Women at the Top and Redefining Societal Norms

Women at the Top and Redefining Societal Norms

We live in a society full of unrealistic expectations for the working woman. There is a constant struggle to win over equal rights, even down to the US dollar. Women often face a compromise between home and career, no matter how advanced they may be in their career, or how elite an athlete they might be.  Recently, female athletes who have qualified for the Tokyo Olympics were even forced to choose between attending the Games and breastfeeding their children.

I’ve felt this split myself. As far back as I can remember, my goal to be a grand prix show jumper has consumed my time and energy. As a child, I aspired to one day don the pinque coat and pristine white breeches. In my teen years, I spent countless hours at the barn, grooming and riding anything that was offered. I bought cheap off-the-track Thoroughbreds in hopes that they'd turn out to be my underdog jumper. As an adult rider, I'd walk every course at a show just to get within earshot of my favorite riders. 

I rode until my bones hurt.

I did eventually achieve professional status, working in a competitive ‘AA’ circuit facility where I trained with top riders and found opportunities that could eventually lead me to my dreams.

But as years lead on, life began to ask questions of me that I did not see my male counterparts grappling with -- questions that many refer to as the “mental burden” of womanhood, motherhood: Will you be around to care for your child? Who will have dinner ready? With those long hours at the barn, how will the house stay clean?

Israeli Olympic rider Ashlee Bond picks up her daughter, Scottie, after her round.

Having been raised with these types of expectations, societal demands, and internal pressures, as well as agreements I made within my own marriage, my dream to follow such a demanding career felt as though it was slipping away.

I loved motherhood, but felt split in half by these opposing forces as I came to the realization that there was no ‘having it all’ - that I was only one person, and either route I chose (mom/wife/family, or pro equestrian athlete), the other would suffer to a degree. 

The expectation to be a supportive and loyal wife, putting my own dreams on the backburner, became my route. 

But I became curious about the other side - about the women I saw on the jumper and hunter leaderboards that I'd watch pursue the path I didn't take.

How does that divide feel if you chose to pursue the life of a professional equestrian? What does it take to get to the top and stay at the top, and what women came before to pave the way? 

I spoke with four women who chose to go pro to get some insight on this: Mother, wife, and Israeli Olympic representative Ashlee Bond; single business owner and Grand Prix jumper rider Amanda Flint; mother, wife, business owner, and hunter rider Alexandra Garrity; and World Cup finalist and Grand Prix rider, Sarah Scheiring.

What It Takes

First, let's talk about what's required to be a professional equestrian. It's not just the years and years (arguably a lifetime, as we just saw dressage rider Mary Hanna compete in the Olympics at 66 years old). It's constant travel. Broken bones. Working on holidays. It's relentless. 

So what propels you forward in this sport when the chips are down, when you're burned out, and when you're feeling pulled in different directions? All four women had one crucial thing in common: undeniable passion. The women at the top of this industry understand that the love for the horse, perseverance, and hard work help them succeed, and they also understand that sacrifices are required. Often times, when we've got a burning passion that we feel called to pursue, the sacrifices are unavoidable, but hopefully, they're worth it.

And, just like I learned in motherhood, you've got to let those bad days roll off of you. Winning can never been a full measure of their accomplishments; the blue ribbons will always be just confirmation that their system is working. “For me, ever since I started riding it was about aiming high,” Amanda tells me. “I never settle, and that’s important to me and my program to continue to stay successful.”

Amanda Flint soaring over the liverpool in Tryon. 

Thirty minutes into my interview with business owner and rider Alexandra out of Pittstown, New Jersey, I am interrupted, “I’m sorry I’m out of breath, I’m 38 weeks pregnant.” We both started laughing - this is the reality of the working equestrian mother. Alexandra is still running her family business, Four Seasons Farm, just days away from giving birth to her third baby.

“Truthfully, I am lucky to have a supportive husband. It is necessary in this business with a family to have good help and support behind you” she says. At the end of our interview, I asked for a few photographs as I couldn't resist capturing the full-term pregnant professional in her equestrian garb. Alexandra teased me, “Do you think I can get my tall boots on?!” We laughed harder. Alexandra has continued to graciously run a family business while growing a beautiful family of her own. With thanks to the resources of her husband and family, she is able to step away when it comes to the duties of work and riding - for she admits she would not be able to live such a successful lifestyle. 

