Chat with Author Mary Midkiff
May 17, 2001 —
EquiSearch.com: Today we’re talking with female equestrian fitness expert and author, Mary Midkiff, whose latest book, “She Flies Without Wings, How Horses Touch a Woman’s Soul,” was reviewed in Sneak Peeks, in the May issue of Horse & Rider.
Mary M.: Hi there everyone, and thanks for coming today to ask me about my new book, as well as the topics of women’s riding fitness and why horses are so important to us.
Sara: Your book’s theme is familiar to any woman who loves horses – but how did you, or do you, combat the non-horseworld snickers that typically accompany comments about women and horses. How did you, as an author, get past what I call the “Catherine the Great” syndrome?
Mary M.: Well Sara, there is perversity in every walk of life and I choose not to go down that road. I focus on the positive, healing, meditative aspects of horses and let the unhealthy perceptions just roll off. What do I mean by the “meditative aspects of horses?” In meditation, there is a thought called “the zone” – when words don’t pass through your mind and you’re removed from consciousness and in a place or space that knows no words. That knows just the sensual, natural world. I think that horses take us to that place. I always go to the horse when I need to be restored. I go to the barn, or the pasture or trails — wherever I can with my horse — and somehow, some way, what ever there is about that partnership restores me so I can carry on. Those are the aspects about women and horses that I choose to focus on.
Kathy: Did your research involve any psychological profiles or biological explanations as to why the feminine gender is so drawn to horses? If so, what did you find out?
Mary M.: I think it affects us as females on many levels, and satisfies us. It works intuitively because women can communicate without language. We, as women, communicate through body language, through sight, sound, taste, smell – all the senses! From thousands of years of gender training we’ve learned to be able to read cues without having to speak. By “gender training” I mean that women have been life-givers and caretakers through the centuries and we can understand what our offspring need without telling us what we need. That’s who we are as women. One of our skills is nonverbal communication on an intuitive level. I think intuitive behavior between women and horses is based on compassion, trust and unconditional love and always being there in a supportive way. When you base a relationship on those standards and practices, then behaviors come and go that will be rewarding to the relationship. Because it’s a partnership based on compassion and understanding, I think that the giving that goes on between women and horses is more free. I was talking earlier about the “many levels” where horses satisfy us. It’s like having a big dog or cat that can also run like the wind, and carry us when they do it. We get every aspect that we need from the horse. It’s all inclusive. It’s a great package for women. It addresses our physical side, as well as the emotional, psychological and physical sides. It addresses all aspects of our character.
Nancy: What’s your favorite story or anecdote in the book “She Flies Without Wings?” Why?
Mary M.: There are many of course, Nancy, that touched me in different ways and that are special to me. But the stories that mean the most to me are the ones where I am a young girl on the farm, sharing times and memories with the ponies and horses there. That was such a magical time, to live on a big Thoroughbred farm in Bluegrass country. There’s “Danger,” when I opened the gate and let all the mares and foals loose. I still to this day don’t know why I did it. But it moved me, tickled me enough to try it and risk the consequences of setting them “free!” There’s the story about the yearling I bonded with in my first strong connection to a horse. It’s all about my seeing her as a weanling, growing with her, and then watching her go. And then, there’s “Power,” about my grandfather catching the loose stallion in the middle of the night. Those stories hold the most emotion for me. I’m also fond of “In Transformation,” about middle-aged women struggling with their own self image, and my helping them find themselves through the horse.
CarolT: Why did you feel we, as women, need this book now? Is the timing of its publishing significant to where we are now in this culture?
