The Feminist Way to Ride a Horse

amy from heartland and horse

Cowgirl narratives often depict women and horses building a trusting relationship. But though they’re about collaboration and trust, in these stories women almost always employ traditional horsemanship techniques that are grounded in domination and submission. So while these narratives are important in that they show women exercising freedom and agency, they still retain some elements of patriarchy. Control of horses and nature parallels the control of women.

Recently though, some depictions of natural horsemanship—an approach to working with horses that is more gentle and holistic than traditional techniques—have inched into film and television. Natural horsemanship is, I would argue, a more feminist approach to training horses. Its depiction in media is a more accurate portrayal of the real-life nuances that exist in the relationships between woman and horse.

The most notable media image of natural horsemanship is the Canadian television show Heartland. Not only does the show have a diverse cast and present a family structure that includes strong women and fictive kin, but the female protagonist—a young horse-trainer specializing in horses other have given up on—uses natural horsemanship techniques. Her connection with horses is never portrayed as some innate talent. Instead, hers is skillful horsemanship. On the show, there is an emphasis on awareness of the horse as an autonomous being with its own needs, and respect for the great risk involved in riding.

Another example of natural horsemanship in media, predating Heartland, is the film, The Horse Whisperer (1998). After a serious horse-riding accident leaving both Grace (Scarlett Johansson) and her horse injured and traumatized, she is taken to work with Tom Booker (Robert Redford). He is known to have a nearly mystical quality in his communication with horses, an ability to speak to them, hence the name. But in reality, he is simply practicing natural horsemanship techniques. The film even consulted natural horsemanship trainer, Buck Brannaman, for it’s portrayals of the approach. 

So while in The Horse Whisperer it is a man teaching these natural horsemanship skills, it is Grace who benefits from them. This is true in real-life as well. Male trainers reflect the roots in male-dominated cowboy disciplines, but with more women owning and riding horses, they are the ones  filling the clinics, creating not only a community of women working together, but opportunities for apprenticeships and work as trainers themselves. 

Natural horsemanship emphasizes working with the horse’s instincts, unlike traditional approaches that rely on fear, punishment, whips, and chains. Working with the horse’s instincts involves being clear on intent and paying close attention to the energy you are putting out. Horses bite, kick, and neigh, but building a partnership with your horse creates a confidence and trust that isn’t possible using traditional approaches. To be effective, you must simultaneously be gentle and assertive, sensitive and bold.

On the drive home from a natural horsemanship clinic in Arizona, crossing the wide desert, a friend and I discussed how challenging it is to actually put natural horsemanship techniques into practice. I told her about my struggles with being assertive both in and out of the saddle.

I could see her considering this as she drove, before finally saying what we both understood: as women, we are expected to be quiet and friendly, not assertive and stridently clear about what we want. But no matter what happens in our lives, when we work with our horses we practice being assertive and big.

This can be a challenge for many horsewomen who are expected to be wholly feminine outside of the arena and are punished when they deviate. We’ve seen the way larger society treats powerful women who don’t let people ignore their boundaries. I’ve been to horsemanship clinics with all kinds of women of all ages: lawyers, teachers, camera-women, park rangers, mothers. Each of us has struggled in some way with this concept of getting “big” and being really confident.

As she spoke I nodded along, understanding exactly what she meant. I had experienced it. This ability to be confidently assertive is what continues to attract me to horses. It is the only space I’ve found where I am rewarded for being firm and confident and able to develop a partnership that leaves me feeling capable, at home in my own body, closer to myself and closer to another living thing. It’s a power dynamic we rarely see outside of the arena.

Read the rest of the Reverse Cowgirl series on women and horses

by Ashley Wells
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15 Comments Have Been Posted

It's also interesting to note

It's also interesting to note that the VAST vast vast majority of riders of horses are women - at all levels, from all levels of society (from the 'barn rats' trading chores for lessons, to doctors and lawyers). However, the famous trainers and whatnot people hear about are generally male. I've always wondered why this is - maybe another sign of the patriarchy, demonstrating itself through not just methods of horsemanship, but that men are the ones with unquestioned authority?

YES! And the most famous are

YES! And the most famous are the ones who practice the traditional ways of horsemanship that shut a horse down or make it submit. I can barely watch some of the clinics by these more famous men, but what is interesting is the language--it's often language of control, of a horse being too "prideful," and of submission.

What a great article, Ashley!

What a great article, Ashley! You've really made me want to check out Heartland. I completely agree with the point you make. Sadly, not all clubs believe in natural horsemanship - I recently decided to take horse riding lessons (I've always wanted to but up till now I lived too far from the country to even think about it seriously) and their approach is incredibly sad. I went to see a lesson before committing to doing one myself and it was incredibly agressive (the liberate use of the whip really shocked me, to say nothing of the rest of the equipment). I don't know why riders can accept this kind of teaching, don't they ever think about their horses?

