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This Is What An Equestrian Looks Like, NOW

This is what an equestrian looks like, Now. Lis Hartel on Jubilee. (Getty Images)

This is what an equestrian looks like, NOW. But within living memory, only commissioned (male) military officers were allowed to compete in Olympic equestrian sports until 1952, when Lis Hartel, riding for Denmark, became the first woman to ride in the Olympics, the first to medal (a Silver in dressage) and unbeknownst to almost everyone, the first Para-Olympian. Her secret was only revealed when the Gold Medalist, Major Saint Cyr, lifted her off her horse and carried her to the podium.


At 23, pregnant with her second child, had Hartel contracted polio. (This was in 1944, with Denmark under Nazi occupation.) Doctors told her with luck, she might walk again. Certainly her riding career was over. But Hartel had been the national dressage champion in 1943 and 44, and could not accept this verdict. Pausing only to deliver a healthy daughter, she first crawled, then walked with crutches, and then began riding again. She had to find a whole new approach, as she had no feeling in her legs below the knee. In fact, her whole body was weak. Her daughter Pernille Siesebye recalled that Hartel's horse Jubilee "was brilliant." The mare stood "still like a statue" when Hartel was lifted on and off, and quickly learned to respond to the weight and back aids which were all Hartel had to use. With encouragement from Colonel Podhajsky of the Spanish Riding School, Hartel returned to international competition, and three years after polio won Silver at the Scandinavian Riding Championship. Her Olympic medals came in 1952 and 56 (another Silver). But the achievement she took greatest pride in was founding Europe's first therapeutic riding center. They soon spread all over the world, opening equestrian sport to countless other people who had never expected that horses would be part of their lives.


Chandra Thurman is also what an equestrian looks like. A Black woman of what old novels like to call "a comfortable habit," she is featured in a lovely short film from US Equestrian, https://www.usef.org/learning-center, posted in March 2021. In the film Chandra says, "Don't think that just because you look a certain way you can't do it."

We have strong images in our minds of what an equestrian looks like. Today it's a thin blonde woman bearing a certain aura of entitlement. Often we don't realize how new that image is, or what burden those riders may be carrying, concealed beneath the equestrian uniform. I know women alive today who were discouraged in their teens and twenties from becoming horse trainers or veterinarians because of their gender. Today the horse world is majority-female, and majority-White. But it's a kaleidoscope; give it another turn and the colors will shift, making a new and beautiful pattern.


What I Love About This: My first riding teacher was the great Sally Swift. (It was in a hayfield. We used to tie our ponies to fence posts when we weren't riding, and the farmer's draft team would come over and intimidate them.) In her first book, Centered Riding, Sally used an image of riding with "stubby legs," as if you had no legs from the knee down. It encouraged you to ride using your weight and back, just like Lis Hartel did. Swift and Hartel were from the same generation. I wonder if Hartel was the inspiration for this very powerful image. When I'm riding at my best it's all about very tiny weight cues and shifts of my seatbones. I don't even think about my legs. Maybe that's a legacy from Lis Hartel. I love the change she represents, and the change Chandra Thurman represents--and the beautiful connection in this image, between her and her mare, exactly like the connection between Lis Hartel and Jubilee. I also love knowing (see the Eurodressage article in the link below) that Jubilee was not a special horse to begin with--just a nice hack for the kids and Hartel's father to ride. But she had a special ability to connect with her human, and became far more beautiful in training. Dressage changed her shape, as it's supposed to do. Though she had a mushy piaffe that never improved much, she (and her rider) gained points for their exceptional lightness. It's what many of us love about dressage, as a shaper of both horse and rider.





Great article in Eurodressage focusing on Hartel's horse Jubilee


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