Updated: Sep 9, 2021
Horse racing is a very traditional sport. In the modern-day, both men and women may compete in races together; however, this was not always the case. Even now, many people still consider horse racing to be a “man’s sport”, despite the tide turning in recent times.
Meriel Tufnell was the first female jockey in the United Kingdom to win a horse race under Jockey Club rules. The win came in 1972, some 222 years after the Jockey Club was first founded, aboard Scorched Earth in the Goya Stakes. This was her first professional ride in a 12-race-series established purely for female jockeys. Tufnell would go on to win several other all-female races that same year. Fast forward another 2 years to March 1974, and the first mixed-sex race took place at Nottingham Racecourse. Tufnell was involved again, although this time finishing outside the first 3.
Despite her accomplishments and involvement in helping to form and govern the Lady Jockeys' Association of Great Britain, the horse racing industry is still slow to accept women into many roles. Many female jockeys can own their heritage to Tufnell, who helped to prove that women have as much of a place on a racetrack as men. But why is horse racing the way it is? Why is the industry stuck in the past regarding gender equality? Let’s take a look…
First, let’s talk numbers:
Women hold only 11.3% of all professional jockey licenses in Britain. There are around 450 currently licensed jockeys, with a further 300 amateur riders. This works out that only 51 of the 450 total licensed jockeys are women, an incredibly low figure. But there’s more… Only 1 ride in 100 in top-level events is taken by a female jockey (specifically 1.1% of rides in Class 1 races), compared to around 10% of the rides in the lower class 6/7 events. Statistically, there is nothing to prove that males are better jockeys than females; so what are the reasons behind women having considerably fewer rides than men?
Researchers have conducted several studies on this topic, but in particular, those conducted by Oxford Brookes University and the University of Liverpool bear the most importance. The study conducted by Oxford Brookes involving over 400 people at all levels of racing found that many women had experienced what they called a “banter culture” within many yards. This includes ageist, sexist and homophobic abuse. It also noted that many women were made to feel unwelcome when applying for a "higher role" and told that women would "not be promoted". This ties in nicely with the University of Liverpool study which was conducted over a 14-year period (2003-2017). It found that only 5.2% of the 1.25 million total rides over this period were taken by female jockeys (6.5% on the flat and 2.9% over jumps) despite women accounting for over 50% of all stable staff around the country. Women often experience several hurdles when trying to progress within the sport which causes their career to stagnate. The number of women entering horse racing from college courses outweighs that of men (70:30), yet the percentage of women in the sport compared to men is still especially low.
So why is that?
Some factors which were mentioned regarding female jockeys in the modern-day include that of body fat, weight, and upper body strength. The common opinion is that women lack the upper body strength to compete with males. Riding a horse is much more complex than people may think, and it takes a lot of upper body strength to handle a horse during a race. The idea however that women lack this isn't a credible argument. As previously mentioned, statistically males are no better than females when being a jockey. Using weight training, general exercise and consistent riding means that women can easily match or even exceed the strength possessed by the men. This bravado that "women just don't ride horses" is just another example of misunderstanding within the sport. It is worth mentioning, however, whilst discussing physicality and fitness, that males find it easier to lose and then maintain the low level of body fat required to be a jockey. Being a jockey is a very physical profession and requires a certain weight to be made and maintained. It is a known fact that men find this considerably easier, and this could somewhat contribute arguments regarding a male being the "better choice" to ride a horse.
Jockeys also encounter injuries much more frequently than the average person, which takes a toll on them both physically and mentally. In some places, there is still this idea that women don’t/shouldn’t do the “physical jobs” and that men seem to deal with the injuries better. This is just another example of the sort of society we still live in today. Many women, not just in horse racing, will tell you they are just as tough as most of the men, both physically and mentally. Nobody should be degraded because of their gender and everyone should get an equal chance to prove themselves, rather than assuming that one gender is more likely to do/be better at dealing with something than the other.
