It’s Different for Girls…Body Image and Riding.


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 horses 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 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.

This blog is free, and it always will be. Free to read, but also free of ads because I turn away sponsorships and pay to keep ads off my site. I like to read a clean page and think you do too. If you appreciate the work I do, or if your horse does, consider making a donation.

Anna Blake

33 thoughts on “It’s Different for Girls…Body Image and Riding.”

    • Thanks, Emily. I know from your writing that you are comfortably ‘fabulous’ as well. I don’t exactly remember us this way in high school…

  1. I’ve been seeing a lot about body image and women written recently, but not as it relates to riding. Thanks for the article, it’s a really interesting look!

  2. Thank you! Thank you! I am a new rider and reading your recent article is very helpful. Horses don’t judge us, our looks, and isn’t that fabulous.

  3. What a post to read on this sort of a day when I’ve let myself regress to much younger years when I was thinner, then fatter, then thinner, and never quite good enough. It took decades to say to hell with all that, I’m me. And by that time I was past riding. I’ve more than once thought about traveling north, finding a tacky little house with a couple acres, and wandering over to Anna’s to get back on a horse. Dreams.
    Here is a fabulous link:

  4. Yet another great reason for us to remain loose and relaxed is that wherever we are tense in our bodies, our horse’s muscles will be tense in that exact same place in its body. I often wonder how much muscle soreness in horses originated in the rider being tense.

    Perhaps this link is slightly off subject, but it is the first scientific study I’ve found on how rolkur actually affects the way the horses neck muscles work, and since it falls under the general theme of how does it feel as opposed to how does it look, I thought I’d share it here. I think Dorothy Parker’s poem applies to horse showing just as well as male/female relationships:

    But now I know the things I know,

    And do the things I do;

    And if you do not like me so.

    To hell, oh judge, with you!

    (Not that there aren’t some very fine judges out there doing their best to educate as well as judge)

    • I always think of rolkur as the mark of an insecure rider. AND I think Ms. Parker would like your version of her poem, too.

  6. Great post. As the mother of a teenage girl I see daily how societies expectations of girls and women has made it so hard for girls (women too, but for teens it’s excruciating) to accept their body and not constantly criticize and demean themselves.

  7. Interesting post, and some quotable quotes! As a typical female, I have never really loved my body (in spite of a very appreciative husband of 29 years), but that hasn’t carried over into my riding at all. Being on a horse is the one place I feel comfortable, confident and capable – always have!

  8. On horseback is the one place I never think about body image (on the ground I’m chronically unhappy in my own skin, like so many others) maybe because I started riding as a kid before the self-consciousness kicked in (and I’m not a competitor)!! I would love to be my confident rider self on the ground! What a great post/approach to riding/life, Anna – and great comments too 🙂

    • Whatever physical comfort I have out of the barn/arena, I definitely grew from time in the saddle. It’s photo visible: shots with animals in them look good to me, but if there are no animals, I
      look tense and uncomfortable. Photographic proof!

  9. I see a relaxed horse and a lovely rider 🙂 But my body image is not positive, and this is a well thought out blog post. Thank you.

  10. Omg what a fantastic blog this is me! I have a hot chestnut mare who is tense all the time with me a middle aged larger rider who hates people taking photos or videos of her riding and worries what people think at comps. Poor Nan I have not been very fair to her blaming her for tenseness! Thank you for giving me another perspective to look at! 🙂

    • If I knew then what I know now…when I had the body to ride well I was still convinced I was too heavy, and so worried about getting it right. I learned from my Thoroughbred, then from my Arab, parting with them so much wiser than I had been. Both started out hot, and either abused or neglected. I now show dogs, wow, talk about image issues. I learned to chant that line from Meatballs (my husband loved stupid movies): It just doesn’t matter.

  11. Pingback: It’s Different for Girls…Body Image, Riding, and how we see ourselves. | Mona Karel Author
  12. I think that everybody should try to eat properly, on average, and move their bodies. Basic health is most important, not how skinny you are. I encourage my kids to eat healthy and exercise, not to look good in a bathing suit, but to be strong, energetic and positive members of society.

  13. My coach said “breathe out” today, I did and the tension left me and my horse. I started to laugh and not be so serious and my horse loved me for it because he was able to move under my weight with more freedom than previously…… At that moment I couldn’t give a toss how much I weighed and how bad my self perception was….

  14. I’m so glad that I found this. What a beautiful blog and beautiful piece of advice to share. I’ve always been judged unfairly by people because of my slimmness and chest. Its made me very uncomfortable with myself but since riding, I’ve been a lot better. Horses have this amazing ability to see past your looks and shape and see straight to your soul and heart. They are wonderful animals and I owe them a lot.

  15. Pingback: 10 tips to banish competition nerves | Thistle Ridge Equestrian Services
    . Not that it actually matters where the tension starts. Horses don’t like tension in themselves or their riders.


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