Growing up I have watched my body go from slight and thin to anorexic and bony to healthy and muscular, and everything in between. Currently I stand at 5’9″ tall with broad shoulders and ribs, and muscular legs that are commonly confused with those of a soccer player. My stomach isn’t perfectly toned, I have a small chest, and my arms are the weakest part of my body (save for my triceps that are constantly exercised through riding). To put me into a “box”, my body looks athletic with a curve to it, something that I am still trying to accept.
“Accept what?” You ask. In a sport that has been around for centuries, the equestrian body ideal is slight, thin, and muscled like that of a prima ballerina. Countless magazine articles describe equestrians as “slender and a beautiful sight upon their mounts” if female, or “strong and steady upon their horses” if male, a perfect representation of the feminine and masculine ideals so commonly seen throughout history. After all, a woman is supposed to look angelic and beautiful on horseback while a man is supposed to look powerful and intimidating, or at least that is what countless tales and movies have told us for generations.
So commonly do I see workouts targeted to “blasting away britches jiggle” and “getting that sports bra sexy back” that it’s clear that riding horses has become just as much about size as it has about the connection between horse and rider. Hearing riders talk about how they need to drop from a 28 to a 26 size jodphur and the need to get their coat re-tailored for the equitation ring to show off their new figure is not only common, but somehow expected in this world. While jokes made at how unforgiving riding clothes, in particular tan and white breeches, can be in jest, more and more I see riders whittling themselves away to fit into the ideal body that has been illustrated for centuries.
As someone who’s body isn’t the “ideal” and will never be due to my bone structure, I can’t help but comment on our sport and our fascination with body image. Why is it that instead of commenting on our riding style, the first mention of us on horseback has to do with our physical appearance? When did we become so critical that our preferred body type is that of a ballerina who’s life has been dedicated to creating the perfect lines? Some of the younger girls I see riding look like they are two strides away from passing out on their mount, and that cannot be “ideal.” It should not be ideal.
Call me crazy, but I find the partnership between me and my horse much more important than whether or not I’m a size 24 in breeches and have a thigh gap. But even as I say that, I know that the way my favorite athletes are described to me still affect how I view myself in the ring. I scan my photos to see which areas of my body need to be toned or look “jiggly.” I constantly am self conscious that any fat on my arms is evident when I ride in a polo shirt, and that people comment on the size of my thighs when I walk around in breeches.
My body isn’t the equestrian “ideal”, that much is true if I base my findings on depictions of riders throughout history and magazine coverage of the top shows in the world. But my body is incredibly strong and powerful, two words that I find much more important that being considered “slender and beautiful atop my horse.” And that, my friends, is fine by me.
What do you think about the relationship between body image and the equestrian sport? Let me know in the comments!