Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, March, 1866. Archive.org via WikiCommons.

“Women are already a bad cocktail unto themselves. Unchecked and untempered they’ll run feral and ruin the best of men, but you combine them with horses and John Freaking Wayne would have difficulty in taming them. I cannot pin it down, nor do I wish to expend the calories of energy to figure out why women have such a psychological attachment to horses, but they do.”

Aaron Clarey on MRA blog, Return of Kings.

Poor Aaron. A certain kind of man will forever be mystified by women, largely because he won’t listen to what they actually have to say. Nowhere is that clearer than in the centuries-old subgenre of Men Attempting To Explain Why Women Love Horses, which is busting with theories about phallic symbolism, misplaced maternal instinct and women basically being oversexed animals anyway. I wrote my first book, If Wishes Were Horses, about the history of the girl–pony bond, an experience that led to my dentist telling me that women had orgasms when riding and a guy standing up after a talk I’d given and mansplaining that it was all about sex anyway.
Now it seems more appropriate to flip the script and ask, why are men like Aaron Clarey so worried – even scared – by equestriennes? After some extensive research in the archives I boiled it down to four reasons:

Amalia Materna, the first Bayreuth Brünnhilde with Cocotte, the first Bayreuth Grane. Via WikiCommons.

Horses make women forget to act like ladies

The first horsewomen came from the Eurasian Steppes and ended up a few thousand years later lodged firmly in the imaginations of the Ancient Greeks. The Amazons were mounted warriors who wore trousers and wielded axes and bows; recent archaeological evidence suggests they had battle wounds to match. The Greeks were fascinated by these barbarians with their egalitarian communities and polyamorous inclinations, but they kept their own women away from horses. The Amazon became a template for a certain kind of horsey, unwomanly woman.
Skip a millennium forward and Byzantine chronicler Nicetas Choniates mentions a crusader army in Syria that included women led by a “Penthesileia” or Amazon queen “riding horseback in the manner of men, not on coverlets sidesaddle but unashamedly astride, and bearing lances and weapons as men do; dressed in masculine garb.” By this time, the patriarchy had started to have more developed ideas about women covering up their bodies and staying home. In the West, they’d even claimed trousers for men. Horses had become quintessential symbols of male power – essential in battle, for status and increasingly in farming and the economy – so when women got hold of horses and did anything other than sit sideways on them like they were benches, things got hairy. On horses, women could get about. They could travel. They were equals. They positively started to swagger. Across the centuries, the number of horses increased, as did the number of Amazons.
A British magazine called The Spectator carried an advertisement on the 16th September 1712 scolding a young horsewoman, who, on meeting a man on the road, “pulled off her hat, in which there was a Feather, with the Mein and Air of a young Officer, saying at the same Time, Your Servant, Mr Spec.” Worse, another Spectator writer recorded the horror of seeing a lady foxhunter who

“makes nothing of leaping over a six-bar gate. If a man tells a waggish story, she gives him a push with her hand in jest, and calls him an impudent dog; and, if her servant neglect his business, threatens to kick him out of the house; I have heard her in her wrath call a substantial tradesman a lousie cur.”


By 1775, Britain had its first female Master of Fox Hounds, the Marchioness of Salisbury, who swore, gambled, interfered in politics and rode all day. She carried on hunting into her seventies despite being blind – she employed a groom to tell her when a jump was coming up – and was only killed when the feathers in her hair were ignited by a candle and burned down a wing of her home. Lady Salisbury’s opponents showed her out hunting as the first Mistress of Fox Hounds, beetle-browed with stubble darkening her chin, her gray hair loose and straggling to her waist, her famous blue habit shredded to rags, a fox’s brush in one hand and a whip in the other. The horror.

Mrs. Esther Stace, from Yarrowitch, riding sidesaddle and clearing a record 6’6″ at the Sydney Royal Show. Walcha Historical Society, via WikiCommons.

