Men certainly have their place in the upper echelons of dressage, but for every Steffen Peters at the top of the sport, there are thousands of women in the United States competing at Training Level through Grand Prix. Neither the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) nor the U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) keeps statistics on the gender of their members, but it’s clear that dressage has become a woman’s game. At shows from coast to coast, competitors in the adult amateur division are overwhelmingly female, as are the youths participating in U.S. Pony Club programs and in the Junior and Young Rider divisions. The trend appears to be global: In a recent ranking of the world’s leading dressage riders by the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI), six of the top 10 spots were occupied by women.
Female dominance in the sport wasn’t always the norm. When dressage made the Olympic roster at the 1912 Games in Stockholm (where it was joined by eventing and show jumping), it was predominantly a pastime of male military officers. That all changed in 1952, when the summer Olympics in Helsinki opened the door both to civilian male competitors and women. By winning the individual silver medal in dressage, Denmark’s Lis Hartel wasted no time in demonstrating to the world that women could compete alongside men and win.
Some observers have suggested that behind every female competitor is a male trainer. However, in his book Dressage Masters, David Collins speculates that as the current generation of riders matures, “most future great masters will be female, as exemplified by Finnish Olympian Kyra Kyrklund.”
Dressage in the Early Days
In its infancy, modern dressage was virtually inseparable from its military origins and that tradition followed in the United States. Until 1951, when the U.S. Cavalry was formally disbanded, the U.S. Olympic team members were selected from the ranks of the Army. At the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, the U.S. Army Equestrian Team won an unprecedented five medals, including the historic bronze in the individual dressage event won by Col. Hiram Tuttle and Olympic, a horse he trained.
Olympian and longtime FEI “I” judge Maj. Gen. Jonathan R. (Jack) Burton joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) Horse Cavalry Division in 1940 and learned military-seat equitation and steeplechase as well as polo. From there he graduated to cavalry school at Fort Riley, Kansas, where his studies included riding, shoeing, stable management and veterinary procedures.
Now 91, Burton is still active as a dressage judge and clinician. “Dressage,” he acknowledges, “has become more of a female sport. But 20 years ago, it was quite the other way around.” He voices concern that the number of males in dressage is dwindling. “I’d like to see the men in the sport encourage others. We need more men!”
Charles de Kunffy, the Hungarian-born clinician and author on classical dressage, remembers his first impressions of the U.S. “To my great surprise, men were far outnumbered by women in dressage. The Europe I left had the statistics the other way around, but with an obvious surging of women enthusiasts.”
De Kunffy says he’s not surprised that women outnumber men in equestrian sport, particularly since they compete as equals. “Gender division evaluates most sport achievements separately, but riding does not. This is a great incentive for women.” But he points out that dressage instructors have disproportionately been male. “This could be due to men having traditionally been given greater systematic education in military riding schools, which in time transmuted into riding academies in Germany, France, Sweden and elsewhere,” he explains. “Most of the career aspirants enrolling in these post-World War II academies were men seeking to make a career in the field.”
The Influence of American Culture
USDF President George Williams says family connections attract many men to the sport. He was no different. “I grew up with horses,” he explains. He and his eight siblings all rode, an effort spearheaded by their mother, Mary Hotchkiss Williams, a dressage rider and instructor who cofounded the Monadnock Pony Club in New Hampshire. Williams himself started dressage lessons at age 8. “I absolutely loved it,” he says. “But it wasn’t just the riding, it was our social life as well.” He bemoans the lack of participation by males in the sport. “I agree that there’s a crisis in dressage, but I don’t know how we can reach the boys coming up. There are so many other sports vying for their attention. Dressage is certainly not easy, and it’s not for the timid, but it is very rewarding.”
Six-time Olympian Robert Dover, who started riding dressage at age 19, sees little support for males who take up riding. “In North America, at least, there’s no denying that there’s a stigma—just as there is for those who want to dance or take part in sports seen as being played more by girls. Still, there have always been many top professionals in dressage and the other [equestrian] disciplines who are male.”
USEF National Dressage Youth Coach Jeremy Steinberg agrees. “In the U.S., dressage is not looked on as a top sport,” he says. “But in Europe, where there are generations of families in the horse business, no one looks twice at a boy wearing breeches in the grocery store. Here, if you show up in breeches and boots, everyone looks at you cross-eyed.” As a boy in Seattle, Steinberg was introduced—reluctantly—to dressage by his mother. “I thought it was really stupid,” he admits. “But being athletic and very active, I saw it as a cool thing the more I did it.” Like Williams, he came up through Pony Club, where he quickly grew accustomed to being one of the few males in the barn and at shows.
Today Steinberg travels around the country coaching young hopefuls. “I’d say that for every 10 to 15 girls I see, there’s maybe one boy. But of the boys I do run into, more of them are participating with the thought or aspiration of becoming professionals.”
Pierre St. Jacques, a member of the gold-medal-winning American dressage team at the 2003 Pan American Games with his horse Lucky Tiger, says that males in the U.S. typically favor action sports. “Dressage is just not part of our culture,” he says. “Here, all the role models are baseball, hockey or soccer players. You don’t see dressage riders in the mainstream media.” In Europe, where he’s trained and competed extensively, equestrian sports are looked
at through a different lens. “There, every village has a riding center—it’s just part of life. No one frowns on boys who ride.”
