I am intrigued by term ‘equestrienne’. Although I thought that I had ingeniously coined it myself, disappointingly the term originates back to 1864 (The Oxford English Dictionary stole my thunder). This little fact had my feminist instinct pricking its ears and scratching away at the implications like a frantic terrier at the door. Was such a term introduced to endorse the separate spheres ideology? The pseudo- French suggests that the term pertains to polite society, trying to carve out a (faux) genteel image. Yet it seems ironic to place women in such a category, considering that only half a century later they would actually get out of their ladylike habits, so to speak. It was soon time abandon the practise of side-saddles and corsets, and ride astride wearing breeches. This was more than a sartorial statement. It was a social one.
In K. M. Peyton’s novel Flambards Divided, riding astride becomes allegorical for women’s emancipation and empowerment. The pivotal ‘saddle-swap’ scene demarcates a progressive model of liberation for both genders:
‘There’ll be no hiding this little escapade after that.” Christina said soberly.
‘What is there to hide?’
‘Me, astride, on one of your horses.’
‘Is it forbidden then?’
‘Disapproved of. Strongly.’
Mark turned to look at her in surprise. He was still riding side-saddle, using a long rein, and looking perfectly at home. (p. 151)
The correlation between women sharing the right to vote in 1928 and sharing the equestrian domain with men is not coincidental. Although there are of course historical exceptions, in general the horse has always been associated as a symbol of (patriarchal) power. In Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Petrucchio forcing Katherine to ride can be seen as a quasi-rape. The same punishment was employed for shrewish wives and disobedient horses, which says rather a lot about the intended gender-power dynamic. Critics have pointed out the less obvious power dynamics also at play but to go into that here would be a delightfully useless diversion. There is certainly a traditional precedent to see horses and women as fellow sufferers under the patriarchal thumb, but I think that social relations are never this clear-cut. I only now have to think of Anthony and Cleopatra, when the Egyptian Queen declares ‘Oh happy horse, to bear the weight of Anthony’, which complicates this idea most deliciously. The fact that riding becomes intertwined in positive sexual discourse as well, suggests that the horse has the potential to displace and subvert the expected two-way relationship. I might even suggest that there is a three way dialectic going on: both genders wish to exercise dominance over the horse, but it cannot be seen as the inferior counterpart as it is a powerful status symbol in its own right. However, this does not explain the apparent shift in horses as subjects of male power at the beginning of the century to subjects of female power today.
Horses and warfare have always been inextricably linked in history. Noble steeds are associated with the statues of any famous military hero, and until the First World War horses were associated with dashing cavalry charges and glorious victories. After this, horses were mainly exempt from military service, and suddenly this changed the traditional perception of the horse as the means of man’s heroic empowerment. The fact that the thousands of equine survivors after the war were carelessly sold and shipped anywhere, rather than being brought home with the other human heroes, suggests that the government certainly didn’t think the horse worthy of its powerful status any longer. I might even suggest that generally speaking, the horse’s redundancy, in conjunction with women’s newfound liberation, gave women the means to ‘rescue’ the horse and create a new image for it, with a new purpose. Equestrian sports are one of the few that allow men and women to compete on equal terms. The competition continues, but the horse has empowered both genders a form of liberation and equality.
I cannot speak generally for Feminism. On one end of the spectrum are those still campaigning for increased women’s power, on the other are those who are simply grateful for the suffragettes. However, if the purpose of feminism was to bring about gender equality, then might we see the horse as a mediator which has the potential to empower and disempower both genders? While the First World War acted as a catalyst for gender equality on the whole, our history with the horse goes much further back.
After all, horses are always the first ones to remind us that pride comes before a fall.