Dear Single Horsewomen,
If you are like me, you slightly dread those dinners with all the other equestrians.
The ones where everyone sits in a circle and swaps stories about their spouses. They talk about the tack they bought at the sale last week and then hid the receipt. Or how it was so adorable when Husband-Harry tried to put a halter on a horse backwards and upside down.
If you are like me, Single Horsewomen, you order a margarita, bite your tongue and feel like your existence as someone without a significant other makes you feel small.
I am not married. And if you are like me, you know this can often feel isolating.
But there is a truth I want to tell you, a big loud truth: You, Single Horsewomen—and men even you—you, your riding, your life and your choices are just as valid as those who have coupled-up.
We single people in the United States are significantly less of a minority than you think.
We single people in the United States are significantly less of a minority than you think. In All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, author Rebecca Traister notes that, in 2009, the number of married American women dropped below 50%.
That’s right; there are more single, divorced, or widowed women of all ages than there are married ones. The median age for married women rose to 27, up from 23 in 1990 and between 19 and 21 before that, and just under half of everyone under the age of 34 have never been married at all.
Dear Single Horsewomen,
I struggle with writing this letter.
I feel that here I must not forget that this isn’t a letter just to young single women, or late 20s/early 30s single women. If you are older and you are reading this, I want you to know, despite all the invisibility and invalidity that has come your way, you too are seen. Even if the ads for new horse stuff, interviews in horse magazines and the world at large tells you that you don’t exist.
In fact, middle-aged women are the norm in horse sport.
The Equine Megamarket Study done by the Brakke Consulting in 2014 reported that: “The average horse owner is a married female, age 35-54, with kids between the ages of 12 and 17. They also enjoy country music, hiking, and outdoor activities, read lots of publications, and own cats and dogs.”
What’s more, many well-known female trainers in the horse world are over the age of 40. These include Julie Goodnight, Stacy Westfall, and others. And sports like dressage, show jumping and eventing have some of the oldest competitors in the Olympic games.
Both Julie Goodnight and Stacy Westfall are married, as are the majority of famous trainers. While there are a few single men, single women of much note were nonexistent. This, I now understand, is because the United States continues to promote the cultural belief that being in a married, monogamous relationship is a social good.
If you don’t have a partner, Dear Single Horsewomen, you are an ugly outlier, an unfortunate, unlikeable individual.
This isn’t just the ideal of the horse world, but of living in the USA. A 2012 Atlantic article, “The High Price of Being Single in America,” reported that it is simply more expensive to be single because of tax structures, IRAs, health insurance, rates on cell phone plans and many other basics that we need as functioning adults simply aren’t set up for those without a spouse.
There are social ramifications to marital bias, as well—specifically in how we’re perceived by others.
In a 2006 study by social psychologists, Bella de Paulo and Wendy Morris, participants were asked to rank how “likeable” a set of people were based on character references. They were then ranked on qualities such as kindness, competence, and other things. The married person almost always scored higher than the single person.
The first time I remember experiencing this sense of bias in myself was when I was introduced to a woman who has become the pillar of my equestrian education. We’ll call her Lucy.
Lucy had worked on breeding farms from California to Illinois. She once moved to Ireland on a whim, and I watched her handle young stallions with an unrivaled fearlessness. She was a carded judge for multiple breeds, including some of the biggest and strictest registries in the world, and had traveled all over the world as a judge. She had even been invited to the Middle East to manage a stud farm.
Most little girls are taught that marriage is one of the greatest achievements in life.
Lucy was also a freelance writer and had the best list of books for me to read.
“Never work for free,” she once told me over breakfast. “Do it once, and you will do it forever.”
She’s one of the people who made me a writer. She’s also one of the people who kept me in horses.
Yet, because she isn’t young and beautiful, people often looked right past her. Myself included. I think now back to the times she reprimanded me for not doing my chores well enough and I wonder if I would have listened better had she been younger, had she been married, had she been a man.
Dear Single Horsewomen,
I know now that the way I treated Lucy isn’t exclusively my fault.
Most little girls are taught that marriage is one of the greatest achievements in life. Our mothers save heirlooms for the big day. We see strangers ask our aunts and our cousins and our mothers about their spouses. We ask preteens about their boyfriends, and a big rite of passage is who we go to prom with.
