Horse and Hound recently ran a special edition dedicated to ponies and asking why more adults are now riding ponies. My question is why adults who choose to ride ponies seem to find themselves at the end of some very patronising attitudes. Has anyone else encountered this?
I realise that being so baby-faced is part of my problem. Being small, blonde and female undoubtedly doesn't help. When I was teaching, parents used to look distinctly concerned at the idea that I was responsible for their kids. At 18, I looked about 14. In my twenties, people used to come to the yard and ask for 'whoever's in charge'. When I cheerily said 'Yes, that's me.' they used to actually look past me and ask 'Are you covering for the day? When is the usual boss back?' I won't see my twenties again and people are still taken aback to discover I'm in charge. At our last work meeting the new girl thought I was on work placement. Horses are not my job any more. These days at work, people stop doubting my competence very quickly, especially when they gain some familiarity. Ironically, when it comes to horses, the opposite seems to be true. Perceptions of my ability seem to deteriorate as I get older.
Here's the thing. I've always had a passion for Connemara ponies. Being petite but strong, I've always had the luxury of being able to ride whatever I like. When I was young, I was often asked to school small ponies. Needless to say, it was valuable experience. I'll never make the Super League but I developed a decent capacity to hold on for dear life and achieve a good level of schooling. I held my own and rarely felt patronised.
By contrast, in spite of considerably more experience in later years I've felt almost constantly undermined. There seems to be an automatic and unshakeable assumption that I must be inexperienced or incompetent if I choose to keep a 14.1hh pony. It's compounded by the fact that my wee mare is so civil and reliable. Now, I might be able to forgive this misconception if it weren't for the fact that nobody seems to revise their opinion when they get to know me. I don't feel the need to recite my CV but obviously information comes out as you get to know people. It doesn't seem to click with people that since I've had Molly from a foal, the fact that she's so cooperative and well schooled might be because I put the work in. Do they think she was born that way?
The owner of my current livery yard repeatedly tells me 'she's a child's pony'. She jumps 1.10m and doesn't have to be asked twice when she gets an opportunity to let rip, so I don't see why she can't be a fun ride for an adult too. Others have ridden her and then proceeded to tell me, with some surprise and as if I don't already know, that she is actually very sensitive and well schooled. Just because she's bombproof doesn't mean she's a plod! One girl went as far as to tell me how to ask Molly to leg yield. Seriously, who do they think taught her in the first place? Someone else told me they didn't think my younger sister should ride her because 'her mouth is very soft'. I pointed out that my sister learned to ride on Molly and that is probably why she is now so light and sensitive in her hands. They didn't have an answer for that.
Why do we always seem to automatically assume that riders of boisterous, spirited or 'difficult' horses are more competent? Evidently some horses are genuinely a handful and require skilled riding but we rarely seem to consider the possibility that such behaviour is the result of poor handling, bad riding or lack of schooling. I firmly believe that simply being able to stay on doesn't make a person an effective rider. I've seen some atrocious riders sit through that their own bad riding has provoked. On the other hand, we assume that well behaved ponies are just plods and their riders inexperienced or ineffective. Just because it's sensible doesn't make it boring and it certainly doesn't reflect badly on the adult rider, in spite of the condescension I frequently experience. When we see well behaved children, we don't assume they have no personalities. When we see a spoiled brat throw a tantrum in public, we don't admire the parenting skills as the parents eventually persuade, bribe, cajole or physically coerce the child into getting off the supermarket floor. Why, then do so many of us take the opposite attitude to horses and their riders?