Empowering Our Girls
Equestrians are always fighting to legitimize our sport – “we don’t just sit there!”; “I am now training in a gym and engaging in dry land training – and people still tell me it’s not a sport.” We may train seven days a week, but our passion is undeniably compared and degraded next to other more socially valued sports. It is safe to assume this is in part linked to gendered constructs and being a female dominated sport in our male centric society, but that is the sociologist coming out in me and for another time. The focus has been targeted on our current athletes to validate the sport, and in the process, the next generation has been left out of the development plan.
“I hope that riding gives my daughter confidence,” a mother of a new beginner student told me. It is not the first and certainly not the last I’ve heard this statement. I watched this wee little thing with long braids totter down the aisle, stumble over her own boots, and attempt to lead her pony into the ring. “How will your pony know where to go if you don’t pick a point and walk to it? Horses need a leader and need determined footsteps.” The following week, I watched her internalize my comments, and march around the arena. She became the leader she needed to be.
In one of our lessons, we were learning the ‘up downs’ (or posting trot.) I am quite honestly not sure who was more excited when the post became in rhythm and time with the pony – my student, the mother, or myself. For me, it was not necessarily the fact she mastered a difficult skill in her development. Instead, it was watching her grow a little taller, control her posture a little more, and the try got a little harder. It was watching her need to remove her jacket as she was “too hot, because this riding is hard work.”
I have been preaching to my young riders for years to work off the horse and help us validate the athleticism of our craft. We have been making headway through various avenues in this regard. Yet when I witnessed the grassroots and the influence my direction had on a six-year-old, it has become apparent the responsibility we have to our youngest riders in their quest of athleticism and growth as women, not just our rising development teams. We don’t need “heels down and chins up” for no reason other than equitation practice, we need heels down to be “strong and balanced in the tack, so we can be more effective leaders”, and to be “a better athlete.” This rhetoric needs to begin day one.
My whole vocabulary, my coaching style, and the way I present information has changed after teaching this one beginner client. I got to witness firsthand the strength she didn’t know she possessed to post the trot, or to lead her pony by herself with confidence. Of course, we coaches always want to see our students succeed within a competition setting. I’d be lying if I didn’t love seeing a ribbon hanging from a student’s bridle. The most rewarding comments I’ve come to cherish? “I could squat more than the guys in my grade” and “I held a plank longer than anyone else in my fitness test today.” Two fundamental exercises that directly correlate between riding and dryland training. The best one yet? “I feel really strong, and it feels really good.”
Absolutely I cannot wait to see bows swinging from my beginner client’s braids, with matching bows on her pony. More importantly however, I want her to see that being strong in and out of the tack is beautiful, not just great and expensive apparel designed to be ‘slim fit.’ That the older girls at the barn are paving the way for equestrians to internalize and promote our athleticism, and she is going to be the one that solidifies the agenda. That by working hard on and off the horse improves us as riders, but as girls and women. It is time to recognize what riding is – sport.
Sport is proven to create empowerment and confidence in girls, by giving them confidence and bodily autonomy. As a coach, and as a rider, it is up to us to empower the next generation of riders on and off the horse. Equestrian coaches can make this happen by investing in companies and programs like The Fit Equestrian who promote nutrition, workouts for rider fitness, and dryland and mental training for their students. Strength training is often overlooked and can help improve technique in any equestrian discipline by improving core strength and overall riding fitness.
TFE Sponsored Rider Becky Staden