The Emergence of the Swedish Horse-Riding School from the Mid-Twentieth Century | A Summary


Susanna Hedenborg1, Gabriella Torell Palmquist2,3 & Annika Rosén1
1 Department of Sport Sciences, Malmö University, Sweden; 2 Ridskolan Strömsholm AB, Strömsholm, Sweden; Department of Sport Science, Karlstad University, Sweden

The Swedish horse-riding school has changed dramatically from the second half of the twentieth century until today. A sport practiced mainly by adults, especially army officers, became a sport-for-all activity for young people and children, especially girls. The emergence of horse-riding schools in the mid-twentieth century in Sweden was connected to public policy decisions, and economic support, prompted by concerns that Sweden might go to war. In such an event, it was important to have good Swedish horses already trained for the purpose. Over time, however, the activities were incorporated into the sports movement, rather than being seen as preparation for war, and supported accordingly.

Several features distinguish Swedish equestrian sports and the activities of the riding schools from horse-riding activities in many other countries. In Europe and the United States, modernization and industrialization resulted in the emergence of a new bourgeois upper class during the second half of the nineteenth century, whose members developed an interest in horseback riding as a form of conspicuous consumption. European riding schools offered opportunities for these people to practice horse-riding. In comparison to other countries, horse-riding as a form of leisure consumption developed later and was paired with public funding for youth sports in Sweden. This funding has rendered horse-riding more affordable in Sweden than elsewhere.

The Swedish equine sector was clearly organized in a different manner than its British equivalent. Sweden remained a poor, rural nation much longer than Britain, with relatively small middle and upper classes. Few people had access to riding horses; agriculture mainly used draft horses, and leisure riding was uncommon. In Britain, the army had lost interest in horses after the First World War and horse-riding was a leisure activity for the well-to-do classes as early as the nineteenth century. Consequently, while the British government did not take an interest in the equine sector, the Swedish equine sector became a public concern. After the First World War, the modernization of the Swedish army coincided with the decreasing importance of the horse. However, this development happened more slowly than in many other countries.Even after the Second World War, the military interest in the horse continued in Sweden. Uncertainty as to whether peace would last prompted a public investigation exploring how the army could have access to trained horses without having to support them during times of peace. Public investigators voiced concerns about what would happen to the Swedish military defense in case of war, since it depended on imported oil.

An outcome of the public investigation was the 1948 foundation of Ridfrämjandet, an organization for the promotion of horse-riding and the third equestrian organization to be established in Sweden. The two already existing ones – the Swedish Equestrian Federation (SRC) founded as early as 1912 in connection with the Olympic games in Stockholm, and the Swedish Rural Equestrian Federation (SLRC) formed in 1928 – had partly different purposes and target groups. While SRC and SLRC were focussed on competitions, Ridfrämjandet was founded with the aim of protecting the Swedish Warmblood horse by establishing equestrianism as a ‘sport for all’.

Horse-riding in Sweden has become a leisure activity for young girls, and ethics of care – connected to the construction of femininity – guide many activities.

Thus, Ridfrämjandet supported and developed the warm-blooded horse so that Sweden would have a ‘required reserve’ of trained horses in case of war. A foster system in which army horses were lent to riding schools was developed. Public means supported the riding schools in more ways than through the foster system. The government introduced interest-free loans with no compulsory instalments at the suggestion of the investigation, and granted riding schools interested in increasing their activities loans for building riding halls between 1948 and 1958, during which time several new riding halls were built. From 1958, the government offered new grants, which did not have to be repaid if riding schools offered activities for 15 years or longer. In addition, riding schools used public means to offer discount tickets for youth to attract more young people to riding

An unexpected development for the investigators initiating the publicly funded riding schools was that young people, especially girls, were attracted to the activities. Like many other sporting activities, horse-riding in the riding school has become an activity for children and youth, with children below the age of 7 being admitted to activities in the last decade. Childification was coupled with feminization. In the mid-twentieth century, public investigators and representatives of the equestrian federation commented on and discussed boys’ declining participation and stated that young men were seen as those in need of (equine) military preparation, but despite this the number of girls in the horse-riding schools increased.

Swedish horse-riding school in the 1970’s.

Over time the involvement of girls became an issue discussed in relation to public funding of sport. In the late twentieth century, arguments related to equality were used to portray economic support for riding schools as a way to promote girls’ sporting activities. Currently, the Equestrian Federation views the low participation of boys as problematic from a different equality perspective, as boys and girls should have equal opportunities to participate in horse-riding. The development is, however, complex. Horse-riding in Sweden has become a leisure activity for young girls, and ethics of care – connected to the construction of femininity – guide many activities. The feminization has, however, not resulted in a convergence between the socially constructed stable girl and hegemonic femininity. Instead, the stable seems to offer a context in which girls as well as boys can form other femininities and masculinities.

Activities in the horse-riding schools have partly been affected by the changing participation patterns. Military-style commands remain prevalent, but more playful activities have been instituted for the youngest children. A new group working in the stable – the youth leaders – have become important for the transmission of equine and stable knowledge. Youth leaders have the opportunity to attend special courses on how sport clubs are run as well as how to care for horses and stable facilities. The education within equestrian sports differs from that of many other sports, in which youth courses are more focussed on athletic practice and competitive logics. Despite widespread changes, there is also continuity in the activities. There is still a combination of formal and informal learning activities in which children, from an early age, are educated to care for the horses through riding and stable chores, to become responsible persons caring for the whole riding school (including both horses and facilities), and to develop skills that can be used in many different contexts – just like the men taught at the Army Riding Center more than 50 years ago. The socializing processes are based on younger children learning from older children – a system similar to that experienced by the young recruits.

Copyright © Susanna Hedenborg, Gabriella Torell Palmquist
& Annika Rosén 2021

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