19. ON THE CULTURE OF BEAUTY,
GRACE, AND HEALTH IN YOUTH – IV
MY DEAR SIBYL, – My observations upon the physical training of girls in relation to exercise would hardly be complete were I to omit the mention of horse-riding, – an amusement in much greater favour with our sex at the present day than in the time of our mothers. I have a high opinion of the value of equitation, both as an exercise and as an art. Most hygienists regard it as one of the best methods available in the case of girls for promoting muscular development and imparting general tone to the system, especially in respect to the expansion of the chest and the action of the respiratory organs; while, from an educational point of view, it is an exercise eminently calculated to inspire confidence and grace of movement, to fortify nerve, to dispel awkwardness and timidity, and to stimulate the control of hand and eye. From a therapeutic point of view, again, horse-riding is particularly advantageous in cases of general debility, and of affections liable to become chronic, such as hysteria, hypochondria, chorea, scrofula, tendency to consumption, dyspepsia, anaemia, atony or weakness of the functions, chlorosis, and all nervous disorders. Girls may begin to ride, under proper direction and with due precaution, when about ten or twelve years old. This
is, I think, quite soon enough, because, before this age, the bones are so soft and pliable in consistency that they are not unlikely to become deviated by the posture which the side-saddle renders necessary, and curvature of the spine, or even of the thigh-bone, might possibly result if the exercise were frequently indulged in during the tender years of childhood. The chief art of riding consists in the acquirement of a firm, easy, and graceful seat; the rest is mere detail, and, as it hardly belongs to my province, I will not dwell on the subject longer than to observe that the greatest care should be bestowed on the choice of the horse destined to mount a beginner. He must not be fretful, tricky, or heavy in his paces, nor must he have a hard mouth, necessitating the curb, or likely to fatigue and cramp the hand of a novice. He should have a short light trot and a good manner, and, above all, he must have no vices, such as those of shying, rearing, jibbing, bolting, or stumbling. To mount a beginner on a vicious or a tricky horse is not only dangerous, but fatal to future proficiency. Confidence and courage will be paralysed at the outset; apprehension and nervousness will take their place; and when these defects have once laid hold of the mind they are difficult to overcome, and entirely incompatible with ease and dignity of pose.
As girls approach the age of fifteen or thereabouts, care must be taken to regulate such violent exercise as that of horse-riding, in accordance with the fluctuations of their health. Rest is necessary at times to enable the organic functions to assert themselves in a natural and orderly manner; for it must be borne in mind that interruption or disturbance of these, from whatever cause, may not only entail headache, lassitude, and other disorders more or less immediately disquieting, but may
even give rise to lasting consequences of a very serious and distressing character.
I am not an advocate of hunting for women. It is a dangerous pastime, especially for the sex that rides across country encumbered with drapery, and liable, should a fall occur, to be found either hopelessly pinned down to the saddle by a third pommel, or inextricably mixed up, by means of a tight habit-skirt, among the hoofs of a floundering horse. Moreover, the sport itself is hardly one in which refined and womanly women will be able to take much pleasure; the spectacle of the “death,” even when Reynard is concerned, ought not to inspire feelings of joy in the hearts of English girls, and when poor “pussy” is the victim the aspect of the thing is, to my mind at least, wholly revolting and contemptible. No doubt the actual chase is exhilarating; but its purpose – that of deliberately running to death an innocent and sensitive creature, and making pastime of its bitter fear and physical distress – has always seemed to me a cowardly and unworthy game for Christian ladies and gentlemen. I would never encourage any son or daughter of mine to find delight in such an amusement; and I think the time is not far distant when the view I take of the matter will become pretty general. An age in which the public taste condemns the pigeon matches of Hurlingham, and impels ingenious mechanicians to replace the living doves with substitutes of day, will surely not long continue to countenance other sports dependent on animal suffering and slaughter. At all events, hunting and shooting are, in my view, distinctly unsuited to women, alike from a physical and an ethical point of view, seeing that, on the one hand, bodily risk and injury mean so much more to us than to the stronger and less vulnerable sex; and that, on the other hand, women are in a special sense entrusted
with the censorship and sanction of morality, with the direction of the male conscience, and the formation of the national taste.
Next to riding, no exercise is so beneficial as that of dancing, when it is practised with art and knowledge. All rhythmic and musical motion is educational alike to mind and body; the pity is that an exercise so commendable should usually entail the evils of late hours, deprivation of sleep, and the inhalation of heated and impure air. “Cinderella” dances have of late become fashionable, and they are, undoubtedly, a step in the right direction. But the hygiene and ethics of the ballroom still leave much to be desired, and it will, I fear, be left to a future and wiser generation to regulate these things in better accord with the dictates of common-sense and comfort. Meanwhile, notwithstanding present detriments, dancing may be safely recommended as a most useful means of physical training. The waltz especially affords an excellent exercise for the development of ease and graceful carriage, and for the acquirement of that undulating movement from the hips which specially distinguishes well-bred Frenchwomen, and which is absolutely necessary in order to give the figure sweep and poise. If dancing is unobtainable, a good method of learning to walk by moving from the hips instead of from the waist, is to perambulate a room or a garden with some object, moderately large and heavy, balanced on the head, as the Southern and Oriental peasants carry pitchers, unsupported by the hand. The aim of the pitcher carrier is to keep the waist steady, the chest expanded, and the neck erect, but not stiff, – the lower limbs, by their restrained and disciplined movements, imparting to the whole body a swaying and graceful demeanour.
But, no less than exercise, repose is good for growing girls. Do not let your daughters sit upon narrow forms without support; on the contrary, encourage them to rest the spine by lying back in a convenient chair or on a reclining board for an hour, with one small cushion only beneath the head, the knees straight, and the arms crossed on the chest or resting by the sides. During this hour of relaxation the governess or a sister might read aloud, music might be played, or oral instruction given to avoid unnecessary waste of time. Under some circumstances, however, intellectual rest may fitly accompany that of the body; and the interval thus employed in entire repose will be found to act as an excellent tonic and restorative.