Horses and headlocks

Emily Moore is The F-Word’s guest blogger for December

I’ve always been puzzled by the arbitrary nature of the gender binary and its application to things that have nothing to do with gender, before I realised I identified as non-binary. Never a typical girl, I refused to wear dresses on principle for several years after being told that I should because “girls wear pretty dresses”.

My two passions since a young teenager have been martial arts and horse riding. One of these is framed as a very masculine pursuit, the other overwhelmingly ‘girly’. This makes no sense to me. The traits and broad skills that are required are extremely similar and I have found improvements in my riding have led to improvements in my martial arts training and vice versa.

Working with and riding horses takes strength: to carry hay bales and bedding, bags of feed, tack and equipment; to disagree with an animal weighing at least half a tonne; to keep your balance in the saddle and to get straight back in it when inevitably your balance fails you. Martial arts also take strength: to punch, block, kick, strike, throw, restrain and lock; to hold kick shields and strike pads for your partners, to take hits and keep your balance.

Both sports require fine motor skills, balance and coordination as well as the drive to keep improving those. It takes tenacity and bravery bordering on the reckless to keep riding, to get back in the saddle, to catch the reluctant horse, to handle the one that kicked you yesterday, to jump that jump that you clattered through five minutes ago. Similar courage is required in martial arts, to keep trying that technique you can’t quite pull off or sparring with that person that kicked you yesterday.

Why then is the former considered feminine and the latter masculine?

I have encountered many more women riders than men and all save for one of my horsey friends are women. I used to teach at a riding school and below the age of about eight we had about an even split of boys and girls. The main reason the boys stopped? Losing interest due to being ridiculed for liking what was deemed to be a girls’ pursuit. Whenever I have heard horse riding being labelled as a an activity for girls, it has been to make it lesser, to gloss over the toughness, skill and bravery that all riders have regardless of gender. Compassion and love for horse is framed as sentimental and weak, rather than recognising how amazing it is that we can communicate and have a connection with a creature that does not use language as we do.

The perception that fighting is not for girls seems to come from the idea that girls need protecting by others and that being a good fighter and being able to defend yourself comes down to pure brute force. I have been taught that there are three strengths for a good fighter: physical, mental and technical. I fight differently from the men I train with, but they each fight just as differently from each other. I am only 5’5”, so it makes sense that I wouldn’t favour the same techniques as the guy who is 6’2”. In addition, height is not always an advantage. I can be quite difficult to overbalance by force alone, from learning how to stay on my feet while being barged about by ill-mannered horses.

Cramming these two pursuits into the gender binary serves to erase both the commonalities between them as well as their differences, reducing them. Riding is not just about petting horses just as martial arts is not just about brute physical strength.

The photo is by Mary Austin and is used under a creative commons licence. It shows a woman, Kim Jones, dressed in riding clothes and boots and using a wheelchair, attaching the bridle of a horse, Star.

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