Keeping Girls Physically Active: Think Outside the Box (or sports complex)

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This great Active for Life article offering 5 tips for keeping girls physically active, made me think. According to the article, research data shows strong correlations between physically active girls, and other healthy life choices (behaviour, relationships, personal hygiene, goals and performance at school).

Keeping kids active today is a high priority in Canada, both for wellbeing and happy living, and also due to the national panic about the looming budgetary crisis as a higher and higher percentage of public funds are spent fixing health problems that are preventable by an environment for supportive of active living.

Much of the messaging about keeping kids active references getting out to the park or other tips for active living such as participating in sport. But what about getting outside the box a little? What about activities that appeal to thousands of people, but don’t make the usual (urban-driven) messaging? What about horses? Everything in this article (again, read it if you can) can also be applied to non-urban, or outside-the-box activities.

When it comes to horses, images of a girl and a horse are iconic. In Canada, we tend to lament the largely female practice of equestrian sport (just over 90% female sport). In fact, the sport is not taken very seriously by the public or media as a result. It’s not a sport that can be easily exploited for massive consumer spending, or that the average household can identify with. Even in the agricultural community, the culture is to view horses as an expensive hobby, with a preference for directing attention toward activities that could become lucrative later in life. However,

direct economic gain is not a good criteria for evaluating which activities your daughter practices.

Or, for limiting her. When you think about it, most people who put their kids in soccer or dance, never expect their child to become a professional in that activity. They do it so the child will have a physical activity they like (win: encourage active lifestyle that helps with physical health), and develop as a person. Parents also intentionally expose their children to different activities whether the child identifies a liking for it or not, because children can’t know what they really like or take to, unless they have given a wide range of activities a fair chance.

Girls like horses. Studies show that boys do too, when they have some exposure to them, but the common image is always of a horse-crazy little girl. Daddy can I have a pony, is a line never ascribed to a boy character. Sometimes there’s a story about a ‘real’ athlete. Like Ian Millar. Our female equestrian athletes get very little media attention. Ian Millar’s success with media comes mostly from his longevity, and financial success. The media in Canada is not particularly interested in horses. That’s kind of how the public attitude is. This second class citizenship of the sport has an impact. In my role with the national equestrian federation in Canada I had opportunity to connect with many top coaches and riders- and many amateurs. There is a common lament that we can only talk about horse things with horse people, because the minute you mention something in a non horse space…like the office lunch table, it shuts down conversation. We get kind of shamed into thinking that the over 90% female participation in equestrianism is a bad thing.

No-one ever says that about dance, or figure skating.

When I visited the national equestrian federation in Sweden a few years ago, shame about the lack of boys in equestrianism was not their attitude. They saw themselves as having 2-3 major national sports, that included one important one for girls where girls could shine without pressure from boys. They saw the importance of equestrianism in Sweden as providing equal opportunity for physical activity to both genders. They were proud that riding is so popular for girls.

They said: We have hockey and soccer that is mostly boys. It’s great that riding appeals so much to girls. Not many will become international riders, but they will all learn leadership, appreciation for agricultural and environmental issues, confidence and active lifestyle.

How can people in leadership make decisions that are good for everyone, if they have no exposure to animals and the country? And they will become leaders in politics or business, and have that awareness and confidence.

Then recently in my research, one of my study participants said: ‘If you can interest a girl in horses instead of boys, you’ve won. Because she knows who she is and what she wants, and she can say yes or no and not only do whatever (boys) want. Then she has a chance.’ We were talking about backyard horses made very accessible to lower income families through the highly affordable 4-H program, not about expensive show ponies for the wealthy few.

It’s important to get out of the box, and recognize that there are a host of physical activity options which may not all lead to a mainstream industry sport performance or direct economic gain. However, exploring a wide variety might be the key to helping girls who are not interested in the mainstream options, be more active. So, whatever the sport or activity is, the research provides ample reason for engaging girls.

(c) Heather Sansom. You may share this article through social media, however reproduction without permission violates copyright law.
Heather is a coach, consultant and researcher in wellbeing and sport. More information is available at .
Information about her practice in equestrian and fitness coaching is available at

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