The tiresome sexualization of female equestrians ( a mild rant, of sorts)

It happened again. Rarely happens when I’m wearing jeans and packers to ride Western, but if I go out and about in my English riding attire, either before or after a riding session, I run into some man who starts leering at me, in different stages of politeness. This time was at a fruit stand, with my husband. I heard the guy commenting–“hey, she’s got spurs on.” Then he started ogling me, even with the husband right there. He kept talking to his female companion, but kept snatching glances even as I kept talking to my husband about what fruit we wanted to buy for the next few days.

Then he asked me if I actually was a horse person or if I was just wearing those clothes. Needless to say, I was taken aback, and weighing two possibilities. The other car at the fruit stand was a trendy Fiat Smart Car with California plates. The odds were very good that this was a very urban Southern Californian who didn’t get the idea that people really do go around in barn clothes because, after all, this is Tourist Season and all. But the look in his eye was just a little different. I know that look. He was being very polite about it, but nonetheless, I was getting The Look, and matched with it, The Fantasy, which spills on over into a general dismissive attitude toward horsewomen (in particular) and their desire to be around horses and work with horses. We can’t have a nonsexual interest in horses. You know, that assumption is really, really tiresome. Stupid. And incorrect.

(Thank you Sigmund….NOT!)

So a woman wearing dusty breeches and faded t-shirt with dirty and scuffed tall black boots with stained spurs clearly must be walking around with intent to arouse rather than using plain practical English riding attire for efficiency and comfort, if you follow that particular line of reasoning. I’ve seen normally rational males start gibbering and slathering just a little bit when I talk about riding in English gear and carrying a crop (okay, I’ve also encountered that from a non-horsey lesbian, too).

It’s stupid. It’s irrational. It’s annoying. I don’t put that stuff on to arouse. I put that stuff on because, quite frankly, when I want to school my horse in English tack, I’ve found that tall boots just plain work better with English stirrup leathers. Pinched skin on calves ain’t no fun, really (plus I’m not really fond of purple-blue spots on my legs), and on a hot day my secondhand field boots are much cooler than half-chaps. It’s much easier to change clothes at home than at the barn. Jeans tend to scuff up the leather on my saddle. Therefore, I wear breeches and boots when I ride English, with whatever layer of top works best for the season, and I run errands wearing barn gear rather than waste gas by going home to change.

Sigh. This is just a part of the whole women and horses thing, though. No one really talks about men and horses having some sort of weird relationship. But females and horses? Ooh, must be sexual. Grrr.

One of the other arguments for female attraction to equines is just as annoying and circles back to sexuality. Some proponents knowingly natter that girls like horses because they enjoy the power to direct and control a large animal like a horse with an agency they lack in the rest of their lives. Poke at that one too deeply, and it comes back to sexuality, both with what that argument says about the daily lives of women and with the manner in which the woman’s dominance of a horse is portrayed.

But neither the sexual nor the dominance arguments entirely explain how men and boys can develop the same type of deep attachments to the horse life. Heck, anyone who reads the plethora of horse fiction out there starting with the early 20th century would know better. Will James didn’t hold up dominance or sexuality as motivations for connecting with horses when he wrote his stories about the ranch horses he worked with. Walter Farley wasn’t writing about dominance and sexuality. Neither was Mary O’Hara, nor does Natalie Keller Reinert, or a number of other folks who write insightful fiction and nonfiction about the relationships between people and horses.

Certainly the ability to direct a powerful horse is an issue. But I would argue that this is just a symptom of a deeper level of something else. As any horse person will tell you, the true reward in working with a horse is the ability to develop a deep-level nonverbal ability to communicate. Smart horses learn to communicate with humans on human terms while humans learn to communicate with horses on horse terms. More than most dogs, horse-human communication spans the range of communicative senses in ways and depths that we don’t necessarily use with other animals (we’re not in control of our scent communication like other species and we don’t seem to be able to read their scent messages). However sight, sound, touch, and proprioception play huge roles in horse-human communication, both in the saddle and on the ground. A large part of schooling horses is about refining cues and communication between horse and human, until they become one being in motion, able to shift directions with a turn of the human’s head, speed up or slow down based on where the human weight goes, or (for the horse) become entirely dependent on human visual perception and signalling about the correct place to take off for a complex and difficult jumping line.

In essence, that’s a whole-body experience. Horse and human in tune with each other is about grace, beauty and communication in coordination with each other. If there’s anything sexual about that, it’s that the horse-human link at its most insightful can rival the relationship between a long-term bonded couple.

Not that this is what those who make the cracks about women and horses, or who leer at a woman turned out in English riding gear who’s clearly using it have in mind. They’re just focusing on pale shadows of a reality they don’t quite understand.

And it’s damned tiresome to deal with. So no, buddy, I’m not dressing to fulfill your fantasies. I’m dressing for practicalities, and if I seem remote, snippy, and a bit like your image of querulous locals, well, it’s because I’m kind of tired of being looked at in that manner. Making loud comments about my spurs and boots doesn’t really endear you to me. Knock it off, and grow up. Instead of commenting about my clothes and asking me if I really am an equestrian, ask me where there’s a place to ride around the area. Ask me about horses. Just leave the clothing and the sexualization out of it, okay?

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