"Crazy Horse Girl": Gender Equity in Equestrian Sports

by Kaijing Janice Chen | 9/26/18 2:15am

20110403_av_womens_lacross_v_brown_46501

The Dartmouth Equestrian team officially became a women's varsity team in 2015 (photo from 2011). 

Jaime Eeg ’18 is no stranger to the term “crazy horse girl.” It’s the name that people sling at her when she talks about horses — the ones on the horse farm she was raised on, and her very own that she keeps at a barn nearby. Eeg was riding before she could even walk. As she grew up on the backs of horses, she noticed that her fellow riders were always girls, and while the boys would respect her for being able to handle a 1,500-pound animal, the interest would stop there. “Crazy horse boy” was never much of a thing.

“When I was little, I had guy friends that thought it was so cool that I rode, but were like, ‘I couldn’t be seen doing that,’ because if you’re a guy that rides, you’re seen as gay, maybe. And that [perception] is super problematic,” Eeg said.

Annie Furman ’19, who is the current captain of the Dartmouth Dressage Club, also observed this trend as she was growing up. 

“Historically in my experience, just being involved with horses since I was in third grade, is that there aren’t really that many men who seem to be involved at a more amateur level,” she said.

The prevalence of women in Eeg’s and Furman’s riding experiences extend beyond childhood. The Dartmouth Dressage Club, of which Eeg was also a part until an injury in 2016, is almost exclusively made up of women, despite it being formally co-educational. Beyond Dartmouth, we see similar patterns. In 2012, more than 90 percent of horse owners in the United States were women and in the United Kingdom, the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation reported that one in every nine people participating in equestrian sport is a man.

Horses have traditionally served as symbols of masculinity in their association with military conquest, agriculture and virility. Up until the early twentieth century, equestrian sports were dominated by men; while men actively rode horses, women — for the most part — were simply passengers on the animal, either riding sidesaddle (both feet over one side of the horse), often with the guidance of a man, or not at all. With the rise of the suffrage movement in the mid-1800s, riding astride (legs straddling the horse) became more acceptable. Another major push in women’s involvement came in 1952, when women were allowed to compete in the equestrian events at the Olympics (although it took 12 years before a woman actually represented her country in the games).  Since then, the equestrian world has seen a surge in women’s participation, and with it, a feminization of the sport. 

When asked why she thinks horses are more often associated with women, Eeg said that working with the animals requires a large degree of empathy and emotional intelligence, both of which are not conventionally valued as masculine characteristics.

“I would think some of it has to do with having to be empathetic and emotionally attuned to ride,” she said. “Which tons of men are awesome at, but riding is less about control” — a trait more traditionally paired with masculinity. 

Eeg tries to get out to Brookside Farm in Wilder, Vermont, where she keeps her horse as many times as possible each week. She graduated from Dartmouth this past spring and is sticking around as a special collections fellow at Rauner Library for the next year. When I watched Eeg work with her horse, an 8-year-old gray named Lumi, it wasn’t hard to see what she meant when it comes to being emotionally aware when riding. She rode Lumi around the ring — a large wooden building with a loosely packed dirt floor — guiding him around in circles and leading him into trots and canters. A lot of what horse training is about, she said, is reassuring the animal, letting it find comfort in the rider’s guidance, and being patient when the horse is figuring things out.

“I always want my horses to be relaxed so I like to start with stretching their heads down so I get on and they think, ‘Oh, I’m relaxed now because Jaime’s with me,’” she said.

On the horse’s part, lowering his head, which means coming into closer contact with the bit in his mouth, was also a learning curve.

“It’s not really natural for a horse to move towards pressure, and some of dressage [a specific form of riding that involves the horse and rider moving in a routine] is getting them to move away from some kinds of pressure and to other forms of pressure and so for him, the reins can also be stabilizing,” Eeg said. “He has learned that he can use the reins to stabilize, but a lot of it is teaching him that I will be gentle. I’m not going to yank on his mouth. And he can reach for the contact and I’ll be there to support him when he gets it. It’s a long process of guess and check.”

For both Furman and Eeg, there are positives in having so many women involved in the sport. Furman said that female equestrians role models make the sport more accessible. 

“It wouldn’t have negatively affected my experience if there were more men, but I think growing up, if you’re working with women who work with horses, you’re working with women who are really self-assured in themselves, who know what they’re doing,” Eeg said.

Pluses aside, the “crazy horse girl” comments do hit a nerve with Eeg.

“A huge amount of how I know who I am is through riding. Stuff like ‘Oh, crazy horse girl’... I brush it off, but it is offensive,” Eeg said. “It’s kind of dismissing something that has been very formative for me. Or making something negative when it’s really only ever been a positive in my life.”

Eeg, who served as the vice president of Ledyard Canoe Club her senior year, believes that her approach to leadership has stemmed from working with horses.

“I like to think that I am a good leader and that I’m good at making decisions on behalf of people, but only after taking into account what they want,” she said. “A lot of my empathy comes from working with horses, and that’s my favorite part of who I am, that I am empathetic.”

The Dartmouth varsity equestrian team is not co-educational. Historically, more women have been on the roster but the team officially became a women’s team in 2015. Some of this has to do with Title IX, which requires the gender-equitable distribution of resources and opportunities in all educational programs and activities funded by the federal government. In the same year, the Dartmouth women’s rugby team was also elevated to varsity status, thereby affording more women the opportunity to compete at a higher level.

Senior associate athletics director Kristene Kelly emphasized that the division of resources is made in proportion to the numbers and needs of each gender.

“You may have men’s and women’s lacrosse, and technically the name is the same, but the sport and the way they’re operated are totally different,” Kelly said. “The men need helmets, they need gloves, they have different types of needs. The women’s game doesn’t require that. If you look at our equipment budget, the men would probably have more and that’s only because their game requires more.”

Title IX compliance at Dartmouth has much to do with how the various fundraising accounts are managed. While most colleges maintain separate pools of money for each gender, Dartmouth’s athletic program fuses the accounts together, creating a fund that can be drawn on by both genders. The merging of accounts increases financial support for women’s teams, which generally bring in fewer donations. Kelly added that this way of distributing funds have created a heightened awareness of how resources might be utilized and divided most efficiently.

Outside of resource distribution, the world of athletics still runs into the issue of stereotypes that box both women — and altogether exclude those who fall outside the gender binary — into limited expressions of gender identity. The “crazy horse girl” trope is no exception; women may have shattered the glass ceiling in the arena, but only to find another waiting.