It occurs to me how few women have this type of support available to them. No doubt I am talking to a privileged group of women and this has played a part in their ability to make their careers in horses. This realization doesn't mean that they haven't struggled, fought, and worked hard to be here, but we can't neglect to acknowledge the women in marginalized communities, women in unsafe situations, BIPOC, and countless others who have the cards stacked against them in a way that many of us cannot understand. I hope that as we continue to have these conversations, we can pave the way for more accessibility in equestrian sport for all women. 

Establishing Female Mentors 

The women of this group have the opportunity to cast a legacy for young girls who watch them, inside and outside of the show ring. Whether they're aware of their actions or not, their influence will be powerful for those who dream to follow in their strong female footsteps. From Olympic opportunities, World Cup showcases, International Hunter Derbies, Million Dollar Grand Prix classes, all have exhibited growth and power in their career to represent their gender, business, and sport proudly.

It strikes me that these women didn't have female role models to look up to in the sport as they were growing up themselves. When I asked who their biggest female equestrian mentor growing up was, not one rider could give me an answer at the time. “I would not consider myself to have a female mentor growing up necessarily because I’ve unfortunately never trained under any females,” says Sarah.

Sarah Scheiring at WEF. 

The number of strong female professionals has grown rapidly, sure, but 15+ years ago the ratio of men to women professional influences was vastly different. Today we luckily have the Beezie Maddens and Meredith Michaels-Beerbaums of our time paving the way (not to mention women like Gail Greenough), but for a long while the dominance of male equestrian athletes statistically overpowered women. Standing at the in-gate one would find Richard Spooner, Robert Dover, and Peter Wylde. In the history of the Summer Olympics, 38 American men have medaled while only 11 American women have in the divisions of dressage, eventing, and show jumping. Overall, from 69 countries, there have been 2,129 equestrian participants of which 1,751 have been male riders and only 378 were female riders. (Data collected from Olympics.com

Whether this is determined by financial backing, societal standards of lifestyle choices, influx of sponsorships, you name it, records show women naturally are at a disadvantage when matched against men accustomed to the liberties of life without a glass ceiling. “I want to be a role model to my daughter and everyone else, I embrace it. I enjoy that role. It’s a responsibility. I think a lot of women should be aware of that, and women need to be respected and taken seriously,” Ashlee says. 

Do Women Have It Harder?

My question is, do women have to work twice as hard? What women are bringing to the table are the ability to:
A. Do it all 
B. Make substantial life choices
C. Seek out a lifestyle that affords the resources for both home and career.
D. All of the above.

Is it when women are able to make it to the top, only by working as hard as they do, can they achieve the title of a wonderwoman? Can we deem this fair?

Devoting long hours to work life and home life do not always look the same in every family, but my sense is that we're asking too much of women and undervaluing their contributions, and even elite female athletes in our sport aren't immune to it. Not every female seeks the same goals, but I ask, is she still a stereotype for her choices?

Sarah disagrees. “Does my lifestyle have limitations? If you’re asking if I cannot have a traditional family life with children and one steady location, then yes that is true. I travel way too much and I work way too hard to have a traditional female role in life. However, I would like to point out that I don’t consider this a limitation. I have made the conscious choice to follow my dreams and my horses, and this sport is my lifestyle. I don’t believe I am limited at all.” Possibly this powerful point of view holds the answer. 

"I want to be a role model to my daughter and everyone else, I embrace it. I enjoy that role. It’s a responsibility."

Women of this generation are redefining what success looks like. It is individualized. Women in the past have been conditioned to believe that the idea of success is singular, but breaking such societal norms to “choose your own adventure” will be a stepping stone in the right direction for equality against regressive male standards. 

I applaud these women who boldly take on the equestrian ring and continue to pursue their passion, and reflect fondly on their choices. And as we make progress and see more diversity in equestrian sport, even more little girls can be inspired. Ashlee, Amanda, Alexandra and Sarah all have taken the time to grow and successfully build strong, professional careers, and each will no doubt be mentors for many young girls in their path. Their choices and careers lead an example that women can choose whichever life is right for them, and still deserve happiness and success.

Written by Troy Anna Smith

Troy Anna Smith is a Nashville-based writer with a BA in Journalism from Penn State University. Troy finds her passion through her daughter, her love of horses, and her two rescue pups. Some of her writing can be found in The Plaid Horse Magazine, Sidelines Magazine, and The Spark by Heels Down.