International Women’s Day is a perfect fit for Israel.
Females outnumber males (50.5 percent to 49.5%) and Israeli women come from more than 100 countries.
Life expectancy for women is among the highest in the world (83.6% and rising), and the “fairer sex” are well-represented in every sector of Israeli life, from the military to the business world to judgeships to the Knesset, boasting as well, of course, of a former prime minister.
Central to the success of women is their amazing sense of creativity, their ability to identify outstanding needs and niches in Israeli society and step up with an innovative idea and productive business plan. Which brings us to Gabriella Hirschsprung.
Gabi was born into a Christian family in a small village in the Netherlands.
She began her equestrian career at age eight, riding ponies through the forests near her home. While children in other countries learn to swim, or ride a bike, Dutch youngsters take to horseback riding at an early age.
Years later, while backpacking through India, she met a group of Israelis on tour, and decided to join up with them. “I can’t really explain the sensation I had,” she says, “but almost immediately I felt that I had met my own people!” So off she went to Israel, where she enrolled in the ulpan l’giyur, the government conversion program, studying Judaism for two years before converting.
“From the moment I landed in Israel 20 years ago,” Gabi relates, “I felt like I was already Jewish; I just had to make it official!” She would later marry a member of a prestigious religious family that included the chief rabbi of Montreal.
Gabi combined her love of Israel with her love of horses, and she opened the Ra’anana Riding Club, focusing primarily on teaching children to ride. While adults were also welcome to join, she concentrated on the kids. “If you learn to ride while young,” she explained, “you never forget; you develop a love for both horses and the great outdoors.”
At first, Gabi used only ponies for the younger set – “even the queen of England rode a pony; they’re not just for amusement parks!” – and she had special saddles made that were junior size.
She was the first to use ponies in riding competitions, and the kids loved the smaller horses.
Gabi operated the riding club for 10 years. “Ra’anana was a perfect place to start, because so many Anglos already rode in their countries of origin,” she explains.
“When we began, we were the only riding school in the area; today there are four.”
Gabi eventually sold the Ra’anana club, and works today as a riding instructor at a farm on Kibbutz Udim, near Netanya. She specializes in Missouri Fox Trotting horses, imported from the US and flown into Israel via Brussels.
She also organizes and leads the Gospel Trail Ride each April, taking riders from Israel and around the world on a 65-km. trail, over three days, along the route that Jesus was said to have walked, from Nazareth to Kfar Nahum (Capernaum).
It is modeled after the Way of St. James, the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage that takes place each year in France and Spain – only this journey is on horseback rather than on foot.
She also is helping to develop the Israel component of the “Abraham Path,” which traces the patriarch’s journey from Ur Kasdim (in present-day Iraq) to Canaan. The Israel component will cover 100 km., encompassing the places where Abraham traveled, including Jerusalem, Hebron and Beersheba.
But Gabi’s primary passion these days is working to bring back the tradition of sidesaddle riding. There was a time when women only rode sidesaddle, and Gabi notes that artists’ renditions of the style matriarch Rebekah used as she rode on a camel to meet Isaac, her beloved, reflect this. “While women,” she says, “have always ridden on horses – they would even accompany their husbands on hunting expeditions in medieval times – until a century ago women rode with both legs on one side of the horse, because that was considered ‘ladylike.’ There were many places, in fact, where it was against the law for women to even wear trousers!” And the fact that women did not ride astride the horse – as did men – is one of the reasons why women did not compete in equestrian competitions with men, nor did they compete in the Olympics until 1952.
But two phenomena conspired to change things. First, the place where most sidesaddles were custom-made (they require a very special technique to ensure the rider is safe and secure) in London’s “Golden Triangle” was extensively bombed during World War II, destroying the factories. Second, women became emancipated, styles of ladies’ clothing changed, and women could now ride in pants just like the men.
As such, Western-style riding, as opposed to English-style, became the norm, as galloping replaced jumping and dressage. And sidesaddle fell out of vogue, skipping two whole generations.
“But I am not the ‘jeans-and-cowboyboots’ type,” insists Gabi. “I want to keep my femininity and dress more elegantly, even – perhaps especially – when I am riding. And I can do that sidesaddle just as well as I can on a regular saddle.”
And so Gabi formed the Israel Sidesaddle Association to promote her vision.
“This is particularly important, “ she notes, “for observant Jewish women as well as for Arab women, many of whom love to ride but prefer wearing skirts and dresses, due to their religious and cultural perspective on modesty.”
Gabi has started a Facebook page inviting women to once again learn the art of sidesaddle riding. She has imported specially made, double-horn saddles that allow for jumping, galloping or extended trail rides. Recently, she joined 60 other women on a sidesaddle “hunting” trip in Ireland. (“Don’t worry,” she tells me, knowing that Judaism takes a negative view of the sport, “we were careful not to actually catch anything!”) Gabi is determined to double or triple the number of women riders in Israel, and popularize the art of sidesaddle riding.
Noting that the Israeli Equestrian Federation – unlike federations abroad – does not allow sidesaddle in competition, she wryly observes, “It’s funny, isn’t it, that exactly 100 years ago women had to fight for their right to ride astride, and now we have to fight for our right to ride aside!” But she is undaunted and resolute in her belief that things will change. “This is a phenomenally beautiful country,” she smiles. “And because so much of the land is owned by the state, rather than privately owned, you can ride for miles and miles in open territory, from the Golan to the Judean Desert. And you can look elegant doing it!” There is, indeed, something quite majestic – relaxing, yet at the same time, exhilarating – about seeing the country from atop a horse.
Gabi invites you to share the experience.The writer is a member of the Ra’anana city council and director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. firstname.lastname@example.org