Inclusion of many body types is important to making equestrian sports a better, more diverse arena for people and horses to thrive.
That was one of the main themes of “Body Image & Belonging in the Hunter/Jumper World,” a Sept. 26 webinar hosted by the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association’s Diversity, Inclusion and Advocacy Committee.
Panelists included Jim Hagman, founder and head trainer of Elvenstar; USEF ‘R’ judge and USHJA board member Sissy Wickes; amateur rider and psychiatric nurse practitioner Maya Schneider; and registered dietician and amateur rider Natalie Gavi.
Much of the conversation focused on the important role adults play in the examples they set and language they use to frame body-image discussions around fitness rather than thinness.
Focus On Functionality
“Your body is an instrument, not an ornament,” Gavi, who specializes in sports nutrition for equestrians, often reminds her clients. How a rider functions on a horse is more important than how they look in the saddle, she said, and people can help underscore that by thinking about the language they use to describe other riders.
“Look how light the rider is in their seat, with their hands, look how effective,” she said, by way of example. “That gets more across and is impactful for the rider. It goes so much further, and really, shifting that language towards functionality and away from appearance can be helpful.”
“There is no one look to fitness,” and riders are not meant to look a certain way, she added. “It’s all about how we interact with the horse.”
Schneider agreed that reframing the conversation and the language around it is important to promoting health—and to remember that health is more than a physical state.
“A lot of people equate health and thinness, and that is a false equivalency,” she said. “We have to think about health globally, and that includes mental health as well as physical health. What matters is that we are strong and in good cardiovascular health to ride horses.”
Setting good examples for younger people is important outside the barn as well, Gavi added, particularly in the language adults use about bodies and weight.
“I’ll often have the parents of the younger riders I work with look into their own relationships with their bodies and address that, because we don’t realize that kids will pick up on the way we speak about ourselves, so it’s important to foster self-compassion. Having parents work on their own body images gives a good example for children to step into.”
Hagman, who is known for his work with junior riders, echoed much of the same from a trainer’s perspective, with an emphasis on kindness—to others and to oneself:
“Children want to learn and love and have a passion for the horses. You foster that environment. You foster the supportive, loving environment from when they’re on the leadline,” he said, noting later that doing so means being conscious not just of one-on-one interactions with young riders, but of comments made in passing at the in-gate. “When someone makes a negative comment, it vibrates, and people overhear it,” he said. “Parents and trainers have to be positive examples.”
He also wants riders to focus on what they can be, rather than what they can’t; not let comparing themselves to others steal their love of the horses and the sport.
“Our obligation is to do our best by each [student] to help them grow and be the best rider they can be. It’s not about what couldn’t be; it’s about what can be,” he said, adding for emphasis, “I can’t be 6-foot and 37 years old, but we can emphasize what can be.”
Find Your Happy Place
Wickes pointed out that body image issues may come from larger societal pressures, but that “we would be kidding ourselves to think the mantle of being perfect doesn’t land smack in the middle of our sport, because it does.”
Rider fitness matters, she said—and so does finding the right horse and the right ring to compete in.
“People always ask me about equitation, does the thinnest girl win? Of course not,” she said. “But that’s a discipline that might not be for everybody. If you are worried about whether you fit in that class, there’s plenty of other things to do. If you feel like you’re not competitive because of the body or height God gave you, then do something different and feel good about what you do. You don’t have to be siphoned into something that may be a negative experience.”
Webinar host Hadley Zeavin asked Wickes to expand on her comments: “What you didn’t mean was that riders who vary from the traditional eq body can’t be successful in the eq ring, because we’ve seen a lot of riders of varied body types be very successful in eq. Can you expand on what you meant there?”
Wickes said she did not mean to discourage anyone from doing equitation, but rather meant to encourage people to feel free to pursue whatever type of riding gives them the most satisfaction.
“If someone is struggling in equitation and not enjoying it, they need to remember that it’s not required,” she said. “It’s not part of the curriculum. If you’re walking out of the ring and you’re discouraged and feel it’s taking away from your experience as a rider, maybe you’ll have a better time in another ring. There are options for everyone.”
Wickes said she thinks what matters the most is that people are well-matched to their horse and come to the ring wearing clean, tidy show attire they feel comfortable in, and that they enjoy the sport in the way that makes them happiest and allows them to truly appreciate horses.
A sport that focuses on those things welcomes all comers who simply share a passion for horses.
“Diversity isn’t about what color you are, diversity is about all the different categories and this is one of the different categories. Inclusion has got to stay at the forefront of our minds in this sport,” Wickes said.
“We are trying to change the culture of our sport one day at a time,” she continued. “It’s on everybody’s shoulders to make this sport welcoming and to radiate that throughout whatever your group is. It’s the future, and we’re there.”