Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Women and their Love of Horses

by Linda Benson

Picking up on the post "Smitten" by Francesca Prescott, 7/4/2010, which touched a chord in many of you, I'd like to expand a bit on the research project I did in my senior year of college - a social research project called A Passion for Horses: American Women and their Love Affair with the Horse. I dropped out of college at age 20, went back at age 48 to finish, and finally graduated at age 52. So this research was done after many decades of being a horsewoman myself, and I have always been fascinated by what it is that draws women and girls to horses.

My research consisted of interviewing women from ages 12 to 66, all who described themselves as horse-crazy. I asked them all a series of questions, from when they first became interested in horses - to what it was about the connection with horses that so appealed to them, and lots more.

One hundred years ago, women were expected to wear long skirts and ride side saddle.

I originally had thought that perhaps media influences (the Westerns on television in the 1950's and 60's) or more recent books and movies celebrating horses (The Black Stallion series, etc.) had shed some influence.

But the most common thread I found through all these varying ages of horse women was that they had loved horses for "as long as they could remember" or that they thought "they were born with" their love for horses. Interesting, huh?

Cultural factors have definitely made our ability to own and love horses more easily obtainable today. Note the picture above. Up until about the 1930's, it was unseemly for a woman to be seen mounted astride in trousers. A 1912 book called Riding and Driving for Women stated "the whole idea of women riding astride was an outrage . . . women's thighs were too round and too weak to grip riding that way." And from a medical manual from the same era "riding is dangerous to female anatomy: it produces and unnatural consolidation of the bones of the lower body, ensuring a frightful impediment to future functions which need not here be dwelt upon."

Still, horse lovers have survived. As attitudes towards women were redefined in the 1940's and beyond, the horse's role in society also changed - from primarily a work animal to a recreational one. And conditions were ripe for a woman's love of horses to finally take flight, and finally enjoy the sport of riding in all its glory.

Most all of the women in my study agreed that there had been some older member of the family (if not a parent, maybe a grandparent, aunt, or someone) who first introduced them to horses.

And the other thing they all agreed upon was that it is not just the sport of riding that appealed to them. It is the whole connection with the horse, the bonding with their animal, taking care of the horse, just being around them in general. Horses were described as stress relievers, therapy, companions, and just beautiful to look at. All of these things were important to the love of horses discussed by the subjects in my research.

How about you? What things are important to you in your love of horses? Riding, or what else? Do you think you were born with these feelings? Can you remember anyone of a past generation that might have passed this love down to you?


Anonymous said...

My parents had no interest in or knowledge of horses. My love of them might have been aided by the fact that from the time I was a baby until I was 12 we lived next door to a (terrible in hindsight) livery stable and across the road from a field of horses and ponies. My earliest - and most - of my good childhood memories involve horses.

Now it may be inborn, too - I was pregnant with my older daughter when I had the chance to go visit Secretariat at Claiborne Farms. They didn't really do tours, but took us to see him. The groom brought him out of the paddock and let us stand next to him and touch him on the shoulder - he was real gentleman. My daughter claims her fate was decided!

Anonymous said...

Hey Linda: Loved the post! And congratulations on finishing your degree, what an inspiration you are to women!

My parents are convinced I was born loving horses. My dad was a dairy farmer and his favorite thing to say was "Horses! Why in the world do you want a horse? There's no money in horses!!" At the other end I couldn't understand why someone wouldn't want a horse!!! I read all the classics, Black Beauty, Black Stallion, Walter Farley, Misty, Flicka, and on and on.

My grandfather was the one who eventually brought a pony home. Poor thing had turned up toes and was a wreck. But we got him cleaned up and trimmed and going again, and that little pony put up with all the grandkids taking a ride or two. He also got most of us off too, and he wouldn't trot unless you hauled him out the driveway and put a couple of handfuls of grain by the barn. Then "maybe" he would trot back. Typical pony.

