Plenty has been written about the domination of men at the top levels of equestrian sport, and the lack of championship medals won by women compared to men. There’s been debates about whether this comes down to strength, ability or talent, or if men get more opportunities than women. But nevermind all that. What I want to know is – where do these men come from?
Is there some kind of factory churning out top male equestrian athletes, nattily turned out in a beautifully tailored show jacket and oh-so-flattering breeches, with a stable full of top horses ready and waiting with an army of grooms at their beck and call? Are they cloning these men? I want to know, and I want to know now.
Consider the ratio of men to women at amateur level compared to the professional ranks. Head to any yard (that’s ‘barn’ for those readers over the pond, or ‘stal’ for those among you who are European, or at least pretending to be) – you’ll be faced with a sea of pony tails and mareish behaviour, and I’m not talking about the horses. The lesser-spotted male equestrian is rarely to be found lurking in such a habitat, and who can blame him? It takes a hardy man to cope with all that estrogen.
If I look back to when I was a Pony Club member, some 20 (cough) years ago, there were at least 50 pony-mad girls for every one boy.
If the cloning factory theory isn’t accurate, and your average riding school is a man-free zone, then I can only deduce that all boys that ride as kids are potential Michael Jungs and must be treated as such. If I look back to when I was a Pony Club member, some 20 (cough) years ago, there were at least 50 pony-mad girls for every one boy. At our annual summer camp, these boys never had to muck out their own stables, plait their own ponies or clean their own tack. Like some equestrian version of the Pied Piper, they swanned around doing nothing except winning all the rosettes, with a bunch of jodhpur-clad girls giggling in their wake, happy to do all the yard chores for them.
Maybe a youth being exposed to so many girls and so little yard work predisposes these boys towards a career with horses? Is that why so many pros are men? Does every single one of those token boys in Pony Club go on to become top riders? And if not, where are all these super star male riders coming from?
Yet none of the boys from my branch went on to jump at Badminton or Olympia, as far as I know. I doubt my Pony Club was alone in its ludicrous male-female ratio, but maybe some other branches around the country are littered with talented boys who go on to become the William Fox-Pitts of their generation.
Taking of which, William F-P was indeed a member of the Pony Club. He stood out even in those formative years, and not just because he’s 11-foot tall. His Mum was District Commissioner (that’s ‘Boss’ in Pony Club terms, if you’re not familiar) and he was winning championships from the age of seven and was soon spotted flying over huge fences on the hunting field. At the age of nine, he rocketed up at an event with a 17.1-hand horse that had jumped round Badminton. He was always destined for greatness.
I asked a few friends if their formative youth was spent surrounded by Andrew Nicholsons-in waiting, and a few confessed to sharing their Pony Club experience with riders who went on to become pros. Several, like William, had mothers who were the District Commissioner – a sign of future Olympic glory if ever there was. Others say they could tell even then that these riders would go on to compete at top level.
But largely my friends’ experiences of Pony Club matches mine: dozens of girls all crushing wildly on the one token boy. The mystery of the prevalence of professional male riders deepens. I definitely think it’s a factory somewhere. Germany, probably.
One friend did tell me about a boy from her school who rode, though she was quick to point out that she certainly didn’t follow him around like a lovesick puppy. She recalled him having a quiet, effective way with ponies and being a stalwart of their Pony Club show jumping team, but mostly she recalls him being one of the annoying boys who drove her mad during school bus journeys.
His name was Scott Brash. I wonder what ever happened to him?