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  • Writer's pictureFran Cleland

Girls, girls, girls but it hasn't always been that way

ABOVE: Lana du Pont Wright – the first woman to get round an Olympic cross country course.

WE accept without thinking that Edwina Tops Alexander is one of the world’s leading showjumping riders, that we have several elite level women eventing riders and there are now more girls than boys in the racing jockeys apprenticeship schools, but it hasn’t been that way for long.

The road for women to break the glass ceiling hasn’t been an easy.

During the 1970s women were allowed to race professionally, but initially they could only race in horse races designated for female jockeys.

Linda Jones and Pam O’Neil were the first women to be given professional licenses but there was still a lot of debate in national publications that women would not be able to match it with men because of their lesser strength.

But in racing and in other horse sports, women have shown that strength is not as important as “feel” and that many horses perform better for a less dominant rider.

The Olympic eventing competition was originally open only to male military officers in active duty, mounted only on military charges. In 1924, eventing was opened to male civilians, although non-commissioned Army officers could not participate in the Olympics until 1956.

Although women did not take part in the Games until 1964, the winner at the Badminton Horse Trials in 1954 was Margaret Hough with Diana Mason third.

Later that year, both women would contest the European Championships, giving them the shared honour of being the first women to ever ride on a three-day-eventing squad.

An American, Lana du Pont Wright, was the first woman selected to compete at an Olympics, riding Wister at the 1964 Tokyo games where she helped clinch a team silver for the US.

Lana was one tough cookie, and after her ride, was very casual about the problems encounters on the tough and slippery course.

In the ‘U.S. Equestrian Team Book of Riding’ she writes, “We fell hard, Wister breaking several bones in his jaw. We were badly dishevelled and shaken, but Wister was nonetheless eager to continue.

“We fell a second time near the end of the course, tripping over another spread. When we finished, we were a collection of bruises, broken bones and mud. Anyway, we proved that a woman could get around an Olympic cross-country course, and nobody could have said that we looked feminine at the finish.”

ABOVE: Mariane Gilchrist, Delwyn Ogilvy and Liselott Linsenhoff. (Click any image to expand)

Many women were also disadvantaged in eventing and showjumping because until 1998, event horses had to carry a minimum weight of 165 lb (75kg) (including rider and saddle) during the endurance test.

Lead weights were carried on the saddle and the competitor had to be weighed-in with tack immediately following cross-country. The same weight had to be carried in showjumping competitions.

Champion Australian showjumping rider Mariane Gilchrist rode in 19 World Cup qualifiers, winning four when lady riders had to carry weight to create equal competition between men and women.

Being of slight build, she had to carry nearly 15kgs of lead throughout her career.

Victorian event rider and coach Delwyn Ogilvy remembers competing in England at Brahman International in 1992 when she had the second fastest time cross country, finishing on her dressage.

“I purposely bought a heavy saddle to reduce carrying deadweight,” she said.

In dressage, today’s riders owe a lot to Danish rider Lis Hartel. She was not only the first woman to ride for an Olympic equestrian team, but also the first female medallist and the first Olympic level equestrian to medal despite a major physical disability.

She is her own story. A polio sufferer, paralysed from the knees down, Lis competed at the Scandinavian Riding Championships in 1947 and finished in second place.

While her scores would have qualified her to compete in the 1948 Olympics, women were still not allowed. It was another four years before the rules changed and Lis was able to represent Denmark at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics for her first of two silver medals.

Henri Saint Cyr of Sweden, the gold medallist, carried Lis from her horse to the Olympic podium, and it is said to be one of the most emotional moments in Olympic history.

ABOVE: Lis Hartel was the first female medallist in equestrian at an Olympic Games.

Since 1972 when Liselott Linsenhoff won gold at Munich, only the master Reiner Klimke (whose daughter Ingrid is a champion in her own right) has been able to fend the women off.

The last nine gold medallists in dressage at the Olympic have been women, with many of the silver and bronze going to them as well.

In endurance riding, where riders compete based on weight not sex, there are three women in the top 10 on the FEI rankings, with Jodie Lee Salinas the top Australian at number 30.

So, while just 70 years ago the Olympic and World Championship arenas were the men’s sportsground, women today have won half of the world’s biggest events, and in racing, the trainers and owners are perfectly happy to throw a girl on board.

Jamie Kah, Carleen Hefell and Linda Meech are all leading jockeys and didn’t we cheer when Michelle Payne rode the Melbourne Cup winner.

Not bad work ‘eh? Let’s hear it for the girls.

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