For Christmas, we bought our 12 year-old son a course of riding lessons at an Equestrian Centre operated by friends. He’s grown up around horses and, as my wife Helen is a keen BE 90 and 100 eventer, he’s always enjoyed a day out at the events at which she competes.
We’ve always encouraged him to participate in sport. He’s played rugby league for one of the top amateur clubs in Wigan (which, as it’s the home of the World Club Champions, is a pretty big deal) and he’s the reigning U-13s ‘Bowling Award’ recipient at our local cricket club. He’s a useful goalkeeper and in June, he’ll participate in the Great North Swim (half-mile) in Windermere. You can safely say he knows his way around a changing room.
This isn’t the first time we’ve tried to harness his equestrian talents – and the last attempt (at a different yard) didn’t end well. In fact, those few lessons might have represented the entirety of his riding career. Highly-recommended as it was, the place was small, poorly-lit, lacking in basic facilities, held together in part by baling twine and surrounded by pot-holed, muddy surfaces.
Of course, we’re all familiar with ‘the horse world’ – we use that phrase, don’t we, as if we inhabit a ‘Harry Potter’-style otherworld but in reality, it’s mostly a shorthand for ‘lower your expectations’. Back in the ‘muggle’ world, some of the parents of the other children present must have wondered what on earth they were doing there. I imagine they were initially thrilled to explore this rather glamorous world of horses and all its stereotyped allure of power, wealth and mystery. If so, it wouldn’t have taken long for their preconceptions to crumble. If they went, hoping for Jilly Cooper, they found the reality was more like Henry Cooper.
“I won’t remember your names, I shall just refer to you by your pony so each of you remember your pony’s name” shrilled the almost comically Blytonesque instructor. Her instruction, while technically adept, was delivered in militaristic fashion, schoolmarmly in the extreme. Was this a lesson for beginners or an initiation test? With such uninspiring surroundings and questionable levels of encouragement, it didn’t take long for the magic to fade to our then 9 year-old and eventually, after one unfortunately-executed flick of a lunge whip had connected with his buttock, not the pony’s, there was no going back. Literally.
It wasn’t that he disliked horses or riding, just that the positives of the experience weren’t sufficient to sustain his interest in the face of so many negatives. Speaking from my own experience, I’m tempted to conclude that this is a particularly male reaction. For girls, the horse or pony always seems to represent more than just the means of conveyance but also a companion to look after, to form a bond with, to understand. I’m not saying boys are neglectful or uncaring but in general, riding to them is primarily another form of experiencing the thrill of motion or, more basically, danger. Everything else it involves is merely a means to achieve that end. Ergo, if boys are denied the fun and left only with the sense of connection with the animal for their motivation, I’m afraid it’s safe to conclude that most will opt out.
How do I know? I remember being thrown (and trampled) at a similar age and reaching the point that I wondered why I was doing this. The fact that I chose not to pursue riding any further was not due to it being wholly negative but that other sports entered my world, sports that were lower maintenance, less punishing, more fun and infinitely more cool.
In the thirty-odd years since then, it seems equestrianism has hardly progressed in its attitude to boys. Maybe there’s even less incentive to even try to include them today, in the face of the efforts of football, rugby, cricket etc. to recruit their stars of tomorrow. Perhaps the status quo is just too comfortable.
About twenty years ago, I read an opinion piece in an American riding magazine which argued that, confronted with the combined marketing efforts of American football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey, was it really a surprise that so few boys wanted to take part in a sport that required them to dress in attire that had hardly changed in centuries? I’m sure you could re-print that article today and it would be no less challenging or relevant.
And here lies the essence of the problem: it’s a vicious circle. Riding is simply not welcoming enough to boys, therefore it’s unpopular with boys, which inevitably skews it towards girls. This has the effect of marking it out as “a girls’ sport” to the mainstream, which acts as a further disincentive to any boy who then dares to cross the Rubicon. I’m thrilled that our son is learning to ride but I’m well aware that indiscriminately posting pictures of his lessons on social media would mortally wound his peer credibility.
I know we mustn’t take for granted the number of girls coming into the sport but in comparison to boys, it’s always been a far easier sell. The 2015 BETA survey reports that while 26% of all regular riders are male and that 27% are under 16, there’s no published data to suggest how those under-16 riders are split, boys to girls. Anecdotally, I’d suggest it’s far more skewed to girls than the 26:74 we might like to presume. Can we afford to believe that we’ve done all we can to make riding accessible to boys just because it’s a little more difficult to attract and maintain their interest?
One sacred cow to consider sacrificing is the supposed attribute that equestrian sport has greater value because both male and female riders compete together. Swedish academic Birgitta Plymoth produced a paper in 2013: ‘On the Difference Between Masculine Needs and Feminine Practices in the Context of Swedish Equestrian Sports’ and cited the story of the Zetterman Stars all-male showjumping team as an example of how gender segregation can help to restore the appeal of the sport to male audiences, thereby increasing male participation. Taken to its logical conclusion, I’m imagining a cross between HOYS and ‘Robot Wars’ and already, it’s appealing to my inner 9 year-old. Is equestrian sport prepared to be so bold in order to maximise its future participation?
Or should we just re-print this article in the 2037 ETN?
- Look out for my next post, about the pros and cons of producing a catalogue, in the July issue of ETN, out July 1st.