Lessons in Gender Equality From Equestrian's Top Competitors and Leaders

05/22/2017 06:31 pm ET

The world’s most decorated horses and dressage riders recently converged in Omaha, Neb. during the FEI World Cup Dressage Final, which saw the sport’s most decorated rider in Olympic history, Isabell Werth, win her third FEI World Cup Championship. While the weekend marked Omaha’s first time hosting the global event, examples of seamless promotion of gender equality throughout an Olympic sport were wound deeply into the event.

The oldest equestrian discipline, dressage has been part of the Olympic programme since 1912 and notably is the only Olympic sport in which male and female competitors compete on a level playing field. Recognized as a sport of nobility, dressage is perceived to be a sport accessible only by individuals of high wealth. Yet, going behind-the-scenes at the sport’s top event demonstrated that the sport’s true identity is one in which gender equality is not just promoted, but expected.

In-depth conversations with some of the sport’s top female leaders provided a guide for other sports looking to bridge gap between and eradicate gender inequality. Below are five lessons from dessage for other sports to adopt in promoting gender equality.

1. For Gender Equality To Exist, The Pay Gap Must Be Erased

As women’s national teams sue their respective national governing bodies for equal pay, dressage demonstrates that male and female competitors can receive equal pay. Due to its competition structure, wherein male and female riders compete directly against one another, there is not a direct pay gap between what each gender is paid.

At the 2017 FEI World Cup Dressage Final, Werth beat out 13 other horse-and-rider combinations—including four male riders. Throughout her career, Werth has competed in five Olympic Games, winning ten medals. Noting that, “There’s really no problem as a woman” in the sport, Werth eludes to the lack of a pay differential as a basis for that distinction.

“There is no difference in the payouts for the sexes. Now, more and more women are becoming professionals. They use the sport later to teach and earn more money. The ability to earn income in the sport depends on the quality of the rider and not the sex,” Werth said.

2. Promote Women And Men On Equal Levels

In 2015, dressage’s international federation, the Federation Equestre Internationale, named its first female secretary general, appointing Sabrina Zeender to the highly visible position. Since 1991, Zeender has held a number of roles at the FEI, including most recently serving as its director of governance and executive affairs. Despite being appointed to the position of secretary general with unanimous approval, Zeender notes women are sometimes reluctant to seek promotions that they likely deserve.

When approached by the FEI’s president about ascending to the role of secretary general, Zeender remembers her initial reluctance.

“I started at the very bottom at the FEI as an assistant who worked in the eventing and Olympic department. Little by little, I worked my way up and moved on to different things in the organization. I was appointed to the role of director of governance and executive affairs, because I was with the organization for such a long time and knew the rules by heart. When he became president, he said he’d like for me to become secretary general, and I said, ‘Well, I don’t know about that, because I know what it entails and I don’t know if I have every single item that I have to have a background in to accomplish this job,” Zeender recalled.

The FEI’s president, Ingmar De Vos, quickly squelched any of Zeender’s feelings of inadequacy for the position. “He said, ‘What do you mean? Of course you want the job! Don’t be crazy; there is no one else that can do this job besides you,” Zeender stated of De Vos’ reaction.

In this experience, Zeender’s eyes were opened to an issue that may prevent women from rising in the corporate world. “Women have a tendency to back off from a position if they don’t fulfill 100-percent of the criteria, whereas men are different. They will fulfill maybe 55-percent of the criteria and say they’re ready,” she noted.

In this regard, Zeender explains that “it’s very important to get women more engaged” with more influential roles. “I knew the amount of work that was going to go into being secretary general. We need men to help women and we need women to help women rise to their highest levels.”

3. Treat Men as Equal Contributors To Family and Home Life

In her position as secretary general, Zeender has not only championed the rights of equestrian’s female athletes, but has sought equal treatment and protections for male athletes. One area in which Zeender—a mother—is especially passionate, is maternity leave and childcare. “Since we’re gender champions, it means men and women,” she remarked.