There is no feminist way to

There is no feminist way to ride a treat another person as a resource, as an object that you dominate and matter how "nicely" patriarchal. Check out the work of Carol J. Adams and other vegan feminists.

I don't really agree with you

I don't really agree with you there. I don't ride, but I spend a lot of time with people who do, and the relationship between them and their horses is like that of two best friends, it's not dominating at all. Of course, many horse trainers are into that whole domination thing, which is totally wrong, but the bonds I've witnessed between these women and horses are so loving and is in no way about objectifying the horse or patriarchy.

I agree Elizabeth

I agree with you Elizabeth. It seems like a reach to shut down any relationship between a person and an animal. Like the folks who protest leashing animals when it is for their safety and the safety of others. I work in Behavior Analysis and now dating a Horse Girl and being around horse women the techniques they use are very reinforcing and egalitarian, not punishing or dominating. So this LEAP to patriarchy is a bit overzealous and demonstrates some insecurity within the author and not the reality of natural horsemanship.

as feminist and vegan i

as feminist and vegan i reject the use of horses for our own pleasure as well. and riding is nothing else. a horse has no interest in carrying weight around ( it is actually against its instinct that tells the horse that a predator is jumping on its back to bite into its neck) nor is it interested to be lead by another specie. if a horse can choose it most likely will choose the company of its herd over that of humans. all horse people either have to break a horse or work very hard to be able to communicate their wants to the horse. and a horse will have to try and understand and do what it is asked for because there is no way around it.

i don't want to deny that there can be a bond between humans and animals and that those can be quite deep in some cases. but let's be real, domasticated animals are awully dependend on us. there is no egalitarianism. there simply can't be. even if you treat the horse (or dog or cat or any other domasticated animal aka pets) very well and try your best to understand its needs and wants it will be fully at your mercy.

i have always loved horses, i rode for a couple of years, even helped "breaking in" somebody elses horse by following the rules of monty roberts (who, by the way, was shocked about the end of "the horse whisperer" in which robert redford destroys the trust that he had just built in weeks between the horse and him by force) . i also tried to be the horses best friend, but now i think that means that i let the horse be horse.

These seem to be two

These seem to be two different conversations, both important. Animals are indeed at our mercy, as we've created a world in which there is no space for them to be wild anymore, horses included. So how to approach that is really hard to navigate and an individual choice.

I too identify as an eco-feminist and struggle with this relationship between human and animal and where it fits in a modern world that has eliminated the space for them to live freely as they are meant too. You are absolutely right in that horses are prey animals and their instincts tell them that something on their back is dangerous--sure death, even. However, as I'm sure you learned working with Monty Roberts who also practices natural horsemanship, there are some ways to do this that feel better for the horse, that teach the horse it does not need to have that worry in there. So for those who do continue their relationship with horses (or any animal for that matter) despite their apprehension in a relationship that still retains some hierarchy (as herds do), natural horsemanship seems to be the best bet as it has the horse's integrity in mind.

But again, this is all so individual. That's why these conversations are so interesting and seem to be really important.

And I'm guessing the scene you're talking about at the end is him making the horse lay down! I was SO angry about that watching it. Absolutely appalled! I'm glad you mentioned it.

yes, there is less space for

yes, there is less space for wild animals indeed - even though there can be still found wild horses around the globe - but that, to me, is not really a reason to breed animals. instead we should protect wildlife and unspoiled environment.
as an abolitionist vegan i don't think we should keep bringing animals in existance in the first place. right now, of course, we have to try and find a way to keep our relationship with animals free from exploitation as best as we can. and i do believe we can do much better than finding excuses for using them for our own pleasure. after all you don't have to ride a horse, there are other creative and fun ways to keep it fit and entertained which are also less foreign to it and less damaging to its health. in the end, we humans are responsible for those animals and not the other way round. we have to entertain them while we keep them behind fences or bars, not they us.

oh and i'm sorry that it sounded like i actually worked with mr. roberts. that's not the case, i was just tought about his principles.

and yes, that is the scene i meant. i was shocked as well. it also made no sense at all in that plot. obviously whispering took too long in the end... very sad.

thanks for engaging! i really enjoy your articles.

Horsemanship shows leadership

Actually, currently in Norway, we are seeing horse riding in another light: People who ride horses are good leaders. Because they have to work with the horse, lead it and make it do what you want ("dominate" if you wish, but I disagree), they learn how to be determined and not be afraid to be hard when that is needed. You can call that inviting masculine traits, but let us be honest, being a leader means being hard and being determined without letting those working underneath you, in this case a horse, boss you around.

