Gender-neutral horses unconcerned by their rider’s sex – study

Horses seem to be truly gender-neutral. It does not matter to them whether their human partner is female or male. Photo: Juliane Kuhl / Vetmeduni Vienna
Horses seem to be truly gender-neutral. It does not matter to them whether their human partner is female or male. Photo: Juliane Kuhl / Vetmeduni Vienna

Do women and men ride differently? If so, horses can’t seem to tell the difference.

Horses, it would seem, are unconcerned whether their rider is a male or a female.

Scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna analysed how horses are affected by the sex of their riders. Various stress parameters were determined in horses and their riders when they covered an obstacle course.

The level of stress on a horse appeared to be unaffected by whether a man or a woman was in the saddle.

Furthermore, the stress responses of male and female riders were found to be essentially the same.

The results of the study have been published in the Journal of Comparative Exercise Physiology.

For centuries, riding was largely restricted to males. This is in stark contrast to the present day, when nearly 80 percent of riders are women.

Modern-day equestrian sports are unique in that men and women compete directly against one another at all levels, from beginners in gymkhanas to national champions at the Olympic Games.

“For this reason it is interesting to consider whether a theory of riding that was developed exclusively for men can be applied to women,” explains Natascha Ille, the first author of the study.

As Ille notes: “It is often assumed that women are more sensitive towards their horses than men.

“If this is so, male and female riders should elicit different types of response from their horses.”

Ille, Professor Christine Aurich and their colleagues from the university’s Graf Lehndorff Institute tested this notion by examining eight horses and 16 riders, comprising eight men and eight women.

Each horse had to jump a standard course of obstacles twice, ridden once by a male and once by a female of similar equestrian experience.

The scientists monitored the levels of stress in the horses and their riders, checking the amounts of cortisol in the saliva and the heart rates.

The results were unexpected. The level of cortisol in horses’ saliva increased during the test but the increase was not affected by the sex of the rider.

The horses’ heart rates also increased as a result of taking the course, but the increase was irrespective of the human partner in the saddle.

The tests on the riders delivered similar findings.

Again, the level of cortisol in the saliva increased but there was no difference between men and women. The riders’ pulses sped up when the horses switched from a walk to a canter and accelerated further during the jumping course, but the heart rate curves for male and female riders were close to identical.

In a second experiment, Ille and her colleagues studied the pressure exerted on a horse’s back via the saddle.

“Depending on the rider’s posture and position, the pattern of pressure on the horse’s back may change dramatically,” Ille explains.

A special pad placed directly under the saddle was used to analyse saddle pressure in walk, trot and canter. Because female riders are generally lighter than males, the saddle pressure was lower when horses were ridden by females.

However, the distribution of pressure did not differ and there was no evidence of differences in the riding posture between males and females.

So what does all this mean for modern equestrian sports?

Aurich is keen to reassure potential competitors that horses are truly gender-neutral.

As she puts it: “Assuming that there is no difference in riding ability, from the horse’s point of view, it does not seem to matter whether the human partner is male or female.

“Our results make it extremely unlikely that horses have a preference for riders of one sex over the other. And when male and female riders compete against one another in equestrian sports, all of them have similar chances of doing well.”

The article„ “Physiological stress responses and horse rider interactions in horses ridden by male and female riders”, by Natascha Ille, Christine Aurich, Regina Erber, M. Wulff, Rupert Palme, Jörg Aurich and Marie von Lewinski was published in the Journal of Comparative Exercise Physiology. DOI 10.3920/CEP143001

The abstract can be read here


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