Horse riding from side to astride – a precursor to women’s liberation

Petra Andersson
Dept of Philosophy, University of Gothenburg

Erica Munkwitz
Women, Horse Sports, and Liberation: Equestrianism and Britain from the 18th to the 20th Centuries
319 pages, hardcover, ill
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2022 (Routledge Research in Sports History)
ISBN 978-0-367-20950-6

Women, Horse Sports, and Liberation. Equestrianism and Britain from the 18th to the 20th Centuries, gives a thorough and detailed picture of women’s historical participation in equestrianism and of how the participation in turn is an important part of the movement towards gender equality. The book is the first scholarly examination of women’s involvement in equestrianism in Britain and the Empire. The author, Erica Munkwitz, introduces the readers to a huge amount of literary sources of various kinds; the book contains many interesting quotes and many, perhaps even more exciting, pictures, and the list of references will keep us occupied for years.

Especially the pictures give food for thought during reading, maybe because we so seldom are offered historical pictures of horses ridden or handled by women. The introduction and the five ensuing chapters follow a timeline from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Specific years, or specific historical changes in the history of female equestrianism are marked by different historical handbooks in horsemanship and equestrianism. That gives a picture that these books at the same time drive a development and document the same development. That in turn, gives a framework for the reading: history itself guides the reader through a history one can only take part of afterwards, as it were. For a Swedish reader, like me, the many British manuals in horsemanship and horseback riding gives rise to a little envy. Being a female rider, I would have loved to have such a cultural heritage to lean on.

The first chapter examines how women were involved in equestrianism during the late eighteenth century and shows the importance of that involvement and how it was seen as different from men’s participation in horse sports, to the extent that specific handbooks in horseback riding for women were published. Thus, a riding woman was constructed as something different than a riding man, while the riding women at the time seem to have been entertaining the idea that female and male riding were the same, were the women just allowed to use the same equipment as men and take part of the same mounted events, like fox hunting.

Taking this close a look at women in equestrianism, light is shed over corresponding changes of gender, which is in focus of the book,  class, sports and national identity in Britain and in the Empire, through specific “horsey” lenses.

In the second chapter, we learn about the development of urban riding for women and also about women’s return to mounted fox hunting. In this chapter, the years between 1805 to 1857 are highlighted, with the years at both ends of the time scale each saw a new book in horsemanship, and female horsemanship. The later of these books was even written by a woman. The following, third, chapter goes into women in foxhunting from 1857 to 1913. Women were told to participate in fox hunting; while early in the time period still using sidesaddles, they were later told to ride astride. Between these years, the farmed landscape changed, fields increased in size, fences grew bigger, even the horses changed and became faster. These new challenges led to a new kind of riding manuals for women, and it also was made clear in these handbooks that it was necessary for the new style of riding that women developed qualities and skills that until then had been coded as masculine. According to the author, women did so without losing femininity in other aspects of their life.

The fourth chapter presents the idea that women challenged the Empire as a masculine preserve, through their participation in mounted games like polo and pig sticking. When riding astride, not in a sidesaddle, women also wore more practical clothing than they used to do when they had to use the sidesaddles. Sporting and gender ideals were thus adapted to new conditions, the author argues, without abandoning traditional ideas about femininity.

Hence, in the fifth chapter, we are shown how these changes affected social, gender and sporting norms in Britain. British women rejected the sidesaddle for the so much more practical and comfortable cross-saddle, that enabled women to full participation in equestrianism. Gender equality, at least in the saddle, was possible to obtain. In the year 1956 that was proved when a woman, Patricia Smythe, won a bronze medal in showjumping in the Olympic Games – in fact he first time the event was open for women. According to the author, her book shows how women in equestrian sports was part of the movement for women’s rights as they in their daily living demonstrated new ideas about femininity and opportunities for women’s liberation.

The book opens for several types of reading and for several possible interpretations of what was going on when women took part in equestrianism, and what kind of factors that enabled as well as limited that participation. Munkwitz argues that women’s participation in horse sports had the potential to transcend the conditions that prevailed based on gender and class. Anyone who was skilled enough, she argues, could take part of horseback riding and hunting. Taking this close a look at women in equestrianism, light is shed over corresponding changes of gender, which is in focus of the book,  class, sports and national identity in Britain and in the Empire, through specific “horsey” lenses. Or, as we will see, not that much of “horsey” lenses in terms of giving the horses a role of their own in the history of equestrianism, women, and liberation. For a story of the importance of equestrianism, I really miss the horses.

Patricia (Pat) Smythe (1928–1996), the first woman to win an Olympic medal in showjumping, in Stockholm in 1956 when women were finally allowed to compete. (Image source: Horse Nation)

Munkwitz’ book is the story, or stories, about women’s liberation from the perspective of equestrianism, and thus also a story, or stories, about class and gender hierarchies, as these are demonstrated through equestrianism. Nonetheless, the relationships between riders and horses are described with an almost naïve cluelessness. Briefly, since this is not the theme of the book, we are told that riding is about partnership between human and animal, that the horse is not a slave and that a human cannot force the horse to do anything. Equestrianism is here described in terms of mutual respect between human and horse. Considering the ongoing debate on horse welfare in equestrian sports, the fact that many (human) actors even fear that the competitive equestrian sports will lose its social license to operate as a result of this debate, and the quite regularly revealed cases of unjust handling and even abuse of horses within the equestrian sports, that description is surprising. It is not easy to recognize the idea about riders’ virtues that is, briefly but still, the only idea about today’s equestrianism the book offers. The simple fact that handbooks in riding, both now and then, describe riding in these idealized terms, is not enough to state that equestrianism is like that from the perspective of the horses. Horse welfare is not what the book is about, but why are we presented to this idealized picture of today’s equestrian sports? One would have wished for a greater degree of sensitivity to the vulnerable role that horses in human care find themselves in, and one would have wished that this was not denied by the beatified and idealized picture of horse-rider relationships that are briefly outlined without questioning.

One can read Munkwitz’ book as the story about how women left the sidesaddles behind together with the lack of human rights and full citizenship in society, and moved forward to formal equality and riding in the astride position; from being practically transported from one place to another sitting on a sidesaddle that was not even a saddle but more of a pillow placed on the horse’s back, to winning medals in the Olympic games using the same saddles (and the same equipment in general) as the male riders. It takes an astride position to win Olympic medals and it takes women with authority to be able to achieve the Olympic games at all.

British women abandoned the sidesaddle – which they had been riding in for almost half a millennium – to ride astride like men, thus gaining equality on the horseback. Yet female equestrians did not seek further emancipation in the form of political rights. According to the author, that paradox – of achieving equality through sport but not through politics – shows how liberating sport was for women into the twentieth century. For the reader, the history of female riders and female riding developing from the limited possibilities in the sidesaddle to the freedom of movement when riding astride, is– from my personal perspective at least – an unexpected and very refreshing picture of the British female rider. A change of saddle is nothing less than an opportunity for liberation! A change of saddle makes it necessary to wear practical clothing around the horses, irrespective of how you need to dress elsewhere. If only the horse’s role in that development had been made clearer, I would have been the biggest fan of this book. As it is, I can still warmly recommend reading it. It gives food for thought, and it is, despite some repetitive and slow parts, a very interesting book.

Copyright © Petra Andersson 2021

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