‘It was ground-breaking for a woman to win it’: the ladies who paved the way in equestrian sport *H&H Plus*

  • Male and female riders may now compete as equals, but a few skilled horsewomen paved the way in a historically masculine sport, finds Jennifer Donald

    Since a lady first chose to ride astride instead of side-saddle, female riders have been breaking the glass ceiling in the equestrian world. Equestrianism is the only Olympic sport other than sailing in which men and women can compete on equal terms, but the playing field hasn’t always been level and we are still waiting for a female showjumper or eventer to win individual gold at the Games.

    In 1984, the all-conquering Ginny Elliot, then Holgate, and Karen Stives of the USA became the first female eventers to win individual medals at the Los Angeles Olympics. Despite it not being recorded in the record books, Torrance Watkins had won an individual bronze four years previously at the alternative Olympics in Fontainebleau, but it would be Ginny and Priceless who made official history when they won bronze in the year Mark Todd took gold on Charisma, with Karen in silver on Ben Arthur.

    “I’m not sure a big deal was made of it at the time and I suppose the fact I won a medal, and a team one as well, was so overwhelming that you didn’t really think about being the first woman,” says Ginny. “It wasn’t until someone mentioned it not long after that I realised no woman had won an individual medal until I rocked up. So that was a great thrill.

    “I suppose, having been brought up from the get-go that you are competing on level terms with men, it just seems normal, but there’s always competitive banter when the girls win and the boys don’t! But it is surprising that a woman has yet to win the Olympics.”

    Ginny followed in the wake of some trailblazing horsewomen. Due to the military history behind Olympic equestrian events, women were not allowed to ride at the Games until 1964 in Tokyo, when US rider Lana Du Pont was the first woman on an eventing team, helping her team to clinch silver in the process.

    Margaret Hough is remembered as the first woman to triumph at Badminton, taking the title in 1954 with Bambi V (pictured).

    “It was ground-breaking for a woman to win it,” says her son Peter Gleave. “Especially as one or two of the men at the time looked down at women having a go and doing well. But although she knew what she’d achieved, she never made a big deal out of it. My father was always dead proud of her; he’d always be telling people about it and she’d look at him almost as though she was telling him off!”

    Later that decade, the supremely gifted Sheila Willcox became the first rider to win the event three times in succession, from 1957 to 1959, an achievement yet to be matched. Her first victory came at the age of just 21, at a time when women were still prohibited from competing in the Olympics, meaning her first team call-up came in the 1957 European Championships when she rode High And Mighty to become the first female champion.

    As Mary King says, she was “one of the first really successful female riders in a male-dominated sport”.

    In a golden era for the fairer sex, while Sheila was soaring round Badminton, Pat Smythe was carving a name for herself in showjumping. She became the first British female showjumper to ride at, let alone win a medal from, the Olympics, in 1956, helping the team win bronze. In a career full of fine accolades, Pat was also the first woman to win the Hickstead Derby, in 1962 on Flanagan.

    It would be Marion Coakes who became the first female showjumper to win an individual medal at the Olympics, riding the great Stroller to silver in Mexico City in 1968, while the pioneering Liz Edgar finally beat her male rivals to take the title at the world-famous Aachen grand prix in 1980.

    On home soil, the historic King George V Gold Cup at the Royal International dates back to 1911, but was men-only until being opened up to women – somewhat controversially at the time – in 2009. Five years later, US rider Beezie Madden lifted the solid gold trophy for the first time, returning for a second successive victory on the flying Cortes C.

    “We girls were always a bit jealous we didn’t get to jump in this class, so it was a great feeling to win it,” says Beezie.

    Behind the scenes, too, women have been paving their way. Di Lampard, a hugely successful international showjumper in her own right, became the first female chef d’equipe in British equestrian sport when appointed to the role in 2015.

    “I wasn’t aware of that when I took the role but when it was brought to my attention, I did think, ‘Gosh, yes, that’s pretty special,’” says Di. “It just felt normal for me, having competed so much against the men – equestrianism is very much a sport where men and women go toe to toe. But you do see a bit more balance behind the scenes in other sports now, with more female referees and so on.”

    Di has been credited for championing female talent on her teams but, she says, that’s more about how the sport has evolved.

    “You take the best partnerships available at the time, but it has slowly changed,” she says. “But we’ve had some great role models over the years – I certainly followed Caroline Bradley, Liz Edgar and had many pictures of Pat Smythe in scrap books.”

