Riding and body image - photo by Anna

Riding and body image – photo by Anna

What do you think when you see this photo?

Do you notice that sweet S-curve in his tail? It’s the sure sign of a relaxed back on a forward, soft horse. This walk speaks volumes about his rider, too. What a lovely sight.

Or do you judge just a bit, the same way you judge yourself, “Does this horse make my butt look big?”

Of all of the challenges we face improving our riding skills, developing a positive body image is rarely talked about.

I come from a long line of men totally comfortable sitting on the sofa scratching themselves, growing way too much ear hair, and feeling just fine about having food on their faces. And not even from the most recent meal. These same men feel well-qualified to judge cup size, cellulite, and fashion sense of any woman in their path. They do this with the confidence of men who commonly date super models. No kidding.

How’s your body image? One look at me should tell you that I am totally fabulous, said no woman ever.

Body image is a complicated topic for women. From our youngest memory, girls are rewarded for being cute and polite, rather than being strong, smart, or brave. We are held to an airbrushed cosmetic and commercial standard, and in the end, each one of us will fail. We will age, our skin will wrinkle and sag, and even being thin won’t change that.

Women face a culture critical of extra pounds, extra years, or extra intellect. It’s like we should be ashamed of the space we take in this world. Some of us micro manage our body parts, trying to find acceptance. Some of us are so self-conscious about our chests that we breathe shallow, and some of us have been holding our bellies in for so long that we can’t remember how to breathe at all.

How does a polite girl, taught to keep her knees together, ever learn to ride? We would be better off to set goals for ourselves that value more important things.

In youth, it was a way I had

To do my best to please,

And change, with every passing lad,

To suit his theories.

But now I know the things I know,

And do the things I do;

And if you do not like me so.

To hell, my love, with you! -Dorothy Parker

So let’s be clear here, I’m not talking about how your body actually looks, instead I’m talking about your perception of how you look. And where horsemanship is concerned, we should care about the opinion of our horse, above society. The good news is that horses judge us more kindly, and on less superficial traits than size or appearance.

Here’s why: We are all doing Natural Horsemanship, whether we are aware or not. As prey animals, a horse survives by reading their environment, and the herd dynamic. So, horses watch us, and if our lack of physical confidence and comfort in our bodies is visible, they read us as timid or reluctant. It impacts our partnership, whether the reason behind that tension is fear of horses, or fear of judgement. It could be a challenge in show ring with an actual judge, but it relates to our internal social judgement any time we ride. Ever looked at a mirror while riding in an indoor arena?

A negative body image translates to confusing leadership to a horse. Then the more uncomfortable we feel, the more we try to control and micro-manage our horse to be as correct and faultless as a little girl dressed for church. Oh no, have you failed that test before as well?

To follow the movement of a horse’s back, we have to let go of the stiff control of our bodies, and allow our bodies to be fluid and dance with the rhythm of the horse. Do you know this feeling? Can you allow yourself to own that shared beauty?

Try this experiment: Instead of squeezing into the corset of expectations from our judgmental culture, change your body language and image to please your horse. For ground work, cock a hip, release your shoulders, and let your belly relax. Breath deep, expand your ribs to give your generous heart room, then exhale peace. A deep breath is an act of confidence in itself. What if softness was your biggest strength?

If you don’t have that body looseness right now, do an impression of someone you know who does. If that doesn’t work, move like a slovenly teenager. They have this posture down.

Riding does require core strength, but too many riders confuse tension with strength.

As a riding instructor, I see tension and wonder if its fear of the horse, or tension about the rider’s self-judged negative body image on top of a horse. Not that it actually matters where the tension starts. Horses don’t like tension in themselves or their riders.

If you are going to feel pressure to alter body image, at least pick a kinder judge. You can find one at the barn. When self-doubt becomes self-confidence, a supple, balanced, and confident rider emerges, and that combination will steal a horse’s heart every single time. That’s a win-win, at any age.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.