Horse riding’s broad popularity in Sweden is thanks largely to state involvement, researchers have found.
In many countries, riding is considered an upper-class pursuit, but in Sweden it has gained a prominent place throughout society.
Until the end of the 19th century, horseback riding in Sweden was something that men in the military, or the upper classes, practiced. Today, the sport is one of the most popular youth sports and the Swedish Equestrian Federation has more than 150,000 members.
Susanna Hedenborg, Gabriella Torell Palmquist and Annika Rosén, writing in the International Journal of the History of Sport, suggest the state’s interest in riding schools has been a crucial driver in riding’s broad popularity in the Scandinavian country.
“We wanted to understand why equestrian sport has become more of a classless sport in Sweden than it is in many other countries,” said Hedenborg, a sports professor at Malmö University.
It was during the 20th century that the Swedish state became interested in equestrian sports and it was also the government’s commitment that contributed to the growth of riding schools. The motive behind this was military preparedness.
“After the end of the First World War, there was a strong military focus on horses, riding and breeding. The horse was still considered important for the army, say for example, if Sweden was to go to war and the situation prompted an oil crisis,” Hedenborg said.
When it became too expensive for the military to keep horses, the state instead began to support equestrian sports as a way to maintain war readiness. The horses were lent to riding schools where they could be bred and trained; it was also considered important that all children should have the opportunity to learn to ride.
“It was thus in the interest of the state and politicians to support the riding schools, which did not happen in the same way in other countries. And even though horseback riding is not a cheap sport, it is more accessible here today than in many other places.”
Hedenborg and her fellow researchers also described how riding has undergone a feminisation. From being a military and male affair, the sport has become something that is mainly practiced by young girls.
“At an individual level, we can see that many of the male practitioners have grown up on horse farms or have parents who ride. The threshold for starting riding at a riding school is lower for girls. It is an issue of gender equality that will continue to be one of the great challenges of equestrian sports,” Hedenborg said.
The researchers said public support and its consequences distinguish Swedish equestrian sports and the activities of its riding schools from horse-riding activities in many other countries.
In Sweden today, many children and young people learn their equestrian skills at riding schools. The schools organize leisure riding in the afternoons, evenings, and on the weekends.
Many of the horse-riding schools are members of the Swedish Equestrian Federation, which in turn is a member of the Swedish Sports Confederation.
The Swedish Equestrian Federation is one of the top 10 sports federations in terms of activities, the number of membership associations, and individual members.
The researchers said girls’ participation in riding school activities is now linked to a political striving for equality in sport in general. Support for riding activities for girls was used to promote sporting activities at large.
The researchers noted that the education within equestrian sports differs from that of many other sports, in which youth courses are more focused on athletic practice and competitive practices.
In riding schools, there is a combination of formal and informal learning activities in which children, from an early age, are educated to care for the horses through riding and stable chores. They are taught to become responsible persons caring for the whole riding school, and to develop skills that can be used in many different contexts.
Palmquist is with Karlstad University and Rosén with Malmö University.
The Emergence of the Swedish Horse-Riding School from the Mid-Twentieth Century
Susanna Hedenborg, Gabriella Torell Palmquist and Annika Rosén
The International Journal of the History of Sport, 26 August, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1080/09523367.2021.1959321