Equestrian partnerships: A qualitative investigation of the relationship between horse and rider in elite equestrian sports

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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The horse-rider relationship is widely regarded as an important dimension of equestrian sport, yet little psychological research has addressed the dynamics of this sporting relationship. This thesis examined the relationship between horse and rider in elite equestrian sport using a social constructionist grounded theory methodology. Symbolic interactionism was utilized as an appropriate theoretical lens through which to examine the phenomena at hand, with an argument made for the relevance of human-animal relationships within symbolic interactionist theory. Thirty-six in-depth qualitative interviews were conducted and analysed using an international sample of twenty-nine elite riders, four former elite riders, and three sub-elite riders from a range of equestrian sporting disciplines. The purpose of the study was to generate the beginnings of a substantive theory of the horse-rider relationship in elite equestrian sport. The study examined the ways in which participants constructed and managed their relationships with horses and accorded status to horses and their relationships with them. The implications of the horse-rider relationship for the competitiveness of equestrian dyads were also addressed, as were constructions of ''partnership'� between horse and rider. The findings of the study suggest that the relationship between horse and rider is fundamental, but also increasingly contested in an elite sporting context. Participants experienced complex, close, embodied relationships with important horses in their lives that crossed the boundary between personal- and professional-relational dynamics, with an emphasis on shared work and relational intimacy. The complexity of the horse-rider relationship was elucidated through narratives of emotion-, communication-, and conflict-based exchanges between horse and rider and with reference to the interdependency and vulnerability that characterizes horse-rider relationships. Participants experienced their horses as minded, powerful, intelligent agents, according individuality and personhood to horses in ways that served to minimize the species gap and create a sense of equality that facilitated sporting participation and the development of a close horse-rider relationship. Participants recognised the inherent inequality of the horse-rider relationship, however, leading to an emphasis on rider responsibility and control over horse-rider interaction. The horse-rider ''partnership'� centred on mutual goals and a shared work-orientation, but incorporated personal aspects of horse-rider interaction as well, symbolizing the ultimate form of relationship between horse and rider. A strong horse-rider relationship could enhance sporting performances, but was not always necessary to succeed competitively, with a number of factors affecting sporting performance. In certain contexts, a strong relationship appeared to be an impediment to competitive success, bringing into question the ethical and political dimensions of equestrian sport. These findings are preliminary and further theoretical sampling is required to develop a theoretical framework of horse-rider relationships in elite equestrian sport, however, a dynamic and salient nascent theory that has relevance for the moral and ethical status of equestrian sports has been presented. Equestrian sporting disciplines must be examined to determine why, and under what circumstances, a partnership between horse and rider may become antithetical to performance success. Strong horse-rider relationships may be pivotal to the development of an equestrian sporting milieu that values and prioritises the lives and welfare of horses.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Charles Sturt University
  • Hodgins, Gene, Co-Supervisor
  • Fox, Rachael, Co-Supervisor
  • Lorimer, Ross, Co-Supervisor, External person
Award date27 Mar 2015
Place of PublicationAustralia
Publication statusPublished - 2015


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