Something about being female — and most especially a female rider — sets up a different kind of self-scrutiny than whatever gets loaded into the male circuit board that allows plus-sized cowboys to hop onto quarter horses to cut, rope, rein their way to championship runs without even so much as a second thought about the watermelon-sized gut hanging over an over-cranked belt. We women, on the other hand, can worry ourselves sick over a little extra pudge — and God forbid — a muffin top. To go up a size in jeans is to admit failure or some personal shortcoming we can’t even name. And nowhere is this more true than in the show ring.
Why is this, I ask you? Or, possibly even more important, what can we do to get past it? How can we learn to think differently about our bodies, even if they aren’t the size or shape we want them to be? As long as we’re fit, strong and healthy, do our horses even care?
Jenni, whose story appears in full in Riding Through Thick & Thin is a perfect example, I think of both the kind of garbage we can take on about our bodies — and the exhilaration to be had in overcoming it. Jenni was born into a line of women, her grandmother, specifically, who truly believed “being skinny” was key to any success a woman should aspire to. “I was never tiny enough to meet her expectations,” Jenni writes, adding that some of the things that are conditioned in childhood often stick with us for life.
After spending most of her childhood and teenage years believing she was “this obese monster who would never achieve anything,” Jenni met Mary, a friend at high school who rode horses. While Jenny really wanted to ride, she was afraid. Not of the riding or the horses, mind you, but that the extra 15 pounds she carried would be just too much. “ I was fearful of how I would look in breeches,” she says, “I was fearful the horse would stumble with me because I was so fat.”
Jenni says she remembers Mary, laughing at her, saying like, “Jenni, the horse weighs a ton. Literally. Get over yourself. You are not fat, and the horse will never care.”
The horse will never care.
“And he didn’t care,” Jenni says. “And you wanna know who else didn’t care? The instructor didn’t care. And all the girls at the barn felt funny in breeches. NOBODY cared how “fat” I was.”
Jenni says that while she may not be Olympic material, she turned out to be a pretty good rider. What’s even more important is that putting her focus on riding helped her break free of the hang-ups she had about her body, once and for all (Take that, Grams!)”
For all the Jenni and Grams stories out there (and believe me, in researching Riding Through Thick & Thin I met plenty of them), the names and details may change, but the body angst is shockingly similar.) In fact, part of why I wrote this book in the first place was to get to the bottom of exactly what drives this kind of body angst. Whether or not our self-criticism — or the criticism of others —has even a pinky toe in reality, we have to wonder what it is that makes us take it on. And how we can set ourselves free.
Spoiler Alert: the first step isn’t losing weight or exorcizing that muffin top. To break this cycle we must first learn to look at our bodies in the light of acceptance —without any judgment or plan for changing anything. Now allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling — without any need to shut it off or to fix it. See yourself — maybe for the first time in your life — with a big, open, kind, and loving heart.