Mary M.: I wrote the book for the universal feminine spirit. I didn’t necessarily write it for horsewomen. I feel this is a time of stress and noise, confusion and complexity. We’re in a world where we are always trying to identify ourselves as women and as human beings on this planet. Where do we fit? How do we fit? And what is out there to help us regain or find our power? The horse is the symbol, the metaphor, the icon or image providing that for women. We simply have to look around to see the image of the horse still in society today. Like the logos that are used in advertising, the images used on television and in movies, or even the statues of horses in central parks and in front of buildings. Everything features the horse and reminds us of its beauty, power, grace and romantic aspects and helps us remember who we are. It leads us to some self-acceptance in a crazy world. The universal spirit of the horse is appealing to others seeking this journey. We’ve even been in discussion with the Oprah Winfrey Show about bringing this message to more women.
Marie: Did you find this book a natural extension of your earlier work, “Fitness, Performance and the Female Equestrian?” What inspired you in your own life to move your focus from the physical to the spiritual?
Mary M.: Yes Marie, it was a natural extension of the first book. The fitness book was based on the need for information, resources, and options for the female rider as an athlete. There was, and still is, a void of techniques or informational resources specific to our gender. The traditions in the horse world are based on masculine aspects, like the cowboy, the military officer or the huntsman. These are all from the male perspective and the task-oriented use of the horse in work and war. All of those images are based on use of the horse from the male perspective — for the male body with a male approach. There was no approach to working with horses from the female side. There was no supportive equipment or information really for women riders until the 1960s. Liberation of the female meant she had her own time, money and choices and no physical limitations. This made an enormous difference. Today, the horse now is used for sport, recreation, pleasure, fun and entertainment. That’s a big shift in the horse industry. The pre-1950s horse industry was very different from the one that has evolved from the 1950s until today. Ninety percent of today’s participation in horses is female. The female rider is the market. The “voids” in resources are being filled. But in instruction, there still needs to be a biomechanical approach to understanding the gender differences specific to riding. Some of those differences are in the hip joint. The connection between the femur (thigh bone) and pelvis is different from female to male. The female pelvis and male pelvis are different in their angles and function. Females are designed to allow a baby to pass through the pelvic structure. A man’s pelvis is not. That’s the basic difference. Weight distribution is also different. Men carry 10% more muscle mass in their upper body than women do, while women’s weight distribution focuses on the hips and thighs. We carry more weight in our hips and thighs. That’s a big difference in how you balance in the saddle! You also have differences in the connection from hip to knee. With women, that connection naturally turns the knee inward, in a pinching effect (imagine comedian Jerry Lewis running like a girl). Women tend to be knock-kneed because of the way the hip joint fits. It sends the knee inward. Women must always be aware of opening their knee in the saddle. They’ll find their horse goes forward, they ride better – everything improves! Riding is different from gender to gender and has to be approached that way for maximum performance with the least amount of effort. If every girl and women learned to ride from this basis, they could avoid injuries, discomfort and negative self-image. Because if they try to ride “traditionally” — arching their back, locking their hip joint, then pinching with the knees and driving with their seat — they wind up with sore backs and worse. It’s a negative situation that results in women complaining, “I’m not good enough.” So they go through horses trying to find one they “can” ride, they endure all this negativity about their form when all it actually comes down to is misunderstanding what the female body requires to remain flexible in the saddle! Comfort, safety, longevity – this is what you can get if you consider your feminine biomechanics. If you give women options, then they’ll never feel like they’ve hit a roadblock in their riding. It becomes empowering to think you can ride for a lifetime and stay safe and comfortable.
JanJ: On the subject of fitness, what are the three best pieces of advice you’d give a woman who wants to get back into riding and build up her fitness level?
