For many years now, I have been noticing how few boys are getting involved in dressage at a younger age. It concerns and frustrates me that there are many talented young male riders out there who are not pursuing the sport, and it’s made me wonder why this is and what we can do about it.
Perhaps it’s just that boys are attracted to faster, adrenalin-fuelled disciplines; after all, like many boys, I started with eventing, hunting and polo. But then I realised that I enjoyed the detail and discipline required for dressage.
At school, the sports I was strongest in were diving, swimming and athletics — I liked individual sports where I took responsibility for my own actions, and in dressage I am out there performing on my own with the horse.
A lot of the time it comes down to image, and an idea that dressage — despite its roots in the military, is a “girlie” sport. I got some stick at school when some friends saw me hacking — although it didn’t stop me, often that isn’t the case and it puts off younger male riders.
Dressage is both thrilling and rewarding, and it rattles me if people say it’s for “wimps”. You need to be quick and brave to ride and train a dressage horse with so much power and the attitude that often comes with it.
But perhaps it’s that many men seek more instant gratification than dressage tends to provide — you have to stick at it in order to reap the rewards, and could it be that many young males are less inclined to put in the commitment needed?
In countries such as Spain and Germany, dressage is a much more male-orientated sport, and I have just returned from visiting the Spanish Riding School in Vienna where, ironically, female riders have only been accepted in the past 10 years. This is great for equality, but what are we doing in Britain to make our sport attractive to all? There are several men among our very top riders, but at the lower levels it’s a different story, and I fear there will be fewer men making it through to the top.
Much of it comes down to the marketing of our sport. I recently saw a poster for dressage in my local region, which featured lots of smiling young faces — all of them female. I think this can be improved, so we are portraying the idea that dressage is for all.
I think there should be more emphasis placed on the opportunities available within the children-on-horses division, too. The world of competitive pony dressage is short and pressurised, which perhaps some boys find off-putting.
Many boys also shoot up in height between the ages of 12 and 14, and look ridiculous on ponies — I know I did, so I rode horses from an early age. Boys and girls competing in children on horses can build partnerships that will take them through juniors, young riders and, sometimes, even to under-25 grand prix.
We need to find better ways to recruit male riders and give them a taster of dressage, which could help change their perceptions of the sport. Could schools work with local riding schools to help provide more opportunities for pupils to ride? It could help us find the next Carl Hester.
Ref Horse & Hound; 17 October 2019