Wilhelmina Smith, our first female jockey, rode in the early 1900’s, but she rode – and lived her entire life – as a man, Bill Smith so that she could ride in races. In the early 1970’s, women were allowed to ride in restricted races at smaller racetracks, which were known patronisingly as ‘Powder Puff Derbies.’ Horse racing has been dominated by men for longer than any other horse sport. It was as recently as 1979 that the first official licenses were awarded to female jockeys in Australia.
Slowly, women have fought their way up from there, now making up 48% of jockey apprentices in Australia. But while these numbers are a great sign, they don’t reflect the discrimination women still face in the industry. Limited opportunities, casual sexist comments, discouragement from some male peers and trainers, dealing with sleaze and deeply ingrained ideas about ‘female riders,’ still makes it a tougher road for an aspiring female jockey than it needs to be.
This is why Michelle Payne’s Melbourne Cup success a few years ago, is so phenomenal. But, like so much of the success of women, it is accompanied by the traditional sexism in the industry and wider society. I read an article with a headline declaring that Michelle ‘opens up’ about her love life and being a ‘girly’ girl. The article skimmed over her achievement and instead chose to focus on her lack of romantic partner, and then highlight a quote about her being embarrassed to hold the cup up because she hadn’t had a manicure. The media still gets side-tracked when dealing with serious female athletes. Women must be somehow connected to men to be of interest. If I had won the Cup I would be thrusting my hands that will almost certainly never wear an engagement ring high into the air, adding a big ‘get stuffed’ to anyone who cared to mention it.
The reaction to Michelle’s own ‘get stuffed’ comment by triple Cup winning jockey Glen Boss was also quite telling. Upon winning the Cup, Michelle said, ‘I know some of the owners were keen to kick me off, and John Richards and Darren stuck strongly with me, and I put in all the effort I could and galloped him all I could because I thought he had what it takes to win the Melbourne Cup. I want to say to everyone else, get stuffed, because they think women aren’t strong enough but we just beat the world.’
I saw Michelle’s comment as an overflow of the years of bullshit she would have had to deal with just to make it in racing. I saw her comment as an overflow of the years of bullshit she would have had to deal with just to make it in racing. Yet, Glen couldn’t just sit back and let her have her moment, a time when surely her voice should be heard. I would assume Michelle knows what it is like to be a woman in the industry better than anyone, including Glen Boss. She wasn’t hysterically mouthing off; her comment was calm and rational. She knows. Very briefly, I rode track work for the same trainer Michelle rode for, and I remember the comments made by some male jockeys and track riders about her. Sexist, derogatory comments that had no bearing to her actual, exemplary riding ability. I remember those comments, and I wonder what comments were being made about me, simply because I was a woman. I know what it’s like because I was there.
My disappointment in the media and in men, is assuaged slightly by reminding myself of the deeper reasons behind my love of horse riding and why I feel drawn to it – as a woman in particular. It is not, as Freud would argue, a manifestation of penis envy with the horse a massive phallic symbol for the young girl desirous of a penis of her own. I don’t believe myself to be tenuously and subconsciously linking the horse to male genitalia. Only a man could think of comparing the penis to something as majestic and powerful as the horse! No, the desire to ride comes instead from what a woman discovers when she first throws her leg over a horse. Germaine Greer puts it beautifully in The Female Eunuch: ‘What a young rider feels is not that the horse is a projection of her own physical ego, but that it is an other responding to her control. What she feels is potent love calling forth a response.’
This control and connection to the ‘other’ is what makes horse riding so beautiful. A horse responds to you in a way nothing else does. A horse mirrors you. It doesn’t take away from the effort you pour in, but lets that energy flow back. This teaches you to have a calm, yet purposeful energy, to create a calm and motivated horse. There is an authenticity to this partnership that is difficult to recreate between the genders with all the existing inequalities. Society responds to women in often biased and reactionary ways, and this is why it is a relief for a woman to feel the equality of communication between herself and her horse. There is also the unique opportunity to feel something truly powerful responding exquisitely to the smallest and most subtle cues from your body. Germaine Greer goes on to explain, ‘For many young girls who are beginning to get a picture of the female role, horse-riding is the only opportunity they will have to use their strong thighs to embrace, to excite, and to control.’
Horse-riding is the only opportunity. It is hard to think of another activity that offers the same sense of authority that horse riding does, without the added sexual element of say, being a dominatrix and using your strong thighs in a sexual way to excite and control. Horse riding is not sexual, but it is deeply primal. It is a rare thing that gives a woman this kind of deep satisfaction and power, without reliance on her sexuality. The body awareness required to be a good rider is intense. When you do master your body, keeping it strong and tall, yet allowing a softness to flow through your hands, seat and legs to connect with the horse, and the horse responds by lifting its back underneath you with a softness that doesn’t detract from the power of the movement, but simply lightens the feel of it, it’s magic. Beyond words.