In this regard, during International Women’s Day celebrations in Geneva, Switzerland in March, the FEI pledged to offer male employees one-month of paid paternity leave following the birth of a child.

4. Give Full—and True—Consideration to Women’s Ideas

Some around the equestrian community were surprised when Omaha was named the host site for the 2017 FEI World Cup Championship. Previously, the only U.S. cities to host the event since its 1986 founding were Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Those who doubted Omaha’s ability to compete for the hosting rights for a global event, though, underestimated the woman pushing its bid.

As CEO of Burlington Capital, Lisa Roskens has added profitable businesses to the company, spurring a steady stream of new growth and opportunities to its portfolio. While the Stanford Law graduate has seen a wealth of success in the CEO’s office and boardroom, behind the scenes two of her greatest loves are the city of Omaha and the sport of equestrian. Merging those loves with her business savvy led Roskens in 2014 to build one of the most remarkable bid attempts in FEI World Cup History. Notably, the FEI awarded Omaha host rights on the city’s first bid application—a relatively unprecedented move, especially considering Omaha was the first new city in a decade to host the World Cup and is not geographically central to any international competitions.

Yet, Roskens’ bid was backed by strong arguments as to why Omaha was the most poised city to host the international event.

“We presented this as an opportunity to grow the sport. Why have it where it already is? Have it where it isn’t; use it as a catalyst. There were plenty of hurdles in getting the event to Omaha, but I don’t think any had to do with my gender,” Roskens said.

5. Search Out and Mentor Rising Talent of Both Genders

Laura Graves is quickly becoming one of the most captivating and competitive dressage riders. Yet, a mere decade ago, the Olympic dressage rider was preparing for a career in cosmetology instead of equestrian.

“When I was a kid, I thought I wanted to be an equestrian for a career. It turns out it’s not easy to make money doing this. It’s always good to have a ‘Plan B’ and back-up education to rely on. I went to school to become a cosmetologist, even though I had this horse who was really young.”

That horse was Verdades, nicknamed “Diddy,” whom Graves competed on during the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Had a trainer not stepped in and mentored Graves, though, on what a prized horse she had in her possession, Graves’ destiny may have turned an entirely different direction.

“A trainer informed me of the quality of horse I had in Diddy. I was so naive about it beforehand; I didn’t really know what I had,” Graves remembered.

Recognizing what she had in her possession, Graves set out to receive further mentoring and instruction necessary to give she and Diddy the greatest chance at competitive dressage success.

“I believed in my potential and the potential of my horse, but with horses there’s only a certain of window of time you have to get them trained and to their peak. I was young, didn’t have kids, wasn’t married and didn’t own a house. I sent a bunch of applications to trainers all over the country for a working student position, where you bring your horse and work insanely long days, but get some free riding lessons out of it,” Graves recalled.

For three years, Graves spent time as a working student on the farm of recognized dressage trainer and coach, Anne Gribbons, earning $100 per week and working as a bartender to make ends meet. Yet, it was at Gribbons’ farm that Graves began understanding how to tame Diddty and build his trust in her, so the pair could compete at its highest level.

Today, Graves recognizes that her perseverance and determination largely drive her success. “I was raised in a way where you have to take charge of your destiny. It’s your job to go out and seek information and education to make things happen for yourself. My family has always been so supportive of what I wanted to do, but let me know that nobody was going to do it for me. I think that’s a big misconception—that people spend a lot of time waiting around for an opportunity, as opposed to putting things in the correct places and making your own opportunity come to you,” Graves stated.

While Graves believes success is largely the result of the individual, she notes that she and other sport leaders must ensure that they’re seeking out the sport’s top competitors—regardless of gender.

“We have such a large country and that’s where [equestrian] struggle[s] in finding the people who have the fire to compete. That’s where good role models play a big part: Athletes like myself and others must go into our communities and encourage young men and women to seek similar paths.”

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