It isn’t just as a jockey where women are misconceived either. Newmarket-based trainer Amy Murphy is just one of the female trainers who has burst onto the scene in recent years. Aged just 24, Amy has accumulated 79 winners from 848 runners on the flat, and 48 winners from 367 runners over hurdles in the last 5 seasons, with Kalashnikov perhaps her most well-known representative. Regarding the support she received as a woman in a “man’s sport”, she said: “You have to get the support and I think sometimes as a woman you probably have to prove yourself before people want to support you, whereas if you're a man, they'd support you from day one. We've had great support and loyalty from some big owners, but whether I would have had that support if we hadn't had the results we've had, I'm not sure."
It was also common in the past for trainers to consider hiring male jockeys as opposed to female jockeys, purely down to the fact that the woman will probably want to have a baby at some point. This naturally means they will need an extended period away from racing compared to a male. This, in many people’s minds, makes them less desirable as they are less likely to return to racing afterwards. Should they return to the track, they will be at a stage in their career where their fitness levels etc may have dropped and it will take time to re-establish themselves. This is something many trainers don't want to risk. It is unfortunate that some trainers still think like this, as this is a very “dated” approach. However, Newmarket-based trainer John Berry believes that gender should not inhibit how people are treated within the industry. He said: “I don't regard gender as an issue for any of the roles in racing, but then on reflection, not everyone thinks the same way”. This further emphasises that some trainers are still stuck in that same mindset, and they could do more to promote an equal playing field for both genders.
On a more positive note, several things have been implemented into racing to provide women with more opportunities in the saddle, although not always having the desired effect. Firstly, France Galop introduced the weight allowance scheme in France in March 2017. Initially, it caused a lot of controversies as female riders could carry 1.5kg less than the men during the race for 90% of all flat races there. The male jockeys were particularly upset as this is a handicap for them, whilst many female jockeys also stated that it portrayed them as "incapable". In an interview, presenter Clare Balding re-iterated that it could be the way forward. She said: "They can say they don’t need it in terms of they are capable, but they need it because none of them are getting the number of rides that they should do. If you’re not getting the opportunities, you accept anything that will help you get them.” A controversial statement, but with some facts. Female jockeys are lacking in rides, and although not ideal, it gives the women a better chance to reach the winners' enclosure.
Current female jockey Josephine Gordon criticised the weight allowance scheme, saying: “I think it would give a lot of females opportunities to get rides, but personally I find it a bit offensive. I think the likes of the Silk Series that they’ve introduced is brilliant for the girls. It’s given them such an excellent opportunity and its good prize money. I think 10 years ago, it was harder for girls. It’s easier now and I think in another ten years it’s going to be easier again.” This comes following an earlier admission that owners once took her off a horse when they realised she was a female.
There are several approaches being taken in racing across the world to give women more of a chance. The Silk Series is one of the most successful so far, and I believe further introductions like this will help women to make a name for themselves. It allows them to ride for multiple trainers to showcase their skills, potentially leading to new opportunities for the future. (Silk Series introduced in 2017 for female jockeys as a championship over several races at different courses). The idea behind the weight allowance scheme is fine, but it is unfair to give some jockeys such an “advantage” in a race. A level playing field will also benefit the riders themselves. They will feel like they have earned their rides, as opposed to winning a race where they feel like they have cheated their way to the front. Increasing the number of rides is one thing, but we must also consider the quality of the horses that they are riding.
There is still plenty more that could be improved in all sectors of racing, not just for jockeys. The first thing that springs to mind is increasing diversity in all roles. It’s still a work in progress, but the focus is on putting women in senior positions. The ‘Women in Racing’ committee are working to drive this change and to encourage more women to take part in racing. Susannah Gill (a WIR committee member and director at Arena Racing Company) said: “If you look who is on the senior boards of organisations in racing, the average is 16% women. We have several boards which don't have any women at the top level at all, so we're seeing a stagnation of career progression.” This is a statistic that helps to outline the current problem with the racing industry, and the BHA has taken note. On their board, the BHA has increased its female representation at the highest level, with 7 of the 21 directors being female. This may still seem like a small step, but the biggest racing authority has put their trust in women at the highest level. This will have a knock-on effect in several other areas. If all committees, authorities and businesses within the industry follow suit, then women will start getting the opportunities that they deserve. There is still a long way to go, but it's a start!
"Quotes from the interviews mentioned can be found here":
Susannah Gill + Amy Murphy + John Berry: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/horse-racing/39935270