Bestriding a horse was forbidden to women a hundred years ago; the side saddle with its menacing horn was made for women like my great-grandmother Sallie who rode fearlessly, even shortly after she gave birth to the little girl who would become my grandmother. Sallie rode in the close-in country around Richmond, Virginia, often with one of her beaux, but she never rode in the kind of competition I saw last weekend.
There were men riders in those far-off days; women seldom went out on horseback alone. My Irish great-grandfather was an expert at four-in-hand, driving a carriage drawn by four horses down the Richmond streets, which first caught my great-grandmother’s attention: she’d never seen four horses driven together before. Then, jumping fences was a practical necessity to get from one field to another, or over a stream; it was not a competition carried out in a carefully manicured ring, the footing like rumpled velvet, masses of artificial flowers below the intimidating four foot jumps.
Somewhere along the way, women took over this sport, although there are still men at the highest levels.
A woman with a galloping horse between her thighs should be a powerful symbol; is this what keeps men away? Perhaps in recognition of this danger, the most reckless and skilled of the girl riders wore pink trimmings on her outfit, her pony and her saddle blanket.
Is the absence of men—all the hard work of mucking out stalls, feeding horses, and watering and grooming the track is done by Mexican men, but they are invisible, never spoken to or looked at, as essential and as ignored as the white fence around the ring—the reason the faces of the older women riders look so sad, as though haunted by the memory or the expectation of loneliness—“crumb gatherers,” I call them, picking up bits of attention from trainers and bystanders, living off a flirtatious glance, a laugh, or a pat.
So I can’t quite conjure the image of a woman on horseback as a Valkyrie or an Amazon.
Where have we gone wrong—or can we call it wrong?—we women still emotionally dependent, to a terrifying degree, on men, especially as we grow older? Now that we’ve achieved at least the appearance of reality, outnumbering men in graduate schools, possessing large incomes (at times), why are we so often heart-broken and bereft? Do we need to wear more pink?
Called on to mother broken men and conflicted adult children who never leave home, we also tend to mother horses and dogs and flowers. Perhaps in the show ring, some of us find in our thighs’ powerful grip the agency we do not feel with the men we adore, whose eyes are fixed on other horizons.