I remember the first time I tried on breeches that didn’t make me feel like meat packed into a sausage casing. After almost two decades of accepting whatever riding clothes I could squeeze into—and accepting the reality that they were hard to come by and often out of stock—it had never occurred to me that breeches could feel so wonderful. Gesturing emphatically at the nearest store employee, I begged for whatever information she had: brand, size, other color options and anything else she knew.
“Oh yeah, those are made for plus-size riders. We only have black in-store, but we can order more colors if you want,” she responded, happy to lead me to the register.
I basked in the warm light of inclusion, wondering if this was how most girls felt when they tried breeches on in the store. I ordered another pair and promptly posted my excitement to Facebook as soon as I returned home, gleeful that I had found the holy grail pair of breeches that made me feel like a normal equestrian.
Fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have been so open about my experience. For most of my childhood and young adulthood, I was embarrassed by my body and did everything in my power to lose weight. Crash diets? Absolutely. Not eating? Bring it on. Overexercising? Definitely. The more weight I lost, the more compliments I received. In fact, I learned very quickly that when you lose weight, people don’t look too closely at how exactly you’re losing it.
It wasn’t until college that I started to ask why. Growing up around horses, I had taken home ribbons in Western games, eventing, dressage, jumpers and pleasure classes. My success had never been limited by my size. Why did I feel the need to emulate the body shapes of riders I saw in magazines? Why did I feel the need to shrink myself until I fit into the pretty breeches at the tack store, instead of asking why those breeches weren’t made to fit me?
As a culture, we’re getting better at asking those questions. I’ve never seen so many diverse body types in commercials, and I’ve never witnessed such positive discussions online. Until a year ago, I had never even heard of breeches designed specifically to fit bodies like mine.
But in the tack room, my friends and I still discuss how much weight we need to lose before show season and how our muffin tops look in our breeches. We confuse our fitness with our weight, comparing diets and bemoaning the bodies we see on TV.
I want to make myself clear—I don’t think there’s anything wrong with losing weight or setting goals around weight loss. My size has oscillated for most of my life as I’ve gone from crash diets to healthy weight loss and back again. But the older I get, the more I realize that I haven’t always been honest about why I wanted to lose weight. For years, I’ve told myself that the reason to lose weight was to become a better rider. But if the goal is being a better rider, then why was I so focused on the numbers on the scale instead of how much stronger I could be? And why isn’t strength a bigger part of the conversation focused on weight loss?
The dialogue around weight loss and body image is prevalent among every rider I know, regardless of age and gender. A few weeks ago, my friends and I were standing in the tack room chatting about how much we hated to see ourselves in the mirror when one of the preteen girls at the barn jumped into the conversation and said, “Oh yeah, I hate my thighs when I see them in the mirror. They’re disgusting!”
I was horrified; how could a girl so young already have such a strong negative opinion about her body? While it may have seemed casual to joke about our weight gain and jiggly thighs, I realized that we had also unconsciously sent a dangerous message to the next generation.
They mimic exactly what they hear us, the adults in the barn, say as we tack up our horses. I watch these young riders and wonder, how do they not recognize how strong they are? Why do they care about having the smallest waist when they can literally fly?
Turning those thoughts on myself, I realized I must also ask, why do I care about having the slimmest thighs? I’m fit, and I have an amazing, patient, wonderful horse who helps me fly. The numbers on the scale shouldn’t stand in the way of that joy.
This unforgiving judgement of our bodies is a learned behavior and internalization of everything we see and hear on a regular basis, both consciously and subconsciously. I don’t know when I first realized my body wasn’t OK; it could have been when I was shopping with friends as a teenager and an employee told me that they “didn’t have clothes for girls who looked like me.” It could have been during a riding clinic when the instructor told me to trot my horse in two-point for five extra laps because she didn’t believe I was fit enough to jump. It was likely all those experiences and more, many of which have shaped how I view myself today.
But if it’s a learned behavior, that means it can be unlearned. So, going forward, I invite you to marvel at the strength in your thighs, the power in your core and the endurance of your lungs. I invite you to pay less attention to the numbers on the scale and more attention to whether or not you’re meeting your fitness goals. And finally, I invite you to change the conversation; among yourselves and among the young men and women you know who may be listening more closely than you realize.
Our bodies are beautiful, our bodies are strong and our bodies deserve to be cared for; regardless of whether or not it’s easy to find breeches that fit.
Jennifer Finch is a professional writer for Thomson Reuters who grew up riding and competing horses in a variety of disciplines including English equitation, Western games, Western drill team, jumpers, dressage and eventing. After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in English, she purchased her off-the-track Thoroughbred, Tavern Time (Julep), with whom she currently competes in hunters and equitation.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Practical Horseman Magazine.