So, You Think You Love Horses? Some Reflections on the Nature of Horses and Man

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Women and Horses: Roots of a Special Relationship

Victoria and Albert Etching c. 1850

The Young Queen Victoria made Riding Fashionable for Young Ladies

To say men are different from women is cliché. I will freely and openly acknowledge that as a male I have never fully understood the female of our species and likely never will. It would be easy to suspect that there is a massive conspiracy afoot among women, perhaps with world domination as an objective, but I see no evidence as yet that they understand themselves any better than we clueless males do.

However, one thing is clear to me. There is a special affinity that many women have for horses. I have gone on record saying that I have never truly loved horses, not in the way that my wife does. The outdoorsman in me enjoys riding them. The biologist in me is fascinated by their psychological adaptations. The animal behaviorist in me enjoys observing them. The artist in me is drawn to their aesthetic qualities and beauty. The historian in me is aware of their important role in human history. All of the above is true and if you read what I have written, and will write, you know that this is said from the heart. However, mine is an intellectual and not an emotional attachment to the species. I think Jane Smiley speaks for many women when she wrote:

“Fascination with horses predates every other single thing I knew. Before I was a mother, before I was a writer, before I knew the facts of life, before I was a school girl, before I learned to read, I wanted a horse.”
A Year at the Races, p. 47

What are the roots of this affinity? I would love to say that there is a lot of historical and even well-known mythological testimony that indicates this affinity was recognized since the dawn of time, but at this point I am simply not aware of it. Rather I think the key is that both women and horses have undergone the same kind of liberation within the last 150 years.

Catherine the Great
The majority of women living during the pre-industrial era knew no leisure time. Except for a privileged few who were often members of the aristocracy, women had limited free time, limited education and very limited freedom of action. Woman of the highest socioeconomic classes might engage in pleasure riding or fox hunting. I suspect that when hunts were first established they were exclusively male institutions. The business of the hunt was pest control using hounds and the horse was just transportation, able to keep up with the pack. Most human institutions evolve into things that they were not originally intended to be. As the hunt evolved into more of a rural social institution, women began to participate as riders. The earliest involvement of women appears merely to see men off at the beginning of the hunt. This expanded into being passive observers of the progress of the hunt. With improvements in the design of the side saddle it finally became an activity in which young men and women could mix and demonstrate their skills. I would love to document my theory with some period literature and to hear that contemporary female voice, but I have not yet been able to do that. At the time, proper women rode using side-saddles. The major reason for the use of the side saddle appears to have been to allow women to wear dresses since breeches were considered male attire and were not at all acceptable for women to wear until relatively modern times. For much of history, aristocratic women were led on horseback or rode in vehicles, and the idea of a woman controlling her own horse was novel. In Britain Anne of Bohemia, who married Richard II of England in 1382, popularized early sidesaddle riding by ladies. By the 16th Century more practical side saddles were developed, and more and more women controlled their own mounts. In the 17th Century equestrian portraits of aristocratic women became common place and young ladies were schooled in equitation. However, it was not until the 19th Century that the side saddle evolved into its final form and became a truly stable platform for riding and jumping. My wife has ridden side saddle and reported that it was a secure seat, but she did not feel that she was as well-balanced as when riding astride. We also have examples of some women, such as the Russian Empress Catherine the Great who were in a position to do what they pleased. Catherine was known to ride astride and on some occasions wore male uniforms, as illustrated in her equestrian portrait by Vigilius Erichsen that is hanging in Musee des Beaux-Arts, Chartres, France.

Female Rider 1930s
In more modern times the equestrian passions of the young, vivacious Queen Victoria inspired a generation of women to take to the horse. Liberated from her overly protected childhood, Victoria enjoyed participating in large cavalcades of riders that were widely commented upon in the period print media. Sadly, with the death of her consort Prince Albert in 1861, Victoria went into mourning for the rest of her life and we have the more familiar sedate Victoria who did not appear in public. I have a letter written by a female relative in 1864. She was the daughter of a land owner and county judge and a proper Victorian woman. She writes about how much she enjoys pleasure riding in the countryside. It is clear from her tone that she considered riding a fashionable thing to do. For Victorian women horseback riding was a liberating, exhilarating experience and a break from the domestic tedium that otherwise so defined their lives.