    Canada’s Gail Greenough became the first world champion in 1986 but it was only as recently as 2018 that Germany’s Simone Blum riding DSP Alice equalled her feat, herself becoming the first woman to win a title at a World Equestrian Games (WEG). Then, 16 years ago, Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum earned the number one spot in the world rankings, the first woman to do so; no woman had ever ridden on the German team before the US-born rider earnt her place, either.

    Dressage is one discipline in which women have often reached the top. Germany’s Isabell Werth holds the record for the most Olympic medals won by any rider, while among Charlotte Dujardin’s astounding list of achievements is to have been the first British woman to retain an individual Olympic title.

    But it was 20 years after women were admitted to the Olympic dressage competition – previously it had been open only to commissioned military officers – that Liselott Linsenhoff became the first lady to win gold, with the team medal in 1968 and the individual crown in 1972.

    The remarkable dressage rider Lis Hartel, from Denmark, was one of the first women to compete head-to-head with men in an equestrian sport at the Olympics in 1952, and her ground-breaking silver medal was even more remarkable as in 1944, at the age of 23, she had contracted polio and was left paralysed below the knees and with limited mobility in her arms. Seeing her struggle to dismount, the gold medallist, Henri Saint Cyr from Sweden, helped her to the podium to stand side-by-side with her male counterparts. Her success was a defining moment for equality in our sports.

    On the racecourse, Meriel Tufnell paved the way as the first female jockey to win a race under Jockey Club rules in 1972. But it is only very recently that the voices have finally been heard calling for all jockeys to be classed as such, rather than defining the accomplishments of women on the racetrack by their gender. This change has been driven in part by Great British Racing’s #JustJockeys initiative. Since 2015, the number of winners from female jockeys has risen by a huge 76% thanks to skilled riders such as 24-year-old Hollie Doyle, who broke her own record for Flat winners in a season (116) last year.

    “I have made the point many times that I think gender is irrelevant when it comes to jockeys,” says ITV Racing presenter Francesca Cumani. “For too long, female riders have not had the same opportunities as their male counterparts and have not had the chance to show the extent of their skills. “Hollie has proved that, when given an opening, she is just as capable, if not more so, as any of her colleagues.”

    Charlotte Brew was the first woman to ride in the Grand National, in 1977, raising the tape on the race to find a female winner of Aintree’s legendary steeplechase. The strike rate has been much higher at the Cheltenham Festival, both in the saddle and from the training ranks. In March 1987, 21-year-old Gee Armytage became the first female jockey to win against the professionals, when landing the Kim Muir Challenge Cup, doubling up in the Mildmay of Flete Challenge Cup the next day on a horse aptly named Gee-A.

    “I actually had five rides at Cheltenham that year and that in itself was a big story at the time,” says Gee. “My first ride in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle didn’t go to plan though, and I was carried out by a loose horse at the second obstacle. As I cantered back up the straight, people were throwing plastic bottles at me and shouting, ‘Useless girl.’ I just had to keep my head held high. But of course after I’d ridden those two winners, I was the hero again.

    “I do look back and think how lucky I was, but it all happened so easily for me then; I was riding lots of big winners. I was so confident in those days and would push trainers to be allowed to come and ride out. If I hadn’t done that, undoubtedly I wouldn’t have had nearly as many opportunities.

    “Being singled out as a woman jockey actually helped me, because people were so anti them then that you got a lot of attention when you did well. Some trainers would never have put a girl up, but almost in desperation I did get the ride on horses that weren’t going well.”

    Three years earlier, Jenny Pitman, a phenomenal trailblazer for women, sent out Burrough Hill Lad and became the first woman to train the winner of the Gold Cup – a year after she trained her first Grand National winner, Corbiere.

    These days, the likes of Bryony Frost, the first female to win a Grade One at the Festival, Hayley Turner, Bridget Andrews and Rachael Blackmore have made finishing first past the post a far more frequent occurrence. We also saw Khadijah Mellah hit the headlines last year as the first hijab-wearing jockey, winning the Magnolia Cup at Goodwood.

    Success and opportunity have not always come easily for women. Fortunately, long gone are the days when US polo player Sue Sally Hale had to disguise herself as a man when she first rode in the 1950s. There is still work to do, but let’s celebrate these pioneers who paved the way for the next generation to enjoy this wonderful sport on their terms.

    Ref: 7 January 2021

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