What do horses mean to women?

June 24, 2009

by Neil Clarkson

Ruth Billany

Why are horses so important in the lives of women? The question is being explored in research by Ruth Billany, a lecturer in psychology at Charles Darwin University in Australia's Northern Territory.

Billany, who is working towards her doctorate, knows only too well the importance women can place on horses.

"As a young girl, I was a female centaur," she explains. "I played at being a horse, cantering around, snorting and kicking up my heels. I immersed myself in all things equine, I sought out horse toys, books and films and was described as obsessive.

"My family reinforced this passion and on my eighth birthday I was given riding lessons. As a horse crazy teenager, I spent long hours at the stables caring for horses.

"Since then, apart from periods at University as an undergraduate student and a lecturer, I have never been without horses in my life.

"I have bred, trained and competed at regional level. Horses have shaped who I am. As a species, I am indebted to their generosity of spirit and wonder at their beauty as they gallop around the paddock," she says.

"It is not surprising that my academic research and passion should merge in this research project."

Billany is exploring the question, "why horses are important to women's lives in general and their wellbeing in particular", and central to this is an online survey of women aged over 18.

"Women who identify that horses are important in their lives are invited to take part," she says.

"In the last 30 years there has been an increase in academic research on the human-animal relationship in relation to wellness.

Ruth Billany has had a life-long passion for horses.
"Evidence shows the value of dogs for promoting physical health in groups such as autistic children and the elderly. However, there is limited research on the beneficial social and psychological effects of animals on their human companions.

"There is anecdotal evidence to show that horses add to the social support for women, in particular, and that there is a special bond between a woman and a horse."

The survey's purpose is to explore the positive effects that horses have on the wellbeing of women, she says.

"It will bring this to the attention of academia and may stimulate future research to investigate the woman-horse relationship.

"Evidence from such studies might then inform future health policy to include recognition that animals - including horses - have an important part to play in a nation's health."

Billany says information provided in the survey will be treated as confidential. The survey will take about 20 minutes and participants must be over 18.

In the course of her research Billany hopes to also collect stories from women about how important horses are in their lives, covering everything from early horse memories to horses as friends, down to the grief felt at the loss of a horse. This facet of the work is supported by a Wiki page.

"Relationships with horses have enriched my life, as with them I can be myself," Billany explains.

"Also, through a love of horses I am able to make friends with other women that have mutual interests. Whenever I meet a horse-crazy friend a topic of discussion will always be horses.

"Horse stories have shared in many of my daily encounters and there is much similar anecdotal evidence appearing on the internet."

Billany was born and raised in Nigeria, where she sometimes rode polo ponies.

She says she not from a "horsey" family.

"As a teenager, in the UK, I had the privilege of caring for two horses belonging to a family acquaintance. My first teaching job enabled me (and my husband) to save to buy P - my parents helped with some funds.

"Initally, P was kept in livery until we saved enough to buy a small house and some land - two acres."

The couple later emigrated to New Zealand, where they bought a 25-acre property.

They have since moved to the Northern Territory.