So, it’s no surprise women have been drawn to equestrian sports of all kinds for years. As a part time riding instructor, I can confirm that riding schools are overrun with keen-eyed girls, and boys are still the minority. There is an element of socialisation in this, for sure, with shows like The Saddle Club and My Little Pony convincing girls and boys that riding is a female domain, but I feel that the reason they are so popular for girls is that they speak to a deep and unconscious frustration, a longing for both the freedom and control that riding offers. These horse sports also offer the rare opportunity for women to compete with men on the same field. Not only that, but horse racing aside, women have been just as successful as their male counterparts. In Gender and Equestrian Sport: Riding around the world, Miriam Adelman and Jorge Knijnik explain: ‘Neither men nor women are physiologically advantaged in Equestrian sport as it is always going to be the horse who is the fitter, stronger partner and it is consequently through a combination of training, skill, precision, balance and “feel” that horses are guided, and these are attributes with no gender connotations.’
Feel is paramount to a good horse and rider combination. The best rider gets a feel of their horse, and knows what to do to utilise its power. In a world dominated by men, perhaps women are practised at ‘feeling’ their way around the many road blocks that are thrown our way. Growing up in a society where the generally superior strength of men is made all too clear to us, has perhaps given women a heightened awareness of the moods of others, and a talent for soothing volatile situations. It is a survival technique. This is a handy talent when dealing with an animal as strong and instinctive as the horse. Horses respond well to a calm and light touch, to someone who understands they need to be ‘talked’ into compliance, rather than bullied.
Yet despite these talents, women initially had to fight for the right to ride astride like the men. In his book, Breaking and Riding, first published in 1902, James Fillis completely rejects the idea that women should be allowed to ride astride. He writes: ‘For some time there has been talk of ladies riding astride, which practice would deprive her of all feminine grace, and would afford no useful result. The great want in a man’s seat is firmness, which would be still more difficult for a woman to acquire if she rode in a cross saddle, because her thighs are rounder and softer than those of a man. Discussion of this subject is therefore useless. Ladies who ride astride get such bad falls that they soon give up this practice.’
Why would a woman find it more difficult to acquire a firm seat riding astride than riding side-saddle? This is an illogical argument, given the awkward, twisted posture ‘lady riders’ had to endure, with one shoulder thrust way back just to prevent them from toppling off the side, not a posture at all conducive to ‘firmness’. Not only that, but the uneven weight distribution would impede the horse’s natural gait and could, consequently, cause disharmony between horse and rider. Also, a horse is largely controlled through the use of a riders’ legs on either side, to guide and encourage, so it’s an obvious disadvantage for a woman to have both legs on one side of the horse. It’s almost as if society was trying to disrupt the one equal, pure partnership a woman could have, by conceiving that ‘ladylike’ etiquette required extra, burdensome rules. The claim that ladies who ride astride receive worse falls is ludicrous, especially given that only a page later James notes, ‘If, in falling, her foot catches in the stirrup, or if her skirt becomes hooked on the crutches, she will be dragged without having any means of freeing herself.’
A lady’s seat and garments bring the added danger of potential dragging if she were to fall. Where is the ‘feminine grace’ in that?
Yet despite these added burdens, women managed to compete successfully riding side-saddle. At the Lady Rider events in Sydney, women put on a great show. In High Wide and Handsome, Alan Chittick writes reverently about Mrs Stace, who set the Australian and Sydney record for side-saddle high jump at 6ft. 6in. in 1915, ‘Mrs Stace never appeared flustered no matter the height of the jump or the stiffness of the fence, a bowler hat perched precariously on her head, her voluminous skirts undisturbed just as if she were hacking quietly over the countryside. But her seat on the horse was far from precarious, and she must have possessed marvellous balance, for in every photograph she sits exactly the same.’
The balance to ride side-saddle over a fence of six foot, six inches and to look completely undisturbed on top of that, must have indeed been marvellous. And Mrs Stace was not the only woman to ride this way successfully in high jumps and hurdle events in the early 1900’s. Women adapted themselves to the constraints of the time, and made a bloody good show of it. In 1911, however, things started to change when the women’s hurdle contest at Sydney show was won by Miss M Burnley riding astride. Alan notes that ‘from then on the young girls riding astride were to have an increasing number of victories’. This was the beginning of the change from ride side-saddle to astride, as it became clear that there were advantages to riding astride, which also paved the way for women to compete with men in the same events.
