“I would say: if I could have chosen, I would have wanted to be born a horse. But – who knows – maybe the horse itself doesn’t feel the great symbol of the free life that we feel in it. Should I then conclude that the horse was mainly to be felt by me? Does the horse represent the beautiful and loose animality of the human being? The best of the horse the human being already has? So I give up being a horse and with glory I step into my humanity. The horse tells me what I am.”
Clarice Lispector, Dry Study of Horses

Clarice Lispector, Seco Estudo de Cavalos

To start thinking about “the female equestrian world”, perhaps the best starting point is a simple historical fact: girls and women, as members of different societies and cultures, have always participated in this unique human-animal relationship. We emphasize here that we must take into account that the horse and the human being really evolved together – it refers, in the literature, to a true co-evolution of the species. In understanding this, another fact that is sometimes ignored is clear: in most agrarian societies, women and men participated together in activities that depended on traction and transport provided by these animals. And it is evident that, throughout history, entire communities depended on these animals to move around – even more when it came to migrating or moving through extensive territories –, there would be no reason to think of equestrian cultures as being of “one or the other gender”.  

However, the story that reaches us still usually emphasizes romantic notions that erase female equestrian participation, glorifying the “leadership” action of men riding horses – and that materialize, for example, in the statues of the great capitals of the world, of soldiers or other “heroes of the country” well accommodated in their faithful and majestic horses. So, not only the everyday is eclipsed. – sometimes much more heroic – of labor by human and equine workers who have sustained life over time and in different regions of the world; the history of women on horseback is also hidden.  

For all theses reasons we need to question the notions of common sense that identify equestrian cultures as “initially masculine” (as if only in recent times, in today’s society of sport and leisure, women “began to conquer more this space”) and complexify our views, both past and present. Thus, although the archaeological record reveals the presence of ancient Amazons in warfare practices, and the history of the American Old West reveals the presence of cowgirls in the handling of cattle, we would need more historical research to dispel the doubt: in fact, were there so few real women behind the legends, those who come to us with names like the French Joana D’Arc, the Brazilians Anita Garibaldi and Maria Bonita or the Americans Belle Star and Annie Oakley?

In a way, it is our own modernity that promotes notions that sometimes overshadow history. It is, therefore, the emergence in the eighteenth and, mainly, nineteenth centuries, of a culture that strongly domesticated women themselves – of restrictive speeches and practices from the bourgeois era that promoted the cult peculiar to the “angel in the house”. The latter imposed on women of the elites a particular etiquette, a body and a way of being obedient, as well as a role that kept them away from work “outside the home” and also, of course, from politics (the world of decisions about life and public resources). And it was also for this reason that many women felt the need to rebel against the rules of restriction, to claim space in the public sphere (for example, the right to vote) and to act against the containment of female bodies. Thus, it is not surprising that they also fought for the right to sports practices, among which, horseback riding (which included the struggle to sweep away that restriction that many places forced women of the elites to ride à la amazone, that is, with both legs on the same side.)

Perhaps now you will be able to begin to understand why I do not like the speech that has become common today, about a supposed “natural connection” between women and horses. My position in this regard is skeptical, and not only because any discourse that highlights many male and female “different dispositions” makes me suspicious, or because the lines often come with futile claims about “the beauty of women on horseback”. This is why, but also because, observing a wide variety of diverse and empirical realities, we see men and women, girls and boys, being linked in a vibrant and affective way to their “equine partners”, a remarkable phenomenon that has the capacity to take us beyond any stereotype.

That said, I have no doubt that, historically speaking, women have found riding a sport that reconnects them to ancient equestrian skills, and that perhaps this brief period that we occasionally know by the term “Victorian” tried to suppress. In this sense, riding a horse and participating in the world of equestrian sports proved to be a fertile field to claim freedom of action and movement, according to the wishes of that time, for many women (just remember the history of the American suffragettes Inez Milholland and Claiborn Catlin Elliman, and their horse crusades wielding the flag of women’s rights in the first decades of the twentieth century) – and decades later, still marked by the legacy of restriction.

Certainly, the current equestrian cultures in our consumer and leisure societies have opened up space for female sports practices with enormous visibility – and women, as individual and collective subjects, have been opening the doors of many environments that were totally or partially closed. So, today, in many parts of the world, women are the majority in both equestrian sports practice and in the daily work with horses. This in its turn is part of the set of characteristics of the emerging reflective cultures of the horse, that is, new provisions to rethink traditional practices in the light of concepts and assumptions that the current world facilitates – for example, issues of animal welfare or methods of taming and working with horses throughout life.

In Brazil, a country with the fifth largest herd of horses in the world, an extraordinary popular equestrian culture stands out. We can, for example, observe how young boys and girls from rural and semi-rural communities find identity, sociability, affection, achievement and vital challenges in this horse world. For many young people, girls and boys, the horse is one of the relationships that gives the most meaning to their lives, an emotional and social bond that really stands out. Horseback rides that mobilize entire communities, also attracting the participation of people who live in nearby cities, are another great example of the agglutinating power of Brazilian equestrian cultures today.

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On the other hand, there are many challenges for today’s Brazilian equestrian world. There is apparently little work space in the sector for girls and women, and in general, few opportunities for professionalization, at the technical level, for any young person (unlike other countries, such as France, where specialized secondary education is offered for entry in the equine-equestrian sector). The option of entering a higher education course that allows you to specialize in horses, which offers some possibilities (such as zootechnics or veterinary medicine, for example) it may not be viable for young people coming from families with limited resources or with difficult access to public universities that, let us say, in recent decades have been improving in the sense of opening new courses and campuses in places further away from the big capitals.

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However, popular knowledge about horses – that which today is transmitted not only from grandfather or father to son, but also, increasingly, from father to daughter, or from mother to son and daughter – coexists dynamically with the new forms of professional knowledge. New proposals appear every day on how to facilitate the contribution of the horse, and the people who love it, to an excessively urbanized world and sometimes very depredating of our different natures.Good time, then, to return to the above-quoted words of Clarice, to inspire and allow the horse to help us discover “what is in the best of us” – and then flourish sensitivity, reciprocity, freedom, respect.

Images:  Miriam Adelman is a professor in the Graduate Program in Sociology and the Graduate Program in Letters at UFPR. Writer, poet, photographer and translator, she maintains, among others, a blog specifically on Equestrian Cultures: mulheresecavalosempb.blogspot.com