It’s A Shame
During my second test, I had the choice of letting Elf complete a movement incorrectly or making the correction and taking a hit on the score for that movement. I chose to make the correction, which totally blew that particular movement (it was the canter loop to the right, for my riding readers, he broke to the trot when strongly half halted to balance him). On our drive home, my husband told me that when that happened a group of 4 or 5 women standing behind him loudly proclaimed “THAT’S A MISTAKE” before going on to murmur for the remainder of my test over what a shame it was that my weight (or rather, my being overweight) made it impossible for me to get out of my obviously talented horse’s way.
This easily overheard cattiness was a shock for my non-riding husband. He knows how important riding is to me and how hard I’ve worked this year to get back into the show ring. Although he didn’t understand some of what they said, he recognized the gist of it – that these women assumed I was an ineffective rider because I didn’t fit the “ideal” look and shape.
For me, the disheartening part of that conversation wasn’t the rather childish commentary on my riding, but the fact that it didn’t surprise me. I’m not going to lie and claim it didn’t hurt. It was a direct blow to the one really vulnerable aspect of my show day. But it’s not new to any woman who rides horses and is larger than a size 12. The search for show clothes alone is enough to make the faint of heart want to forget they ever thought horse shows were a good idea.And who thought white breeches were a good idea?
No, there is no doubt that my sport has it’s share of body shaming. And weight isn’t the only factor that can be made a target. The internet is home to articles and forum posts aplenty about riders being too tall for their horse, or too short and over horsed. The hunter and Big Eq circuits have been criticized for encouraging a culture that contributes to eating disorders and unhealthy eating in pursuit of the coveted, classic silhouette of a Big Eq winner.
Do It Anyway
A couple weeks ago, I wrote about making the decision to stop waiting for the right time to chase my goals. I had accept that there would never be a time that it was convenient for me to work out twice a day, ride 5 times a week or dedicate a substantial chunk to going horse showing. It’s not convenient or easy, but I do it anyway.
My love of horses started early enough that I don’t remember a time when the barn wasn’t my favorite place to be. Soft noses, broad backs and a willing heart made horses the perfect support through a tumultuous childhood even when it was hard or I had to beg for lessons, so I did it anyway.
After some time away, the hard choices of young adulthood and college 3000 miles from family sent me looking for that something that had offered comfort before. Money was tight (when is it not for a college student?) so I earned riding opportunities by working for them and riding whatever horses were available. It wasn’t simple and it ate up a tremendous amount of my free time, but I did it anyway.
One opportunity led to another and spent a fabulous few years diving into the horse industry. I learned what I could, grabbed every chance that presented itself and was wiling to do the hard stuff. I cleaned more stalls than I could possibly count. Eventually, I realized that I would be more successful in my riding goals choosing a path other than equestrian pro. At the time, it felt like I was throwing a dream even though I knew it was the right decision. I did it anyway.
I met my husband, got married, and have started a family. As a one horse owning amateur, I don’t ride as often as I would like because there are other priorities too. A horse makes military moves even more complicated, but my husband knows that riding and barn time are essential components of maintaining my sanity through the ups and downs of military life. There are a thousand other things that I could be doing with time & money but this one brings me back to the best parts of myself. So I do it anyway.
If not now, then when?
A year ago I found myself facing another of my husband’s deployment, still struggling with the thyroid issues that made it so hard to lose weight, tired, and overworked. I’d had my fabulous Elf for a year but we hadn’t done much besides putter. All of my goals, this list of things that I wanted to do, felt incredibly untouchable.
I started my 101 in 1001 because it felt like a way to make very small achievements and build some momentum. And it worked. I crocheted an afghan, finished some certifications, did some traveling. I jumped into dressage lessons, participated in a clinic that kicked my butt and started working out more consistently.
When I registered for my first dressage show, we were no where near show ready. I wasn’t planning on being competitive. But I just wanted to keep my momentum up. It worked, we had some challenges (cue the warm-up phobia and some moments on a hysterically spinning pony) but we made it through and managed a score in the 60s and a couple ribbons. I accepted the fact that just because I wasn’t where I wanted to be weight or fitness wise didn’t mean I needed to wait to work towards any of my other goals. The more progress I made in the saddle, the better I felt, the more momentum I built, the easier it became to get up at 5 am to run or to do that second workout of the day.
Inclusive Is Cool
Aside from what my husband overheard at the show, the only place I’ve found criticism for my weight as I return to showing is in my own head. I am my own worst critic – having to consciously turn off the running internal commentary suggesting that maybe the reason Elf is struggling with something is because my weight is unbalanced or I’m not fit enough to help him like he needs.
Realistically, I know that my riding has come a tremendously long way since I started dressage lessons in January. I’m more precise, quicker with my corrections and better balanced. I have more tools in my problem-solving toolbox to set Elf up for success. But I still have to shove the internal critic inside a box and lock it each time I pull on my breeches, every time I put the saddle on, and each show I register for.
We’re never going to eliminate this cattiness from the horse world. It’s also present in the grocery store, the gym, the school pick up line and rampant on the internet. What we can do is address both our internal self-talk and how we individually interact with the people around us. We can be inclusive, encouraging. We can celebrate goals and achievement at every level (even if its getting in and out of the ring without a forgetting your own name). We can focus on strength, fitness and wellness instead of weight.
Don’t get me wrong. My weight impacts my balance, makes me work harder to be effective and affects my health. But from looking at me, you’d never guess that I eat an incredibly healthy, carefully monitored diet – and the amount of education I’ve pursued because Doctors couldn’t help me with weight challenges. You probably can’t tell that I work out twice a day, five days a week and am strong enough to lift solid wood furniture on my own. I work every day not just to get to a healthier weight, but to be a more effective rider, to role model a healthy relationship with food for my son and to take care of myself so that I can give my family and other priorities the energy they deserve.
So no, I don’t look your ideal dressage rider and, sometimes, people are going to feel the need to talk about that.
But I’m going to do it anyway.
What’s next? Let’s talk about changing the body shaming conversation that’s happening at the barn.
Also, here’s an excellent look at how to evaluate rider/horse suitability. For riders of any shape, working with qualified professionals is a vital step in the process. My trainer, vet and farrier are all part of the decisions I make for my guy.