The Battle of the Sexes… Again?

Physical differences between men and women have real consequences for how men and women ride.

Not too long ago, the differences between male and female riders were incredibly obvious. As recently as the late 1800s, male riders sat astride, with their legs on either side of the horse, while female riders sat aside, with both legs to the horse’s left. Medieval society settled on these divergent styles due to differences in male and female anatomy. The effects were more than just aesthetic; the posture and balance variances between these two seats was enormous.

These days, both men and women ride astride, but do they really ride the same way? Or do differences in anatomy still come into play?

Natural Differences

It’s important to keep the anatomical differences in perspective. Men and women are basically the same anatomically, because they are both of the same species. However, subtle differences exist between the two genders, and these subtleties often come into play during riding.

“The anatomical differences in men and women range from the obvious to the subtle,” says Julie Goodnight, a multi-discipline trainer and clinician in Salida, Colo., who is also program director for the Certified Horsemanship Association. “Hence writer Rita Mae Brown’s observation, ‘If the world were truly a rational place, men would ride sidesaddle.’

Goodnight notes that the key differences in male and female anatomies as they relate to riding include the genitalia, muscle strength, and center of gravity.

Women generally have a lower center of gravity than men, since men tend to carry more upper body weight in the form of larger muscles. “Therefore, women often have an inherently better sense of balance than do men,” she says. “Since balance is the number one skill required of riders, this can be a significant difference. Balance is a skill that is related to athleticism, which is not a factor of gender. However, the more sports a person has participated in, the more likely a person is to have good balance. Fortunately, balance can also be enhanced by improving riding position and practicing exercises designed to improve balance.”

Men are endowed with greater muscle strength than women, notes Goodnight, which means men tend to rely more on strength than do women. Conversely, women tend to have better fine-motor skills than men, and so may be able to do certain things better, such as handle the reins and make small adjustments in position.

“Since horses are highly sensitive animals who are easily overwhelmed, using more strength may not be the best thing to do,” she says.

According to Goodnight, the better your balance, the less likely you are to use muscle strength to maintain balance. She notes that expert riders use almost no muscle strength to stay in the saddle, while beginner and novice riders rely to a great extent on their muscles.

“Riding may appear to be easier for men at first because of their greater strength,” she says. “However, strength and endurance are more of an issue in the beginning stages of riding than at the advanced levels. Interestingly, for this reason, riding sports are unique in that men and women compete against each other on an equal field at all levels.”

Bruce MacLean, a hunter/jumper trainer in La Cresta, California, notes that because men are more muscular than women, they can sometimes be more stiff in the saddle. “It’s more work for a man to loosen up than it is for a woman because of all the muscle,” he says.

“Also, any flaws in a male rider’s position are going to be more noticeable because of the size issue. Problems are more obvious in a 200-pound rider as opposed to a 120-pound rider. Also, the taller you are, the more your posture problems show up. That’s why small kids do well in equitation. If a 6’2” man leans forward too much, it’s going to be much more noticeable than when a smaller person does it,” MacLean adds.

Because the seat and crotch are major areas of contact with the horse, this area of the anatomy represents significant differences between male and female riders. “It is very easy and very common for women to sit in front of the vertical on the horse, causing the angle at the front of the rider’s hip to close and her back to be hollow,” says Goodnight. “This is not always a problem peculiar to riding, but also can be a postural problem, and one more likely to be seen in women.”

A closed pelvis and hollow back not only affect the rider’s and horse’s balance, but also lock the rider’s hip joint, preventing the hips from opening and closing to absorb the motion in the horse’s back.

“Riders with a closed pelvis tend to bounce,” says Goodnight. “In general, men are not as likely as women to sit in front of the vertical, although it is certainly possible. Suffice it to say that men have an ‘early-warning device’ that discourages them from getting in front of the vertical.”

Training by Gender

Given the very real differences between male and female riders, should instructors handle the two genders differently?

Multi-discipline trainer Shannon Sand of Sand Bar Training in Wildomar, Calif., does not believe male and female riders should be taught differently, since the basics of riding are the same regardless of gender. However, she does employ certain techniques to help men overcome some of the physical issues they encounter when learning to ride.

“Because beginning male riders don’t want to bounce around on their private parts, they tend to take more feel of the bit when riding than women do,” she says. “They don’t want to drive with their seats because of the pressure it will put on their crotch area. Or they tend to sit on their jean pockets for this same reason. So it’s important to teach them to be lighter in the saddle, for their own comfort and that of the horse.”

Sand uses breathing exercises to teach male riders to lighten their weight in the saddle and sit tall.“It’s important to teach them to sit up and open their shoulders,” she says. “I use breathing exercises that get them to lift up their bodies instead of slouching, and to open their chest. This helps them to become lighter with their seat and legs.”

Sand notes that some men tend to try to muscle the horse with their legs and use too much pressure. She works on getting them to keep only light contact with the leg by using imagery. “I tell them to imagine they are squeezing a wet sponge between the horse and their leg,” she says. “I want them to press the sponge gently so that the water just eases out. This imagery seems to work well for a lot of men.”

MacLean notes that when teaching male riders, saddle fit is of the utmost importance. “The right saddle fit is more important for men than it is for women,” he says. “A saddle that doesn’t fit the rider presents a basic physics problem for men: either they clear the front of the saddle or they don’t. Also, it’s important not to pad up the front of a saddle for a male rider. If the saddle is up in the front, the rider may not say anything, but it will be very uncomfortable for him.”

When it comes to male versus female riders, it’s important to be aware of the subtle differences in anatomy without getting hung up on them. “It’s a good idea to address anatomical differences so that everyone has a greater understanding of the mechanics of good riding position and balance,” says Goodnight. “While gender can make some things easier and some things more difficult, the same skills must be practiced and mastered by both men and women alike.” [sm]






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