The Changing World of Horsemanship…

Horsemanship – The skill in handling and riding horses, equitation. From the Latin equitaare, to ride horseback.

All cultures change through time, as no culture is ever completely static. Most cultures, however, are fundamentally conservative in that they tend to resist change. Some cultures resist change to such an extent that they enact laws to preserve and protect their traditional cultural patterns. In others slightly more tolerable, societal barriers become acceptable means of alienating non-traditional concepts that may challenge traditional behavior patterns through the use of derision, marked indifference and dissociation.

While horsemanship could not perhaps in and of itself be defined as a culture, it is certainly an interrelated worldwide subculture of immense proportions that has been deeply imbedded in the human psyche for thousands of years. Unlike most cultures, the world of Horsemanship is vehemently (but paradoxically) resistant to any critical new concepts while at that same time constantly seeking innovative modifications within the parameters of their traditional modus operandi. Thus this esoteric Horsemanship subculture (which has been an integral segment of human cultures worldwide for six thousand years) has been self-limiting as well as self-inhibiting.

Throughout the history of the human/equine relationship, horses have been used for food, clothing, battle, transportation, agriculture, sport and recreation. In all those thousands of years, the inter-relational mores not only of care and usage, but training as well, have been male dominated. As such, the preeminent memes woven into this worldwide subculture have had little influence from female equestrians. Only in the last century have women of the Western hemisphere and Europe been riding astride, and in the last few generations, riding in direct competition with their male counterparts in the world of Horsemanship. In those last few generations, the proportionate percentage of female equestrians has grown dramatically.

One only has to make a cursory gender count to comprehend the magnitude of that dramatic growth.

  1. A decade ago, nearly three-quarter of all riders in the UK were female.
  2. Well over three-quarter of the members of all equine-related non-racing organizations in the United States are female (and over 80% in the American Horse Shows Association (AHSA).
  3. About 80% of all riders in Canada are female.
  4. Of the United States Pony Club’s 14,000 members, four-fifths are girls.

Interesting to note that the proportion of teenage girls totally smitten and swept up in their ethereal infatuation with the Horse is nearly equal or greater to that of their mature counterparts. Doubtless many of those horse-struck teenager girls drifted away from the Horse later in life. This would indicate that many women who had no opportunity to fulfill this preternatural gender-specific need in their youth sought out the Horse at their earliest opportunity as adults. In doing so, they finally realized a childhood dream. Yet often, that dream becomes a nightmare of harsh reality or at very least, a seemingly hopeless plethora of confusion and disillusionment.

Caught between the underlying feelings of empathy (and/or a sense of wrongness or something ‘missing’ in their relationship with their horse) on one hand, and the patriarchal male-oriented training formats of dominance/submission on the other leaves many female horse owners in a perplexing quandary. While a small percentage (relishing the gauntlet sting of male competition and need for peer recognition) will fall victim to the male-oriented animal training philosophy of the ‘ends justifies the means,’ the vast majority continue to search for that ‘missing something’ and a more intimate, personal relationship with their horse.

The initial motivations of this gender specific need for an emotional attachment with the horse may be as many and variable as the individual owners themselves. There are of course, numerous contributing factors that may initially lure many to the horse.

  • Perhaps it is the sharing of quiet moments with the altruistic, nonjudgmental acceptance of the horse who accepts them just as they are regardless of their clothes or appearance.
  • Perhaps for some, the horse may fill the void of an unborn or lost child.
  • Perhaps for others, the Horse offers a momentary respite from the chaotic pressures and demands of modern society, or a quiet refuge of emotional healing when recovering from the death of a loved one (or the broken relationship with a loved one).
  • Perhaps for others, aligning with the power and strength of the Horse gives them an extension of self, allowing them to attain a modicum of self-respect and sense of self-confidence and achievement not otherwise attainable.
  • Perhaps for others, the scent molecules and pheromones of the horse trigger some visceral, deep-seated memory, buried in the dark passageways somewhere between the human reptilian and limbic brains.
  • Perhaps for others, it is the connection to the ancient times of kings and emperors, and a time when only royalty rode horses.
  • Perhaps for others, it is the acknowledged membership and sense of belonging to that elite group of humans who refer to themselves as ‘mounted,’ who with no small dispassion, indifferently look down upon their earthbound peers.
  • Perhaps there is some shared underlying nurturing connectedness of the lead mare of a harem band as she goes about her daily responsibilities directing her family’s wanderings in search of food and water while maintaining a sense of harmony within her herd.
  • Perhaps some combination of those already mentioned, and perhaps we will never be able to fully define the indefinable.

But whatever the initial attraction, there is no denying the ethereal synergistic connection between women and horses.

In the relatively short time female equestrians have entered the horse world, their collective synchronicity and impact on that world has been rather amazing. And with it, this dichotomy of unprecedented gender-specific emancipation and demographic growth in the 6,000 year old male-dominated world of Horsemanship has brought about some rather dramatic changes.

One of the greatest being the clearly defined shift in the sales and marketing presentations of national trainers in the last decade to distance themselves from the traditional ride ’em/break’em formats of past generations. For gross sales are directly related to successful marketing techniques. And successful marketing strategies respond directly to the psychographics of their major target audience. As it would appear that three-quarter of all equestrians are female, then it is obvious their need for more humane methods of training was pivotal in this shift in marketing techniques. Yet while presentations and marketing strategies have shifted to more humane forms of training, the basic core using restriction and dominance has remained exactly the same.

If that is true, where does it leave the female equestrians in this new world of horsemanship they now disproportionately overpopulate? Specifically, where does it leave those women (or their male counterparts) who feel a sense of wrongness with those emotively inclined marketing techniques (as well as those who have come to understand that something is ‘missing’ in their relationship with their horse?)

Where do they start?