Even in fairy tales, the heroines achieve victory by marrying a handsome prince, while the wicked witch melts alone with no one to comfort her.
Of course, I thought less of Lucy. But it wasn’t because Lucy deserved it, it was because there was no prince.
If I ever see Lucy again, I would tell her thank you. I would tell her that we are on the rise. Women who, with their own agency, have lead a quiet revolution. A revolution where we want to work for ourselves, buy horses for ourselves, think for ourselves, and spend our time and our money as we see fit.
And with that, it’s now time to question the strange short sightedness of calling a kind and gentle horse, “a husband-proof horse” because a husband need no longer be a part of the horsey equation.
Dear Single Horsewomen,
The other reason I struggle with this letter is that I am not fundamentally against marriage or those who choose it.
I know many happily married equestrians who got to keep their careers, I know some who didn’t. I know husbands who are supportive and caring in the horse world; I have even met a few who ride. I have also met those who are not.
My lack of a husband, despite what the world likes to tell me, is not because I am somehow repellant—though there are times I believe it in moments of weakness. I am also not too educated, too depressed, or too tough. Nor do I hate men. For the most part, I have simply chosen not to settle down.
At 18, I had a serious boyfriend. By 22, we had planned for me to move to wherever he got into medical school. We had the names of our kids picked out. The marriage didn’t seem like an if, but a when. He broke up with me over the phone right after we graduated.
Five years later, I am grateful he called it off. I was too young to understand that marriage wasn’t some magical elevator to happy life.
In those five years, I fell passionately for someone else and learned what it meant to be single. I’ve lived in four states, a suburb, the third largest city in the United States, an island, a farmhouse and a small town. I paid my bills. I struggled, I thrived. I had spells where I rode horses every day, and I had stretches where I wondered if I would ever ride again.
A horsewoman I know saw me overwhelmed one day as many of those around me partnered off. She took me aside and said, “It’s not a requirement, Gretchen. It’s easy to have kids and to get married. It’s hard to get out of those things, though, you have to make that decision carefully.”
Marriage or a partnership can also require making sacrifices I am not yet prepared to make. A friend of mine always dreamed of handling horses. She went to school for it and interned at every place she could find.
I once crossed a pasture with her on a late afternoon at the farm where she was working. The white fences made latitude lines across the grass. A herd of horses trotted up. Once upon us, they rested their faces on our shoulders looking for attention. I knew it was among these animals that my friend belonged. Later, she had to make a choice between the person she loved and a job working with the horses she loved. She chose the horses.
A another friend made the opposite choice. When she was young, she aspired to be a trainer and worked with some of the best minds the Quarter Horse world has to offer. She even lived overseas teaching training best practices to those who had newly-imported this All-American breed.
Now, after 20 years away, she is slowly getting back into horses. “It was horses or my kids,” she told me. “I picked my kids.”
I have yet to Hear a male trainer say, “Well, I had kids, so I had to give up horses.”
It wasn’t my friend or her partner’s fault that they were pulled apart, nor was it the fault of the children that their mother had to make that sacrifice. It’s a systemic issue that arises from a society and an economic structure that still wheezes and chokes at the growing personhood of American women.
“No husband?” Our culture still snears. “No horse for you and no security either.”
Dear Single Horsewomen,
I have yet to hear a male trainer say, “Well, I had kids, so I had to give up horses.”
Yes, because of improved healthcare, a higher standard of living, and birth control, living singly is now a viable option. And, with the rise of more education and job options for women, many women have chosen to either postpone marriage and raising children or opt out of it all together.
It’s hard to live both the life of a partner and a parent and a have a full-time job. Especially considering the lack of affordable childcare and poor paternal leave for both men and women.
Life as an unmarried woman still isn’t easy though. And one that must include horses, even more so. Per the National Women’s Law Center, single women are 35% more likely to be in poverty than men or their married peers. MSNBC reported that less than 40% of all unmarried women have more than 1,000 dollars saved for retirement. Single women are also overrepresented in low paying jobs.
It is much easier to have a hobby, like horses, if there are two incomes coming in, or if that one woman was paid well for the work she already does.