It appears that horseback riding by women was an activity that won the approbation of Victorian era males as well. In A Woman's Guide to Health Beauty and Happiness Frederick Wilson Pitcairn, M.D. (1906) assures us, "Riding on horseback is one of the most enjoyable and salutary exercises known. Under this exercise the circulation and respiration are greatly increased and digestion assisted; the mind is pleasantly engaged, emotions excited, and emulation inspired. Young people like to ride well-some desire to exhibit prowess and skill. In many diseases riding is found to be more efficacious than the most renowned therapeutic agents."

Jacqueline Kennedy's Equestrian Abilities were Admirable
JBK Jumping
In the more egalitarian society of the United States women could not fail to notice celebrities like Annie Oakley (1860-1926). Although better known as a crack shot, she was also an excellent horsewomen and appeared mounted as part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. For many years Olympic equestrian teams were dominated by military riders, but as horse cavalry became obsolete in the mid 20th Century women slowly began to assert themselves as high level competitive riders. Riders such as Lana DuPont competed in what had previous been an all-male sport of three day eventing when she took part in the 1964 Tokyo Games. In the 1972 Olympics Liselott Linsenhoff of Germany captured the dressage title, beginning a female dominance of that sport. However, it was not a matter of just these high profile women. As incomes rose horse ownership became possible for middle class women and not just the wealthy. A great debt is owed to those instructors, mentors and pony clubbers that helped train the ever growing number of female pleasure riders. This is a story that continues into our own times. In more traditional societies, such as in the Arab world, we have people like the beautiful Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein. Her equestrian achievements are considerable and groundbreaking. It is said that "Large streams from little fountains flow, Tall oaks from little acorns grow" D. Everett 1797.

Moreover it was not just women who were liberated. In 1877 Anna Mary Sewell wrote the much loved book Black Beauty. Her book’s empathy for horses was instrumental in pushing the notion of the humane treatment of animals and became an instant best seller. Sadly, Sewell did not live to see the fruits of her work; she died five months after its publication.

The Industrial Revolution, which played such a role in the liberation of women, also liberated horses. For centuries horses were a vital means of economic production and participant in the horrors of war. Today, there are still some horses that function in more traditional economic, working roles on Amish farms, in the racing industry, in police mounted units, etc., but for the most part today’s horse is a well-cared for, even pampered, pleasure animal. They, too, have been liberated, although unlike my female friends, they may not realize it.

The Accidental Horseman

A 19th Century Working Horse
Horses also have experienced a liberation.
working horse

A Closing Comment
I found as I wrote the above that it took a direction that I did not originally intend. I hate reading most historical fiction in that I find most writers are unable to escape the present and adopt the mindset of people living in prior eras. Even historians and sociologists tend to be hypercritical of our antecedents’ failings and yet we are so blind to our own. We know how history sorted things out, and of course the people living at the time did not. For that reason I have never been that sympathetic to what is understood as a modern “Feminist” perspective. I find it is too often both narrow-minded and angry. Prior societies functioned in the manner they did because the conditions that existed at the time demanded that they must function in that manner and not because we are so enlightened and they were not. That is not to say that social attitudes do not evolve, that thought leaders do not ignite change, and that we cannot point to ways that society has in fact become more enlightened. My complaint is that we believe that the need for these perceived improvements should have been so evident that our ancestors had to have been idiots for not adopting them earlier. Human societies are extremely complex entities with so many elements necessary for change that it can only be by a gradual process. Prior to writing this I have never really had any reason to examine the historical development of the relationship between horses and women (being neither of them myself). I cannot find many sources suggesting that others have looked into the question except in a superficial and rarely even sexist manner, but I would not be surprised to find that there is more serious literature out there than I am unaware of.
Since I wrote the above a friend pointed out the book Of Women and Horses (Irvine, CA: BowTie Press, 1965). This is a series of essays by horsewomen (and some great photographs also). The essays by Dr. Delphi M. Toth, a Lipizzaner breeder and psychologist, and by Mary Wanless touch particularly on the matter of women and horses. Mary Wamless and I agree that this is mostly a 20th Century phenomenon, although I try to push its roots back into the 19th.

Some Additional Links
The development of the Side Saddle
Horsetalk: What do horses mean to women? (Neil Clarkson)
Women & Horses (Cate Terwilliger}
Women & Horses fit together like Currier and Ives
Why Women Ride Horses (Leslye Ann)
Horses in Mythology (Beverley Kane, M.D.)
Teresa Pitman’s Girls who Love Horses (Today’s Parent)
Historical Survey of Female Riding Styles

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