What's With The Gender Gap?

Jun 19, 2008 - 10:00 PM

Our columnist wishes to see more boys in the clinics she teaches and in the shows she attends.

As I followed the action at this year’s FEI World Cup Show Jumping Finals last April in real time via the Internet, I was struck with the interesting statistics of men versus women riders in our country. This thought prompted me to do a little more checking of different lists and reinforced a worry that I’ve had for some time.

The facts are that, at the time of writing this article in mid-May, of the top 15 on the U.S. Equestrian Federation Computer Ranking List, 10 were men and five women. Of course, having the incredibly talented and consistent Beezie Madden heading the list should count for more on the women’s side!

Nevertheless, of the 10 riders who traveled to Sweden to represent us at the World Cup Final, six were men; and the two to finish in the top 10 overall (second and seventh) were Rich Fellers and Peter Wylde.

Apart from our own continent, international show jumping has always been strongly dominated, at least in terms of numbers, by males. I know I’m not the only female out there who is extremely proud of the incredible accomplishments of Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, Beezie Madden and Jessica Kürten who have posted some of the most important victories in our sport of late.

The fact that for the very first time the current Rolex World Ranking List has two women in the No. 1 and No. 2 spots—Meredith and Jessica—is especially rewarding given that of the 50 highest-ranked riders in the world only 11 are women. Three of those 11 are from the United States—Beezie, Laura Kraut and Lauren Hough.

So what’s my point? One of the best things about our sport is that it doesn’t favor one gender over the other even at its highest levels. The “fit” between horse and rider is far more important than physical strength. No rider is successful for long without a special feeling for the horses(s) he rides; yet the sport is certainly not for sissies since the odd “wreck” is an integral part of competing.

So why is it that we see so few boys taking an interest in the sport in our country today—while so many of those who have ascended to our highest levels are male?

Over the years I’ve traveled quite extensively in conjunction with the sport.

Part of it is sort of a vicious circle I believe. Many younger boys are most interested in doing what other boys do when it comes to sports. Plus, since there’s a learning curve to our sport, they’re likely to be “beaten” by a lot of girls on the road to success.

Another factor is where the emphasis is placed with young riders in our country versus other countries. Generally, kids abroad are encouraged to be kids and have fun with their riding when they first start out. Watching kids jumping around over big courses on every size pony in Ireland points out the difference in approach.  Those kids are well versed in the skill of determination and effective riding long before anyone drills them on where their leg is supposed to be, or worries that their coat doesn’t fit quite right.

As the kids get older and have bigger ambitions they get help to polish the rough edges so that they can continue to advance. By then the advantages of better riding show up in better and more consistent results.

Our own culture tends to prefer to apply the polish first and hope that either the seat-of-the-pants skills will never be needed or that the rider will somehow learn them later. I think many boys are put off of riding because they don’t see the importance of this type of approach and they don’t feel challenged early on.
Many of us hoped that the pony jumpers would help bring more boys into the sport by offering an alternative to the perfection of the hunter arena. It’s working to some extent, although slowly.

At the moment it seems the largest number of boys we see in our particular sport are the children of professional horsemen. This is certainly a great entrée into the sport—assuring a broad education from an early age—but shouldn’t we have a few more young men than just those that happen to have the genetic link?

This disproportionate ratio of boys to girls is not new for us—though I see the gap widening, despite the presence of some exceptional young male riders. Given that relatively few young men start out in the sport here, how is it that we have such an even gender split (if not a majority of males) in our international ranks?

Perhaps it’s that so many of the girls who take up riding as pre-teens go on to other things in high school or beyond. Perhaps the increasing difficulty and need for enhanced dedication to reach a serious level beyond the juniors discourages other young women. But these factors should impact on boys as well as girls I would think.

Perhaps it’s that the boys who do take up jumping have an especially deep passion for the sport along with the ability to handle tough circumstances and persevere. Making the decision to start, and then stick with it, is more of a leap in itself for a boy than for a girl.  That sort of determination is essential to anyone with upper level aspirations, and perhaps getting started as a youngster for our boys is a bit of a prescreening process.

Whether it’s horses or riders, it’s a sure bet that of those that start out with great potential far more will fall by the wayside than will register success at the most elite levels. For this reason having a big pool of talent to begin with is the surest way to assure our nation’s continued success on the international stage.
We have an exceptional group of high performance riders—of both genders—right now. The important thing is to be sure there’s a steady supply of top horsemen and horsewomen coming behind them. 

Linda L. Allen

Noted international course designer Linda Allen created the show jumping courses for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the 1992 FEI World Cup Finals. She’s a licensed judge, technical delegate and a former international show jumper. She lives in Laredo, Texas, and founded the International Jumper Futurity and the Young Jumper Championships. Allen began writing Between Rounds columns in 2001. 

Category: Columns

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