afford the amenities. One thing that I will always appreciate about this sport is the blindness there is to the gender binary that is so apparent within other sports when it comes to the competition. Men and women are all equally performing and appreciating the sport for what it is instead of comparing men to women.
Adelman, Miriam, and Jorge Dorfman. Knijnik. Gender and Equestrian Sport: Riding around the World. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.