Mary M.: Well Jan, first of all, implement a stretching program on a daily basis. That means, 10 minutes daily of a decompression time when you stretch your body in order to prepare for riding. Second, learn what the best alignment is within your own body. Become aware of your own body alignment. You can do that in many ways, including through books or videos. There are many techniques out there, like Alexander, Pilates, yoga, Tai Chi – any body awareness technique will help you get there. Third, adjust your own activity level to the activity level you expect of your horse. Meaning that, if you want to pleasure ride a few times a week and that’s all the exercise you give your horse and all you expect is walk-trot-canter on the trail, that you should be doing that level yourself (taking walks a few times a week, maybe a few hills). However, if you want to do more, like show, or compete in endurance or eventing, anything that requires more of your horse, then you must require more of yourself as well. The conditioning programs should be equal. Don’t sit at your desk eight hours a day like a block of concrete and thengo out to the barn and expect your body to perform. Those three elements are the key. Even if you can only accomplish one of those three, you’re on the right path, but if you can follow all three steps, then you’re doing great!
Tanya: You must have a unique perspective on women in this industry from having also worked for the American Horse Council and the Farm Animal Welfare Coalition. So why is it that women are synonymous with horses, yet it always seems that men are in the upper-level administrative positions. Or am I a mistaken feminist?
Mary M.: No, Tanya, you’re not mistaken – your observations are correct. But things are shifting. Everything used to come from a male perspective of dominance and leadership. However, in the past 20-30 years, we are seeing a slow shift towards more female decision-makers and leaders. There are women who are judges, instructors, trainers, coaches and Olympians. We’re seeing a change more and more. It’s just a slow shift. With more female participation you’re going to see more female leadership and that’s a positive. Women are aware of the need for a cooperative approach with horses, as opposed to a dominant one. Women are extremely resourceful because we’ve had to be. Men could rely on brawn. Women rely on intuition. They rely on their brains and hearts. We figure out ways to get what we want as riders, too, that don’t require strength or force. We’re really good at that. I think those talents will help in leadership. Women are coming more into their own with every generation. Girls understand they can be whoever they want to be, and it’s up to them to decide how they want to live their lives. You’ll see more administrative and powerful positions being taken by women. It’s just a matter of time and generations to remove the constraints of the past that have held us back.
CloeK: Didn’t Gawani Pony Boy also author a book about women and horses? How is yours different? Do the two of you ever swap stories or impressions when you meet on the clinic circuit?
Mary M.: We do occasionally! We see each other on the circuit all the time. He recognized a long time ago that women were the key to the horse market. He’s told me that, “Every clinic I do, every talk I give, it’s 90% girls and women.” He didn’t see boys or men interested in learning more about horses. For his book, he said, “I know what the market is, and I want to interview all these women who are pioneers in the horse industry. That’s how he created “Of Women and Horses.” Actually, I’m in that book – it’s a compilation of stories about women with horses. I applaud his work and what he’s doing is very helpful. But it’s very different from my approach, which is from the female perspective. I can relate to the female approach because I am one!
Sara:What advice do you have for expectant mothers who ride? How far along can you do it safely? How soon can you bounce back after a baby? Are there exercises that can help before and after the baby?
Mary M.: The number one consideration is the risk of a fall. It’s not about injuries to the fetus while in the saddle – it’s more the risk of a fall and are you willing to take that risk? That’s an individual choice. Doctors recommend that first trimester you ride as you normally do, but stop jumping and galloping (again, the falling issue). Then, as you progress through the pregnancy, make your riding as quiet as possible so you don’t have bladder issues or unnecessary jostling of the fetus. Some women just stop riding because it’s uncomfortable when their abdomen begins hitting the pommel. It’s an individual choice and up to you and your physician. I have had doctors tell me they don’t recommend starting to learn to ride when you’re pregnant – it’s a new sport, and your coordination won’t be that good yet if you get in trouble. But if you already ride, it’s your choice. I have a friend who rode throughout her pregnancy and was literally just walking her horse on a trail, and the horse tripped on a log and she fell off and broke her elbow. Because she was pregnant, she had to endure the elbow reset without anesthesia, she couldn’t have painkillers, and she had to wear a cast, limiting her mobility to only one arm! She said it was absolutely horrible and very painful.. So with her second pregnancy, she decided not to ride at all. It really had nothing to do with the baby, but because of the elbow break and ensuing results, she just decided it wasn’t worth it. It takes time to readjust after pregnancy and I’ve had women tell me that, after having had a baby, it’s taken time to get back into riding. That’s because the pelvis has changed – it has become malleable (to deliver the baby), it has opened and widened. Therefore, it’s not going to bounce back exactly the same as before. Women have to relearn how to sit in the saddle after a baby. Their seat bones are in a different location, or their center of balance has shifted slightly. Women have to know this and be open to it. It’s a significant change, but you can ride again, just with a new awareness of your body. That happens in aging as well.