Today, men and women competing together and everyone riding astride is the norm. In the Olympics, Equestrian is one of only two sports, the other being Sailing, where women compete against men. Female equestrians are very successful. It has taken much longer, however, for female jockeys to make this leap to equal opportunity and success.
The fact that Horse Racing has been the final frontier for women in horse sports makes me wonder if men are more inclined to take over the so called ‘girly’ pursuit of horse riding when it’s in its most extreme, and therefore supposedly most ‘masculine’ form. But then, I shouldn’t judge, because that’s what I wanted too. The most extreme form. From the moment I saw National Velvet, and a young Elizabeth Taylor flying over hedges on her magnificent chestnut, The Pie, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
There are many beautiful shots in the film of Velvet and The Pie, but there is one that really sticks with me. It is the shot from inside the train of Velvet through the window, galloping alongside and waving goodbye to Mi. The horse is going full tilt, his body stretched out like a cheetah, and Velvet is balanced perfectly on top, her hair streaming in the wind and one hand off the rein, waving. It reminds me of my favourite childhood game I used to play whenever I was in a train or car, I would stare out the window and imagine myself on a horse, galloping alongside. I would zoom across the landscape, sailing hedges, fences and whatever else came my way. In the built-up areas, my horse could fly over houses and tall building, nothing brought us down. So, when I saw Velvet racing the train I saw myself. I was looking through the window to my future, and it was glorious.
I was Velvet riding every single fence in that famous steeplechase too. I could hardly contain myself the first time I saw it. The scene takes its time, giving you a sense of the sheer endurance needed to complete the Grand National, along with the courage, the luck, the touch of madness. The premise of the film is mad. A twelve-year-old girl winning a horse in a raffle and then winning the Grand National disguised as a boy. It’s mad. The steeplechase scene is the peak of the madness. I saw a comment on Rotten Tomatoes criticising the scene for ‘hardly getting in sight of Velvet and her horse’, but to me, this is what makes it. What you see is a rush of jockeys and horses galloping, leaping, scrambling over fences, and it continuously cuts to a desperate Mi screaming, ‘Where’s twenty-eight? Where’s Velvet?’ and as a viewer you’re also thinking, ‘Where the hell’s Velvet?’ and then you suddenly get a glimpse of her, and you feel this wave of relief that she’s still on top, and then it’s back to the powerful rush of horses, the yells and the hooves and the mud and that magnificent ‘swish, swish’ sound as they brush through the hedges. It’s pretty close to what it feels like to be out there riding, in that beautiful madness.
How I wanted that!
Afterwards, when Velvet has won, the way the men lift her onto their shoulders yelling ‘Onya Velvet!’ shows they are accepting her into their ‘masculine’ world. There was something in that acceptance that really attracted me. I wanted that too. But I wanted even more than masculine acceptance. I wanted to break through the masculine world, tear it apart and splinter its very foundations by not being just the best ‘female’ rider, but the best rider. By not being ‘tough for a girl,’ but tough. By using every opportunity to refuse to let journalists put me in the token box and make me an exception, rather than the rule. It disappoints me to say I didn’t get that opportunity. But I did have a decent try.
Like Wilhelmina Smith, Velvet had to cut off her hair and disguise herself as a boy to ride in a race. I was much luckier, I could ride in jumps races as a woman, although if I had been required to cut off my hair, I would have without a moment’s hesitation. The most I had to cope with, was occasional sleaze and those stubborn ideas about gender.
‘You ride pretty good…for a girl.’
‘Sorry love, this really isn’t a girl’s horse.’ Whatever that means, I didn’t realise that horse had the ability to be gender biased.
And, after a race fall that left me with two fractures in my neck, requiring me to wear a halo brace, ‘Girls don’t know how to fall,’ and ‘You’re not going to ride again, are you?’
Of course I was. I knew many men who had suffered similar injuries and nobody questioned their falling ability or their decision to return to the saddle. But when I voiced this, I got the reply – ‘but girls’ necks are too pretty to break.’
I don’t regret breaking my pretty neck any more than I’m sure Velvet would regret cutting her pretty hair. My only regret would have been if I’d been unable to ride again. When I think about how close I came to that, it terrifies me.