Horses make women do risky things – which makes men look bad

English kingmaker Margaret Beaufort and French queen Catherine de Medici are credited with reworking the sidesaddle by the eighteenth century into something that enabled women to gallop and leap (Catherine had a broken hip to show for it). In Britain, the rise of foxhunting combined with the Enclosure Act and the new thoroughbred horse breed to transform hunting into a high-speed, high-risk sport over increasingly high fences. In the 1830s the sidesaddle got another overhaul, making it possible for women to tackle the huge hedges, ditches and gates of the English and Irish countryside. And so they did, putting a few male egos out of shape.
The comic writer R S Surtees opined that

“Pretty dears who would scream at the sight of a frog or a mouse, will face a bullfinch from which many men would turn away – indeed that is one of the palpable inconveniences of ladies hunting, for it is almost a point of honour for men to go over what the ladies have taken.”

Not only were the women increasingly enjoying themselves in a very male space, they were also showing the guys up. A little feminine guile was required to avoid being an utter harridan like the Marchioness.
One example of a lady who balanced femininity with outrageous dare-devil riding was Empress Alexandra of Austria, who took lessons from circus riders and could stand on the back of one horse while driving four more before her. In the Irish hunting field she “dearly love[d] a little bit of rivalry”, and once ignored her gentleman “pilot” to chase Irish horsewoman Nannie Power O’ Donoghue over a huge hedge with a drop on the other side (Nannie’s horse stumbled on landing, tossing off Nannie, who remounted without thinking and barely lost a beat). But each time the hunt stopped, the peerlessly bold “Sisi” was so delicately ladylike that she held a fan before her face to shield herself from the vulgar public gaze.
Men were beginning to cotton on though; liberating women on the hunting field led to liberated women off it. As a male character in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret put it when he was upbraided by the heroine:

“That’s the consequence of letting a girl follow the hounds. She learns to look at everything in life as she does at six feet of timber or a sunk fence; she goes through the world as she goes across country – straight ahead, and over everything.”

What might women do if they got the bit between their teeth? By 1867, F C Skey, one of the foremost experts on the newly defined female disease of “hysteria” had pinpointed his typical patient: “a female member of a family exhibiting more than usual force or decision of character, of strong resolution, fearless of danger, bold riders, having plenty of what is termed nerve.” Riding was considered good for the health, but too much riding – like too much “horseyness” – was a bad sign indeed.

Frenzy, by Wladyslaw Podkowinski, via Wikicommons

Horses make women sexy – in the wrong way

The dashing women in the hunting field were also a cause for concern because the sporting life exposed them to men who were not always gentlemen and to grooms and riding masters, who, in the process of legging them onto and off their horses, might lay hands on the ladies, causing elopement. This is exactly what happens in Aurora Floyd, the sequel to Lady Audley’s Secret, when the heroine marries a truculent jockey with long eyelashes, setting herself up for a life of blackmail. Sidesaddle wasn’t enough to hold back these out-of-control Amazons, and there appeared to be a danger that riding caused even more direct sexual stimulation in women. In the late nineteenth century a new movement of professional “sexologists” emerged to study just exactly what was going on in women’s brains, and they took their cues from Skey.
For Richard Krafft-Ebbing, the “female urning” or lesbian was easily diagnosed because she was drawn to horses, which represented male toys and soldiery rather than dolls and girliness. “The masculine soul, heaving in the female bosom, finds pleasure in the pursuit of manly sports, and in manifestations of courage and bravado,” he explained. His beautiful patient, Miss X, despite having “a large bust and the appearance of an exceptionally handsome woman,” refused the attentions of would-be suitors and was “strikingly mannish in her manners, had masculine tastes, loved gymnastics and horseback exercise, smoked, and had masculine carriage and gait.” Miss D in Havelock Ellis’ Studies in the Psychology of Sex told her doctor “before I could walk I begged to be put on horses’ backs”. Case solved.
As women and girls began to take over the Western horse world in the twentieth century, the psychoanalysts came out in force to explain what was really going on. Now it was decided that girls who wanted to win rosettes were simply acting out their repressed sexuality or displacing feelings that should rightly be focused on men. Anna Freud nailed it. It was all about penises:

“A little girl’s horse-craze betrays either her primitive autoerotic desires (if her enjoyment is confined to the rhythmic movement of the horse); or her identification with the care-taking mother (if she enjoys above all looking after the horse, grooming it, etc.); or her penis envy (if she identifies with the big, powerful animals and treats it as an addition to her body); or her phallic sublimations (if it is her ambition to master the horse, to perform on it etc.)”