But even if you can’t own a horse, Dear Single Horsewomen, believe me, a life with horses is possible. It just isn’t always traditional.
When I moved to Chicago for graduate school, my horsey friends had thought I had lost my mind. “A city?” they asked, assuming I would have to store my riding boots in the closet. When I told my city friends how much I longed to be back in the saddle, they gave me a similar face. “How on earth are you going to find horses to ride out here?” they would ask.
Yet after a year where I only rode twice on trips back to Colorado, I knew I had to find myself a horse.
I caught myself longingly gazing at the carriage horses carrying tourist down the Magnificent Mile. I would sneakily peer into the police horse trailers parked in Grant Park and shout “Nice heel position!” if I saw the officers riding down the street. It was getting ridiculous, and perhaps a little dangerous. So, I put messages out on forums, reached out to friends and eventually found a place to ride again.
If I had any advice to give, I would tell truly horse-crazy girls to volunteer, clean pens, and pay for lessons. After that, I would tell them to go on trail rides, go to conferences, Grand Prix’s and rodeos. Owning a horse or even growing up with a horse isn’t the only ticket to life with horses. But flexibility, constant education, and tenacity will probably at least get you to the line for the ticket booth.
Finally, Dear Single Horsewomen,
I want you to take solace in your friends and family, horsey and non-horsey alike. They are essential to your well being. They help you keep your perspective and your relationship with them can often span time that falling in and out of sexual love cannot.
It is much easier to face the things that scare you, whether it’s getting on that horse that bucked you off last week or facing overpowering imposter syndrome when you apply for a job if you have friends to stand beside you.
My friend Ellinore is one of those people for me. She has kept me afloat emotionally and as a horse person.
Ellinore is an equestrian in her own right. The two of us have propped each other up through times where we were both so broke we wondered how we were going to cover rent. And we’ve given each other high fives when things were going well.
At my first horse show in five years, it was her I called in a panicked, exhausted, embarrassed, tear-infested meltdown.
“Today went so bad,” I told her.
“How old is the horse your riding?” she asked.
“How many other horse events has she been to like this?” she asked.
“Well, none,” I answered between hiccupping sobs.
“You are both new at this kind of thing and heck, you made it through the day without killing yourselves,” she answered. “Guess what, the two of you have already succeeded. Go inside and go to bed.”
She was right, but she also reminded me of something else, Dear Single Reader: no two paths both on horseback or on the footpath of life are the same. This applies to horses, relationships, careers and just about everything else. The beauty is that as we women fight for more and more equality, our options grow and with a little luck, a little drive, and little too much bravery, we can have whatever we want.
Yes, like most American girls and boys, or girls and boys in other parts of the world, I have been taught that the ultimate love, the only love, the love that we must fight hardest for is the one that makes us couple up and reproduce. This is a beautiful thing for sure—it’s a piece of love that always does make a good story.
Nevertheless, this being the pinnacle of love doesn’t do love enough credit. Love is a thing that can give us a passion for an art form or a better world. It can also be a thing we experience for our fellow man and other animals. Love is the reason we ride horses.
Love is too big for such a small space.
When I go visit an old red mare I rode as a teenager, she often sticks her nose against my chest and sighs, in a big, “Where have you been?” Her lip goes soft and loose and I think of all of the times we rode like hooligans through the neighbor’s cow pasture, when neither of us knew better.
From her, I learned that love is a thing that spanned far beyond the conventional. We must not doubt its strength, nor its mailability.
Love is bigger than just the two glorified pillars of parent and child, and that of romantic lovers. It is a thing that happens between a boy and his dog, two old friends, siblings, student and teacher and, of course, horse and rider.
Even if we are single, without someone in our beds, it doesn’t mean that we live loveless lives. Love is too big for such a small space. Instead, Dear Single Horsewomen, we must remember that love is varied and colorful and changing. It whispers in the quiet dust of the horse barn, and comes running in the embrace of old friends and new.
A fellow Single Horsewoman
About the Author
Gretchen Lida is a Colorado native and nonfiction MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago. Her work has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, Horse Network, Mud Season Review, and others. She also rides horses and thinks about Aldo Leopold in Wisconsin.