Mary M.: Aging and riding are scary issues to face. Riding is something that we have loved and done passionately all our lives, and then we’re hit with all kinds of uneasy feelings that creep in about lack of coordination, lack of balance, lack of strength. Our bodies are so different from decade to decade. That’s okay, but we need to adjust for these situations, which include hormonal changes, changes in bone density, or just the fear of falling or getting hurt. How to we continue riding with those issues facing us? One, stretch every day If we’re flexible and our joints can adapt, they can support us. If we’re tight then our body can’t support us. Then, we need to supplement our diets to maintain bone density and health so if we do fall, we can recover successfully. And we need to have a saddle that is supportive of our pelvic structure so we can rebalance as we ride and be safe. There are only five or six saddle designers making gender-specific saddles and it makes a huge difference in a woman rider’s ability to balance and rebalance with a horse’s movement, including unsafe situations. Why compromise that? But it’s very hard, you can’t go into a tack shop and say, I need a gender-specific saddle to fit my pelvis. Gender-specific design makes a huge difference for women riders. If you’re in the right position, when something happens with your horse (a fall, spook, buck, etc.) you have a better chance of recovering in a saddle whose seat and tree is adapted to the female pelvis! Since we’re all trying to increase the safety odds in our favor, a supportive saddle is key. I identify the saddlemakers who do make gender-specific designs on my website, www.womenandhorses.com. You can go there to find out the brands that I would recommend or encourage using as a female rider. Also with aging, please consider your equine partner. Give your horse a job interview. Meaning, if you’re looking for a horse, or even with the horse you own, sit down and make a list as if you were asking your horse to become your partner in business. Is the horse the right size, temperament or ability to do what you want to do with them? Is the conformation right for what you want to do? Does he have uphill conformation so that the front end is supportive and not dragging you onto the forehand? Does your horse meet your needs as a partner? I just think it’s a realistic way to approach aging with horses. When you’re 40, 50, or 60 it becomes more important that your horse is supportive of you. Otherwise you’re asking for issues, problems, injuries if your horse isn’t a suitable partner anymore and would be a better partner somewhere else. What I’m driving at is that, I see women ending up with three-year-olds off the track, or fancy Warmbloods that are way too much horse for them, and it’s not a good fit. If you approach riding from the idea that this is your supportive partner, then you have a really good chance at success and happiness in your riding.
Mary M.: And the final advice I’d like to emphasize is that, always, with your horse, first consider pain as the origin of bad behavior. When a horse feels pain, they become angry and difficult and start doing unpleasant things to the rider. Always look for the origins of pain first and solve those issues before you blame the horse for being a ‘bad’ horse and throwing him away. Secondly, keep the lines of communication open. Some horses are very expressive and open – they tell you what’s wrong. Others shut down, go inside, or become dull and stoic. Learn your horse’s personality and how they handle pain. Build your lines of communication on their level. And lastly, always strive for self-acceptance. Because once you have accepted yourself for who you are then you are completely open and available as a person to your other human partners, as well. You can find more advice, plus information on my videos, books and fitness regimens, on my website, www.womenandhorses.com. So come visit! I hope I can be of help to all women and girls who ride. And thanks to EquiSearch.com and Horse & Rider magazine for having this chat today! You can also find my clinic schedule on the website so I hope I’ll see you at one of the events in the months ahead!