In the End, We’re All Just a Bunch of Nags

Equine sport is often lauded as one of the forerunners for gender equality, with the FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale) highlighting male and female competitors competing on equal terms as part of its #TwoHearts campaign.

Looking at the data from the recent Rio Olympics, human competitors across all three disciplines were a fairly even mix of male and female: 61.5% were male and 38.5% were female. For equines, however, there is a starkly different story. Do women and mares have more in common than we think?

Horse sport’s image of equality and unity is, foremost, a product of the immense level of teamwork between horse and rider, hence the FEI’s campaign for a higher social media presence throughout the recent Olympics being headed by the hashtag #TwoHearts. So, let’s focus on the equine half of the team. Overall, through all of the Olympic Equestrian events, 81.5% of the horses were geldings or stallions. Mares are well known to be less popular than male horses, but why such a massive preference?

When t-shirts and hoodies with the slogan “moody mare” are commonly available on Amazon and at most large shows, and adverts for mares for sale often promote the attribute “not mareish”, we begin to get a glimpse of why mares might be avoided. What is it inherent in being a mare which makes them so undesirable? Due to the heightened hormonal changes in mares which come about from their fertility, they are seen as less biddable, more stroppy, and unpredictable. And, because of these assumed attributes, they are also generally seen as less reliable athletes. Sound familiar?

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A well-used adage in riding is that you can tell a gelding, but have to ask a mare. In my experience, males are just as likely as females to object to an instruction – human or equine. But, of course, it’s expected of females because they menstruate. How many of us, when angry at something perfectly legitimate, have been brushed aside with a flippant remark along the lines of “Wow, it’s someone’s time of the month, is it?” Just like human women, mares are assumed to be hysterically hormonal and unmanageable. This way of thinking entirely writes off the hours and hours of training put in by both horse and rider and reduces them to mere brood mares. What does it say about us, when we clearly have an inability to see past mares’ reproductive functions?

Jonelle & Classic Moët
Jonelle & Classic Moët

Despite this, at the Rio Olympics, around 10% more riders rode a mare in showjumping or eventing than in dressage, supporting another saying: “a good mare will bust a gut for you.” Riders like Jonelle Price, Sam Griffiths, and John Whittaker are at the top of their games riding mares. Jonelle and Classic Moët are widely regarded in this moment as the best cross country combination in the world. Possibly the best example of a gutsy mare is Little Tiger, one of the smallest horses ever to compete at four star level eventing. Yet, in my opinion, it isn’t that it takes a “good mare” to bust a gut for you; it’s an equine partner with whom you have a strong connection and partnership, regardless of sex. The top combinations are the ones that click, and work in harmony regardless of sex of horse or rider. Take Olympic Dressage champions Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro for example – one of the world’s most harmonious and successful combinations, consisting of a woman and a gelding. Or, perhaps, Scott Brash, former world number one showjumper – his stable consists of eight horses, three mares and five geldings, and each are phenomenally successful in their own rights. I’m sure neither riders give a bother about the sexes of the horses they ride.

The top prizes go to the top combinations. It’s time we took every horse on their individual potential and personality, regardless of sex. Again… sound familiar?

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