Riding has been part of my life since I was three or four. I was afraid of being too harsh before hitting my teenage years, but I also learned not to back down when the horse was being stubborn and against me. I also learned to work with different kinds of horses with different personalities. My first favorite horse was nice, but insanely lazy, so I had to remember to always keep it awake and pacing; another was so easy and well-trained that I had to be careful with commands. My current horse had scaredy issues and needed a firm and strict hand, and I always had to concentrate and be patient with her. Now she is much more relaxed and novices can actually ride her without being as strict as I had to be, and the horse herself is not as scared of things anymore.

If I put on the CV that I have been riding most of my life, I will have better chances to get jobs because the workplaces have recognized the work and dedication one has when riding. Actually, when a McDonald store was established in a local area, they specifically looked for women who had riding experience to work there. Riding regularly or having it as a hobby, especially owning a horse, shows that one is dedicated, determined, willing to cooperate, is more likely to be on time, and knows to lead.

I personally won't be likely to delve deep into the alternative horsemanship you are talking about; I support experts using it and succeeding in it, but as a previous comment stated, whatever technique one uses, it will still be a human dominating an animal, not a human male dominating a human female. Call me a speciesist, but I think those two are completely different things.

@Penamesolen: as you have

@Penamesolen: as you have already noticed your thinking and your actions are indeed speciesist. speciesism and sexism are different things, but not completely. both promote that the other (sex, specie) can be seen and treated as property without moral value or rights of their own. if you reject sexism i don't see any reason to not reject speciesism as well.

For me, it is the VALUE. I

For me, it is the VALUE. I value human beings, regardless of sex, more than other species. If I had to choose between killing a human stranger and a random dog/cat/horse/pig/cow/whatever, I would save the human no matter solely because of the species. So, while I don't have anything to say about speciesism (other than that it exists... apparently), but that does not equal animal abuse. As someone have mentioned, horsemanship is unnatural in any way. I have heard about alternative horsemanship, and the the father of the owner of the farm I ride in used those, but it simply is not for everyone. But even if I use traditional horsemanship techniques, it still has evolved into more than "punish/whip the horse until it gets it right." We are taught guiding the horse, we learn how to give commands using as little dragging and kicking as possible, we brush and give them treats before and after every lesson or ride (treats only after). We are taught compassion and cooperation.

So yes, I claim ownership of my horse, which I spent money to buy, and I will sell that ownership when I move out to start college. If that is speciesism, then I am a speciesist. But I treat my horse and other horses with the care they need and deserve, I don't kick or whip the horses without good reason (in fact it is scorned upon to misuse the whip, especially just holding a whip if they know the horse doesn't need one), and while I don't view my pets as my best friends, I do care for my horse and will miss her, even thought I know that she won't miss me.

Sure, I want to do my best to help them, but my belief is simply that they are not like humans, they cannot do what we can do, and they have different instincts than us. All in all, I reject animal abuse, but I don't have any thoughts about speciesism. When I hear anti-speciesism, I imagine people expecting us to treat animals like humans, having rights to be treated that way and a voice. But then I start to imagine people demanding dogs being able to vote for prime ministry only because they should be treated like humans, and then I laugh.

That is pretty much what I think about the issue.

then you are simply

then you are simply misinformed about what anti-speciesism is about, which is obviously not expecting that animals get the right to vote. children don't have the right to vote either, by the way, but they have rights that protect their well-being nonetheless. just because somebody is unable to have an understanding of the concept of rights doesn't mean that she/he shouldn't be considered of moral interest. animals have interests such as living a life according to their nature and we need to respect that and not use animals for our own interests that more often than not totally contradict theirs.

if you want to educate yourself more about the topic you might want to check out

Natural horsemanship works

Natural horsemanship works with some of the more calm breeds (like Quarter horses) or with horses that are extremely submissive. But, if you have a highly energetic and highly intelligent horse, like an Arabian or a warmblood, you're going to have a really bad time.

Traditional training isn't based around the use of whips, chains, and fear. That went out of style somewhere during the 18th century. Go read Podhajky's "The Complete Training of Horse and Rider." It will tell you more about the evolution of proper training.

I've actually had incredible

I've actually had incredible success using natural horsemanship techniques with my sensitive, off-the-track TB and know many women with Arabians, Warmbloods, and Quarter Horses alike who've found natural horsemanship to be a great fit. At the same time, before studying natural horsemanship I spent over a decade learning the "proper" techniques and practiced them with my very stoic Quarter Horse.

And I think that's what is most interesting about this thread, the emergence of discussion pointing to the very individual relationships women forge with their horses, each empowering and fulfilling in its own way. We see this in cowgirl narratives and in real-life, and it continues to be compelling--at least for me. So, while I make connections between the domination of women and that of horses when we use tools like whips for lunging and dressage, chains for horse-racing, and tie-downs for western pleasure training and gymkhana, others may not. And they still maintain a strong connection with their horse. This seems really, really important. And I'm glad it's come up in this discussion.

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