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EveryBODY - The impact of body image on riders

This article is from the November 2020 Horse Deals magazine.

When Horse Deals posed the question to our readers ‘has your body image ever impacted your riding or motivation to compete?’, a staggering amount of respondents said absolutely. More alarmingly, some claimed that they never ride in public due to the way they believe they look on a horse. The topic of rider body image issues is a tough one to digest. It’s sensitive, multifaceted, and most times uncomfortable. I can say for certain though — providing that the welfare of the horse is considered — every person should feel accepted and encouraged to enjoy their horses, no matter their looks. So what needs to change in our sport? To explore the issue, Horse Deals spoke to everyday riders who admit to being impacted by their body image.

National judge and show rider Kelli Probert, from South Australia, has been competing in the ring all her life, and four years ago she decided to hang up the jacket for now. “Due to horse and rider injury I decided to step away from the ring for a while,” explains Kelli. “I gained some weight and I wasn’t able to find the right horse, which just destroyed my confidence. Part of the reason why I took a break was that I’ve seen how unforgiving the show environment can be, and also because my son is now at competing age, but I don’t want to expose him to any negativity.

“I think a lot of the problems around body image come from the unrealistic ideals we now have thanks to social media, and the other part comes from body shaming. The emphasis should be on riders being strong and healthy. For me, I admire Isabel Werth. She is not what many consider the “ideal” body type for riding, but she’s number one in the world. As my coach of 20 years, the late Vince Corvi, would say: Light riders can ride heavy and heavy riders can ride light.”

Kelli and Dreamtime Rockstar at the 2015 EA Nationals. Photo: Angie Rickard.

Kelli and Dreamtime Rockstar at the 2015 EA Nationals. Photo: Angie Rickard.

It seems the showing world may have a second set of problems too, which brings judging into the mix. Should a rider’s build change how the judge perceives the overall picture? Kelli passionately disagrees, and although she’s not currently competing, she’s driving change in the sport. “The solution is education, and changes from a governance level,” continues Kelli. “We need to educate our riders and our judges about diversity, and focus on exactly what we are judging. Historically, the showring had the attitude of, if you can work hard, have a good eye and good horsemanship, you can get there, but that has been lost in favour of image. What I can do as a judge, is put my hand on my heart and say I will never judge you on your build.”

More recently, Kelli has found a suitable horse who she is excited to get back into to the ring with. She admits it won’t be easy but she’s up for the challenge.

Victorian eventer Norman Hocking, admits that his body image has taken him on a range of ups and downs. “There are a few different aspects involved,” Norman says. “You look at a lot of the riders getting around at the top level of eventing, and many are wonderfully fit and long-legged. For someone like me, who is a little shorter and stockier, and not the fittest person to look at in the world, you definitely compare yourself, and think, how am I ever going to be that sort of build, to ride those horses and gallop around at that level? It’s something that challenges your motivation.

“Secondly, especially for the minority of males in this sport, trying to find riding apparel that fits, and is comfortable, can be quite difficult. Particularly for someone who is not of the slimmer build that fits into standard sizing. When you’re already feeling a little self-conscious about how you look anyway, and then you can’t find riding gear that fits — or you’re squeezing into gear that perhaps isn’t the ideal cut for you — it becomes really hard to keep yourself motivated to continue riding, and to be better. I have to remember to put the importance not on how I look on the horse, but how I ride it.

“I’d like to see different builds of riders promoted more in the sport,” Norman envisions. “You don’t need to be a specific build to find success in this sport, yet at first glance, there’s a very particular image of what our successful riders look like, and they are the ones that are celebrated. Of course, the people at the very top of the sport are fit, because they are out there riding horses everyday. But I think if we can put a more focused eye on those amateur and medium level riders, and what those who are successful at that level look like, we’d see that they look like every person on the street. That would really help the body image in this sport.”

Norman riding Mr Squidward at the Wandin Park Australian Eventing Championships 2019. Image by Trot-Shots Event Photography:

Norman riding Mr Squidward at the Wandin Park Australian Eventing Championships 2019. Image by Trot-Shots Event Photography:

Pleasure rider, adult riding club and dressage competitor, Loren Madsen revisited horses after she had her first child ten years ago, and her experience with body image is nothing short of positive. “I would say I came back to riding with a sense of trepidation,” says Loren. “I was now a mother and relied upon as a financial contributor to the family. In the beginning, I was told I rode well, had a good seat and light hands, but I felt like a sack of potatoes. I spent a lot of time working on my core in lessons. I’d have an hour lesson and spend three quarters of that in walk, because I was so unfit. I wouldn’t say I felt embarrassed or ashamed about my body, but I felt obvious. I didn’t look like everyone else. I wished that I did, but I didn’t.

“Later, when I rode at the National Heavy Horse Festival and placed first in both of my dressage tests, I was approached by the owner of Plum Tack. I had purchased some of their beige breeches to wear for the event and the owner asked me if I would be her sponsored rider. I wrote back I don’t think that’s a good idea: I am overweight, I’m old, I ride a Clydesdale, it’s low level and I’m not particularly good. She came back and said you are perfect for what I want. I’ve been a sponsored rider for three years now, and before then, I felt very noticeable. Now, I’m so used to seeing myself splashed across social media with, you know, three tummy rolls, back fat and a well padded derrière, that it’s almost become normal for me.”

The campaigns featuring Loren, and occasionally her Clydesdale Bud, have almost only received positive feedback, particularly how great it is to see models of different sizes. Loren is constantly receiving messages from riders of a similar demographic about where she gets her breeches, boots and other apparel from. “I would say that my experience in the equestrian community, as a whole, has been vastly positive,” Loren continues. “The people I’ve met have been wonderful and really welcomed me into their social groups.

“The change I’d like to see, is that we make all bodies the norm. If we start uploading photos that do make us inwardly groan, they will become more normal. I want people to feel confident about sharing photos with tummy rolls or hips poking out of their jodhpurs. If we don’t upload those photos, we’re not going to make a change. And we aren’t going to make a change unless it’s collectively.

“I put myself out there and I’m not afraid,” Loren concludes. “I don’t try to hide my body. I am who I am and I ride the horse I ride. We have an amazing bond and I’m so happy to have him in my life.”

Enjoyment of our horses and competition should be the primary focus. Any sporting environment should convey inclusiveness and encouragement. That goes for the way we treat other competitors, our judges’ decisions, the design of apparel, and most importantly how we look at ourselves. It sounds like we have a bit of work to do.

Loren and Bud at Silver Sands Beach, Aldinga, SA, January 2020. Photo: PYT Equine Photography

Loren and Bud at Silver Sands Beach, Aldinga, SA, January 2020. Photo: PYT Equine Photography

Article: Rachel Clayfield.

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