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Women in Racing held a very special AGM at Royal Windsor Racecourse in May. During the afternoon Vanessa Ryle, At The Races producer and presenter, hosted a panel event in which she interviewed Victoria Pendleton and Lawney Hill.
Delegates had an opportunity to hear the ‘energetic’ stories from Victoria, British cycling Olympic gold medallist and now Category A-licenced jockey, to find out more about what makes an Olympian tick… and how she applies her determination to everything she does.
Vanessa kicked off the conversation by asking if Victoria ever needed to find ways to ‘fit in’ having spent such a long time at the elite-end of what was, at the time of her starting out, a very male-dominated sport.
“People used to say to me a lot ‘act more like a man, be less emotional, hold yourself together, don’t be such a girl’, that sort of thing.” Victoria replied. “I actually have a twin brother though so I was very lucky to grow up at home treated as an equal and a lot of those comments didn’t make sense to me.”
Victoria’s natural competitive streak started early, which has helped her to succeed: “I would always tell myself ‘whatever he can do, I can do better’, and I was encouraged in that. I am passionate about staying true to myself and I used to wear sparkly flip-flops or a denim skirt with my Team Kit,” she adds with a wry smile. “I’m not going to say I have all the answers though, I’m still trying to work it out for myself.”
During the conversation it was noted that there was a high percentage of females working on yards as stable staff who seemed content with being stable staff, compared to the number of males who also worked on yards but did so in order to pursue a race-riding career. Is it a negative that women generally see themselves in more caring and holistic roles while men are often seen to follow more direct and competitive activities?
The answer, if indeed there is one, is not held within this article and it was not resolved in conversation either, but Victoria continued to explore the topic: “It is unfair to push anyone in to any one method of training. People find their optimum performance and their best form in different ways, personal to them. The same applies to career aspirations. You find what works for you.”
She continued: “I was the only girl on the squad at the start of my career and I had to train with the men, but I was lucky to go in to an experienced team. I still had to earn my stripes and they had high standards, but my teammates treated me equally. It hasn’t always been that straightforward so I am always grateful that it gave me the best possible start.
“I was always personally driven to be ‘good at something’ and sport made that possible. If people said I couldn’t do something, it made me all the more determined to prove them wrong. But I did it by doing my best not to get in anyone’s way. As the only girl on the squad I had to fit my training efforts in after the guys had done theirs, keeping my head down and getting on with it.
“It’s not like that any more. I was the only full time woman when I joined the team in 2001 and now it’s a 50/50 split – it’s fabulous.”
In terms of making the move from cycling to horseracing Victoria told delegates that it was ‘shockingly different, but amazing’. Had she not been talent spotted to go in to cycling (a sport that runs in her family) she would have gone in to animal husbandry so there is clearly an affinity with animals and having retired from cycling “horses gave me something to get out of bed for. It’s the most fun thing I have ever done in my life”.
The initial proposal was for her to ‘simply’ ride in a bumper (a National Hunt race run on the flat) so she thought she would give it a go and agreed to two weeks of lessons to see how things went. “I was hooked within two hours. I fell in love with it instantly.”
In terms of fitness Victoria explained that there are a number of similarities. Corresponding muscle groups are used; quads, glutes and lower back, but also the time frame of lactic acid build up is not unlike that of a sprint finish in cycling. “But I have definition in my arms as well now. They’re only small, but the muscles are definitely there.” She beams with pride. “The balance was tricky for me at the start – and I thought it was crazy that you pull to stop, but also take a pull to go faster. It’s madness right?”
Vanessa concluded her questioning of Victoria by asking how British Cycling could change, especially as it has been through such a tough time recently.
“I don’t think there is a simple answer, but getting more females into roles throughout the sport has to be a good direction. Not just in token roles, but finding women willing to take the job on in positions of authority and power – women need to support women and demand the time and space to develop.”
Vanessa also had the opportunity to interview National Hunt trainer Lawney Hill, one of Victoria’s major partners in the Switching Saddles campaign who gained her professional license in 2005.