Of course, whatever the girls actually said they liked about riding was irrelevant because what did they know anyway? Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim fretted,

“Imagine what it would do to a girl’s enjoyment of riding, to her self-respect, if she were made conscious of this desire which she is acting out in riding. She would be devastated – robbed of a harmless and enjoyable sublimation, and reduced in her own eyes to a bad person. At the same time, she would be hard-pressed to find an equally suitable outlet for such inner pressures, and therefore might not be able to master them.”

Mercy.
To play the psychoanalysts at their own game, one can’t help noticing a certain underlying male anxiety, best on display when you tell a man you like horse riding and he starts nervously talking about Catherine the Great, horse penis size or “mounting”. Literature’s best example is the American heiress Lou Carrington, created by D H Lawrence in St Mawr, who says she’d rather give up her husband than castrate her horse, for “I’ll preserve one last male thing in the museum of this world, if I can.” If women disappear into the sunset on a virile stallion, where does that leave the men? Which leads me to my final fear factor.

Lawyer Inez Boissevain, wearing white cape, seated on white horse at the National American Woman Suffrage Association parade, March 3, 1913, Washington, D.C. Via WikiCommons.

Women who like horses might forget about men

The archetype of the equestrian female who, for some unfathomable reason, doesn’t give a damn about whether men find her hot or not became a familiar one over which men fretted well into the twentieth century and beyond – as Aaron Clarey demonstrates. The obsessive horsewoman raises the spectre that men might not, after all, be the fiery star about which women orbit. No wonder threateningly “horsey” women were monitored for signs of indifference to marriage.
In 1956, when British champion showjumper Pat Smythe scored the first Olympic showjumping medal ever held by a woman, sports journalist Hylton Cleaver asked:

“Will Pat Smythe ever marry? A great many people would like to marry her. She has given no sign of becoming horse-faced, heavy-handed or hard-hearted. She has set an example the other girls … have followed. They have each preserved the charm they started with; most of them like music, and all of them dance.”

Well, thank goodness for that. (Smythe had already shelved one boyfriend who tried to make her choose between marriage and her career.)
Commentators are subtler now, but not much. British three-time Olympic dressage gold medallist Charlotte Dujardin had to explain why she hadn’t yet married the boyfriend who proposed to her at the 2016 Olympics.
The worst offenders are older women who frankly no longer care what you think and who happen to dominate the US equestrian industry. In 2011, the American Horse Council Foundation estimated that 75 percent of the 9.2 million horses in the USA were owned by women over forty. Aaron Clary was tapping into a zeitgeist of a sort when he went on to complain about his mother, who “has supplanted her children, her husband, and her family with 4 dumb beasts of burden. … She has sacrificed human interaction and financial stability with eating-pooping-riding animules.”

So there you have it. Women who love horses are mannish, hysterical, lesbian, oversexed, insufficiently interested in men and children, hard-faced, unstable, career-obsessed and, goddamnit, spending all their money on the thing they care most about in the world. Small wonder they make the patriarchy antsy.

Published by Susanna Forrest

Author of The Age of the Horse: an Equine Journey Through Human History and If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of Equine Obsession.

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5 Comments

  1. Too true! These days the sequence goes: Mom takes the kids for riding lessons. Mom decides she is going to take riding lessons. Mom decides she needs a horse of her own. Mom gets divorced, keeps the kids and the horse(s).

  2. What a wonderful read! I found a new ‘best/beautiful word’: equestriennes! It says it all! <3

    Interestingly, men (the kind of men in this article, not all men!) state that what women do or want to do is "unwomanly" …. How can we ever be something else than ourselves….?

    That's the point that these men (not all men!) don't get. We ARE all that, and more! Most of these men haven't even scraped the surface of our power and beauty. We are the most beautiful if we are standing in our power and do what we want to do. I am so impressed and inspired by all the women who had the courage!

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