Growing up in Montreal, St. Jacques rode and did downhill skiing. “I also loved to do slalom, but I loved the technical aspect of it, so I can understand why I gravitated to dressage. All my friends just wanted to go down the hill as fast as they could. I wasn’t drawn to team sports, so my mother steered me into something that I could do year-round.” St. Jacques says he was usually the only boy at the barn, but, he laughs, “I didn’t complain! Of course, I was so enthralled with the horses, I didn’t always pay attention to what was going on around me.”
Dressage trainer Gerhard Politz, who worked with Egon von Neindorff, Willi Schultheis and Brig. Gen. Kurt Albrecht in his native Germany, detects no gender differences in how his students learn. “Sometimes one has better communication with a particular student versus another, but I don’t believe that’s gender-related. Dressage queens come in many persuasions!” But he believes that male trainers have certain advantages over their female counterparts. “There’s a period in almost every horse’s education where a certain amount of physical strength can be an asset.” But, he stresses, “I am not advocating training horses with force. On the other hand, most horses respond better to being ridden with feeling and sensitivity—that’s usually where women have the edge.”
Robert Dover takes this idea a step further. “It is actually the responsibility of their trainers to instill in boys and men an understanding that their use of physical strength should not take the place of sensitivity and lightness when riding.”
Fit for A Man
Just as men and women compete as equals in the dressage arena, their show clothes are virtually indistinguishable: white breeches, white shirt with stock tie (men can wear a regular white tie instead), dark dressage coat or shadbelly (tailcoat) with typically canary-colored vest points and black dress boots. Nevertheless, many of the men in dressage’s upper levels push the fashion envelope: Spanish team members don gray shadbellies, and Steffen Peters relinquished his longtime tailcoat for a futuristic, high-tech model by his sponsor GPA. But probably no male rider cuts so stylish a figure as top rider Edward Gal of the Netherlands, who regularly turns heads in the dressage arena—and not just for the horses he rides. At the 2009 Dutch Dressage Championships, he sported a pale gray tailcoat, created for him by Dutch couturier Mart Visser, that featured black detailing on the sleeves and nine buttons instead of the usual six. “In Holland most people liked it because it was different but still stylish and chic,” notes Gal. “Clothing must be elegant and have a good fit and some small details that make it unique.”
With men at the fashion forefront of dressage’s upper levels, you’d expect them to have a wealth of choices when shopping. George Williams is succinct in his assessment of what’s available for men: “I’m used to going into a tack store and not finding what I need.” One explanation for this comes from Tabitha Knaub, who has worked in equestrian retail for 15 years on both coasts and is now co-owner of LA Saddlery in Los Angeles. “Men don’t shop,” she says. “The ones who do are tall and skinny, and they’ll only buy a couple pairs of breeches and maybe a polo shirt once or twice a year. It’s not like if you have it, they’ll come—they just don’t come.”
Brooke Sander of Dressage Extensions, which has a store in Moorpark, California, along with a flourishing catalog and online business, agrees. “Our client base is probably 95 percent female and a lot of them are seasonal shoppers.” She says the company’s male customers are primarily trainers seeking function and comfort over style. “A lot of men tell me their breeches are 10 years old. FITS and Kerrits come out with new colors and prints every season, but in the men’s area, they mostly stick to white, blue and black. Pikeur is a good source, and we try to have a variety of breeches for every day as well as the nicer pairs for showing,” Sander adds. But for men who wear larger sizes, there’s little to no selection. “Bigger men have to go custom,” says Knaub. Others seek out online sources, such as Reitsport Schockemoehle, or turn to regular sport coats for show wear.
While there are hurdles in finding clothing, men may have a slightly easier time when looking for saddles. Sander says their most popular saddle size is a 17-inch, but that many men go for 18-inch saddles. Larger than 18 inches usually must be custom-ordered. According to certified master saddler Jochen Schleese, “Saddles have been traditionally built by men for men. The seat bones,” he explains, “are the key structure for the foundation of position and balance.” Men have two V-shaped seat bones set close together, giving them what Schleese calls “a bipod axis.” “It’s difficult for women to achieve the classic shoulders-hips-heels straight line due to the fact that the articulation of their hips is different than a man’s,” he says. “A male’s hip sockets are much farther forward, so their legs naturally can hang straight down.” Schleese says that in most males, the upper leg is approximately the same length as the lower leg, which means that their legs will hang straight using a “normal” stirrup bar placement.
Only time will tell whether men will play a more prominent role in grass-roots dressage in the years to come, but in the meantime, Jeremy Steinberg and Pierre St. Jacques say they offer their male students a little extra encouragement. Steinberg says, “There are so few of them—you want them to stay interested and see that other men are doing it.”
St. Jacques may have a more personal stake in the development of one potential student: In June, he and his wife, Samantha, an eventer for the Canadian team, welcomed their first child, Stirling Keaton St. Jacques. The proud father states, “Since both of his parents ride, it will be interesting to see what he wants to do. Riding is a great way to grow up.”
This article was originally printed in the October 2011 issue of Dressage Today. To gain up-to-the-minute access to all Dressage Today has to offer, consider subscribing.