Growing up in an equestrian environment, Lawney had designs on becoming an assistant trainer. She wasn’t the academic type to go to university so she spent some time working in France when she finished school. During that period she wrote to trainers (no emails in those days) and asked them if she could be a Racing Secretary or Assistant Trainer. She was delighted when Arthur Moore wrote back suggesting an interview would be a good idea.
“I was very excited, thinking this could be my big break and I started making plans to get to Ireland, but then I got another letter. It was clear there had been some confusion and Arthur explained that he hadn’t realised Trelawney was a girls’ name and ‘we don’t have girls here’. I felt very let down – I didn’t even get an interview.”
Even though that was back in the 80s, and Lawney has clearly proved her value since then, the audience mostly agreed that if they were told of a similar story happening today they wouldn’t actually be that shocked to hear it.
It’s not unusual for debates on equality in racing for the conversation to turn to female jockeys and their opportunities. Lawney had some interesting points to add to the debate: “Some owners or trainers put female jockeys up because their horses run better for them, but I have also heard it mentioned in the past that people don’t want to put girls up because they don’t want to see them get hurt – and there is apparently evidence that male and female jockeys instinctively have a different way of falling if they do come unseated, which doesn’t benefit the women. Who knows though?”
There is also evidence of a growing sense of ‘girl power’ though. Jockeys such as Hayley Turner, Michelle Payne together with Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh are all proving the capability is there, so are things developing in the right direction? Does the racing industry just have to keep doing what it is already doing?
Dawn Goodfellow is now at Racing Welfare but was previously Chief Executive at the Northern Racing College. She agreed with the sentiment that in general girls do suffer prejudice: “But the biggest barrier to professional success in my opinion is lack of fitness. Despite efforts to encourage girls and women to participate in sporting activity, rates have actually fallen since 2012. Without that fitness they are not going to be up to the challenge.”
Susie Sourwine, a business development and strategic planning consultant, brought up the Sport England #thisgirlcan campaign, which was based on research of women’s perception of what they look like when they exercise. “We need to be aware of exit ramps that are put on sport, which seem to effect women in particular. They tell themselves ‘I can't be on the board’ and find themselves in that exit lane without even realising how they got there.” She explained further: “Mentoring is vital to changing this culture and there are specialist organisations like Women in Racing and Women Ahead who offer mentoring and leadership courses to broaden understanding and manage aspirations.”
Dena Arstall, business coach, agreed: “There is a danger in racing that we sit in a bubble. Women tend to find reasons why they're not suitable for a given role and define themselves by the lowest core of their framework. Their aspirations need to be raised and Women in Racing can help them in this.”
Dena then directed a question to Victoria: “How do you describe yourself now that you have switched saddles from cycling to horseracing?”
There was no hesitation: “I am an athlete.”
Victoria’s competitive and personal determination is evident and it defines her as an athlete first and foremost rather a cyclist who now rides racehorses, or a jockey who used to be a cyclist.
It is clear that there is still plenty to debate on the subjects of equality and diversity within sport and business, it remains an interesting and exciting journey but the conclusion of the Women in Racing AGM summarised that the direction of travel is positive. The aspiration remains that one day specialist groups such as Women in Racing will no longer be necessary. In the mean time we continue to work together #intherace.
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Victoria Pendleton CBE – British cycling Olympic gold medallist and now Category A-licenced jockey. With two gold and one silver medals, Pendleton is Great Britain's most successful female Olympian.
Lawney Hill – National Hunt trainer. Lawney and husband Alan have been training horses for more than 25 years and their great enthusiasm and commitment to this endeavour has paid dividends. Devotion to the venture led to Lawney gaining her professional licence in 2005.
Vanessa Ryle – At The Races producer and presenter. Having been riding most of her life, right the way through Pony Club then into hunting and eventing Vanessa has always had a passion for horses. Racing was the only way to watch horses on the TV as a child and the addiction led on from there. With both parents working in the media it seemed natural for At The Races to be on Vanessa’s radar.