How to keep boys riding and why the gender gap widens at the top in horse sport

  • Equestrianism leads the way for gender parity in sport – but even though men and women compete on equal terms, pockets of imbalance remain within the industry.

    Discussion on equity in equestrian sport – which involves considering individual differences to ensure everyone has the equal opportunity for success in the industry – took place at the FEI Sports Forum last month. Gender was one of the areas addressed during this session.

    FEI figures published in 2023 show that over the past 10 years, the ratio of female to male rider registrations has swung towards an increase of females – rising from around 56% to 63%. But in contrast, the gap at the top of the sport is widening – particularly in the Olympic disciplines, and especially in showjumping.

    Figures show that female athletes represent around a third of ranked riders in showjumping, but that in the top 100 this falls to 16%, and 6% in the top 30. Eventing has a wider disparity overall but is more balanced at the top, as females make up 72% of the overall rankings and 53% of the top 30.

    Irish Olympian Jessica Kürten hosted the debate. Focusing on the area of imbalance at the top of the showjumping rankings she said it is “an interesting one”.

    “I look at my own situation – I reached number two, unfortunately, just missed number one. But my horses took priority and they needed a rest,” she said.

    “There were three of us women in the top 10 at that stage. But one thing the three of us had was that we didn’t have family and we each had a man, a husband, a partner who had actually put his career on hold to support his wife. I personally think that this played a very large role in the success.”

    She added that the world has changed from having to “make the decision to have family or sport”, and credited the “very good initiative from the FEI and International Jumping Riders Club” that allows women to freeze their points during “maternity leave”.

    She also noted that among the riders she has spoken to, their priorities are towards success with their horses and having a family over chasing world ranking positions.

    In terms of officials, course-designers have the greatest imbalance; females account for only 15% across the disciplines.

    FEI secretary general Sabrina Ibáñez said it is important to share the numbers, adding that “on the whole” there is not really a problem of imbalance in officials, but that there is when it comes to course-designing.

    “I think it would be interesting to see how we can encourage more women to actively seek those positions, and what national federations or the FEI can do,” she said.

    The discussion highlighted that one of the likely reasons for fewer women being in the higher ranks of showjumping is the nature of the world ranking points system, and pregnancy. Riders are able to freeze their ranking points for a certain amount of time, and one person questioned whether the FEI could look into a similar arrangement to allow fathers to have a paternity points freeze.

    A strong call was also made to help address the bullying some boys face, from peers, so-called friends and adults – even from teachers, for taking part in what is perceived as a “girls’ sport”. One key suggestion to help increase the number of boys in equestrianism was around balancing commercial bias, which is strongly aimed at a female fan base.

    “It’s clear that equestrian sport prides itself on being fair and open to all,” said FEI vice president Jack Huang.

    “However, we cannot ignore the fact that there are fewer women involved in the same areas of a sport that we need to figure out why and find ways to encourage more participation, while also thinking about how we can get more young males involved, which can help us make our sport even more enjoyable for everyone.”

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