I had a couple of horses growing up and they were my freedom, my best friends and my sanity. I sold my horse to buy a wedding dress and never got one back until after the first two kids were born. Now I have three kiddos and two horses and a pony. And I love them all!! I will probably have a horse even if the day comes when I can no longer ride. There is just something about them. They are my therapy and my freedom still. The world looks so much different from the back of a horse.

I didn't find out until after my first child was born that my birth mother was a rider. She rode the day before I was born. I rode until I was 8 months pregnant with my daughter. She even went to a dressage show with me and rode "in utero" training tests A and B.

Sorry this is long way of saying I think you either have the "horse bug" or you don't. Why else would we spend so much time and money on these magnificent animals!!!

Linda Benson said...

Wow, those are fascinating stories.

Kate, you actually touched Secretariat? That's something to cherish right there - and your daughter is a horsewoman, too, I take it? Will you be in line to see the new movie about Secretariat? I know I will.

Mommyrides - Yes, horses have always signified freedom for me, too. A way to get outside, away from everything that bothers me. Stress reduction. There's just something about them that touches our soul.

Francesca Prescott said...

Linda, how brave of you to go back to college at 48! Congratulations!

I'm glad you wrote about the research for your thesis, I was very intrigued when you mentioned it in your comment after my "Smitten" post. I'd actually like to take a look at the 1912 book, "Riding and Driving for Women", just out of curiosity!

C in WI said...

As a child, I didn't want to play with dolls at all (much to my parents' dismay). I watched horses on TV, and even tried to turn my patient dog into a horse (complete with string bridle and tied to the piano bench!). I drew horses, colored horses, and played with plastic horses anywhere I could. I rode my springing horse until I got too big to ride him. Finally at age 8 my parents bought a pony and I've been a pony girl ever since.

Several horses came along after the pony, until I left for college and had to sell them. Got married, had two kids, and finally got back into horses in my early 40's. It's just THERE. I truly believe I was born with the genes (I was adopted, and later found birth parents who did indeed have horses in their lives).

I will own horses and love them until I physically can't have them any more. And that will be a very sad day in my life when that happens.

Leslie said...

Linda, I'm one of those "girls" who loved horses all her life. I never actually lived the "horse life" until six years ago when I bought my two Spotted Saddle Horses/TW. I'm now 49 and living my horse life I'd always dreamed about.

I'm not sure where the love and adoration for horses comes from. Growing up,none of my friends ever had the same feeling for horses. I remember as a kid, my mind was always on horses, even though I didn't have the privilege of having one or daily access to one.

I found out many years later that my grandpa had been a horse trainer in the 1920's. My mom has told me she didn't know much about her dad's life at that time since he wasn't working with horses when she came along in 1934. He trained some farm horses, and some harness horses on the Ohio/Indiana circuit which was popular at the time.

The only thing I remember with Grandpa was when he took me to a stock yard. I was only 4-5 years old and had no idea what a stock yard was, I just remember being happy seeing all the horses. I remember Grandpa setting me up on a fence to see them.

In about fourth grade,I did a science fair project on the anatomy of a horse using my Johnny West Thunderbolt horse. If you remember Johnny and Jane West toys from the early 70's. I had Thunderbolt, and Jane's horse Flame. Anyway, I remember getting teased a bit for doing that project, but I didn't care.

To this day, when I look at my horses, I feel a connection. I couldn't tell you the exact reason. I haven't even rode my guys enough lately to say it was riding. Most days, it's just being with them. I mean I love our dogs and cat too, but my horses have a special place in my heart that has always been there waiting to be filled. I finally filled it! I feel complete!

Alison said...

I think your post hit a lot of us horse-crazy ladies, those who can't give it up even though we're 'old.' (Yeah, I'm just speaking about me.)

Linda Benson said...

C in Wi and Leslie - I'm glad you finally are living your dream.

I, too, was one of those girls that never played with dolls. For me, it was always those toy stables with fences and barns and plastic horses that I would arrange in endless variations. *sigh* I'm still doing the same thing now that I'm grown up.

And I'd rather clean stalls than fix dinner. Nice to know there are plenty others with this strange gene we all seem to have, huh?