I fell and broke my neck in my third professional ride over the hurdles. I’d had a pretty successful season riding as an amateur at the Picnic Races, with twelve wins and the ‘Up and Comers’ award under my belt. I was still inhabiting a kind of dream – actually doing what I had so desperately wanted to do since the moment I saw Velvet ride in the Grand National. The fall itself was ordinary, the horse pecked the top of the fence and flipped me over its head. I landed sloppily in the mud and sat cursing my bad luck. I had been on the favourite and was hoping to have my first professional win. I walked to the ambulance, carrying my disappointment and a slight twinge in my neck. I had a neck brace fitted and was placed inside. I was told not to move, while I protested that surely it was just a pulled muscle and I didn’t really need to go to hospital. Luckily, the paramedics ignored me, because an X-ray confirmed two broken vertebrae, C1 and C5. I had to wear a halo brace for four months. It was initially only meant to be three months, but there was a slight hiccup in the healing process, an experience that reconfirmed how important riding horses is to me.
I charged into the doctor’s room after the three months, desperate to get the brace removed and be on my way back to the saddle. I noticed that another man and woman were also in the room. I thought that was weird, as I had only been expecting to see the spinal specialist. He had my X-ray up on his computer and I thought it must be the original one, because I could still see the shadowy breaks running through the two bones in my neck. The doctor welcomed me, then cleared his throat.
‘Things haven’t healed as well as we had hoped they would.’
I sat quietly, trying to take in what he had just said. The room suddenly felt suffocating. I stared at the breaks.
He gave me an uncertain look, then pointed at my X-ray. ‘As you can see, there hasn’t been much bone-knitting, because you fell on your head like this,’ he dived his hand down towards the floor, ‘and so one bone was split apart like this,’ he held his two fists together and pulled them apart quickly, ‘and the other bone was crushed.’
I blinked. ‘So, what does this mean?’
‘Well, we can operate, we can put rods in your neck and stabilise it, but this will limit your movement. Or we can leave the halo on for one more month and see if it heals.’
‘Am I going to be able to ride again?’
‘Not if we operate.’
‘Then we don’t operate,’ I replied.
‘I really think you should consider—’
‘I want to be able to ride again.’
‘But the way your neck is—’
‘I just want to ride!’ I was mortified to realise I was crying. Everything blurred and shook around me. It felt like my very existence was being challenged. The woman came over and took my hand. It was slight comfort to realise that she, at least, understood me.
‘Are you sure you won’t consider the operation?’ The doctor asked again.
‘I just want to ride!’ I shouted.
The doctor sighed, but the woman squeezed my hand and spoke for the first time.
‘She just wants to ride.’
‘What are my chances of riding again if we don’t operate?’ I asked.
The doctor paused, then gave his head a slight shake.
‘It doesn’t look very likely, at least not professionally.’
I left the hospital and sat at the train station crying. A broken woman.
A part of the love of horses is the love of taking a horse to its highest potential. It’s the love of experiencing just what these amazing animals can do. As humans, we utilise nearly everything on the planet for our own benefit, and horses are no different, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing. The benefits are mutual. Brumbies in the wild live for an average of seven years, while domesticated horses, racehorses included, can live up to twenty-five or thirty years. As herd animals, horses have an innate desire to be a part of the pack, and in jumps racing, that’s exactly what they are. The field moves and races as a pack, but individually, most horses strive to do their best. A horse pulls you into a fence, ears pricked, you can feel the surge of desire as they approach, and the way they lift under you feels like a culmination of that desire. The way they land and charge forward with the pack, and the way good ones stretch their necks towards the winning post, shows that a horse can be just as driven to reach that potential. It’s a relationship of scaling heights together, and although tragic accidents do occur when striving for such achievements, I don’t feel that these accidents should keep us from seeking those heights.
I didn’t feel betrayed that I had been broken by horse racing, because I knew that the risk was part of the beauty of it. Every relationship comes with a risk. The relationship with horses has flourished for centuries and in many capacities, with sporting, performance, police, work and war horse all helping humankind, for the care and kindness (the majority of us) give them in return. I cried that day because I had been told that this relationship for me was over. It was the worst break-up of my life.
The doctor had pushed me to have an operation. He couldn’t see the point in delaying surgery on the minimal chance my neck would heal in that final month and I would actually be able to ride again. But I’m so glad I did wait, because that’s exactly what happened. I recovered and rode in jumps races again. I was able to experience that beautiful madness for a while longer, through two more serious injuries, a broken leg from a kick during track work, and a broken back from another race fall, until I fell pregnant and decided that I needed to take a step back from riding – or at least, the most extreme form of riding – in order to be around to raise my child.
While I may not ride in races anymore, and my priorities may have shifted to raising my six-year-old son and writing, I am lucky enough to still ride and teach horse-riding frequently. I encourage the young girls I teach with the fervour of someone who knows what horse riding gives us. I hope it can be something that will help them through all the other shit they, as women, will have to deal with, just like it is for me. Every time I throw my leg over I feel it there, the lightness of momentarily forgetting it all, and thinking only of myself and the horse, as if nothing else in the world exists.