Gender bias appears to be common in equestrianism, affecting both horses and riders, the findings of research suggest.
Australian researchers have delved into gender-based views around horses and riders, exploring elements of anthropomorphism – the tendency to attribute human characteristics or behavior to animals.
They found that the study participants, mostly female, held preconceived ideas about horse temperament and suitability based on the sex of the horse.
University of Sydney researcher Kate Fenner and her colleagues had hypothesized that anthropomorphism gives rise to gender stereotypes that ultimately influenced both interactions with the horse and human expectations.
The authors, writing in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, noted that little published research existed on the effects of sex on equine trainability and personality attributes.
“Most studies report no differences in learning abilities or training outcomes between mares, geldings or stallions,” they noted.
They said that while convention dictates that younger riders should be mounted on more experienced horses, there is an absence of scientific evidence to confirm if mares, gelding or stallions are better suited to riders of a given age or gender.
No difference in equine stress responses
One study found no differences in stress responses between horses ridden by male or female riders, suggesting perhaps that the gender of the rider may not matter to the horse.
But does it matter to the rider? And does the gender of a rider play a role in ideas and beliefs about the temperaments and ridden behavior of mares, geldings, and stallions?
For their research, an online survey was conducted to explore riders’ perceptions of horse temperament and suitability for ridden work, based on horse sex.
Riders were asked to allocate three hypothetical horses (a mare, gelding, and stallion, all supposedly 10 years old) to four riders compromising a woman, man, girl, and boy.
The riders were described as equally capable of riding each horse and each horse was described as suitable for all riders.
Participants were also asked which horses (mares, geldings or stallions) were most suitable for the three equestrian disciplines of showjumping, dressage and trail riding.
There were 1233 survey respondents, 94% of whom were female. Three-quarters of respondents were riders with at least eight years of experience.
Girls more likely to be allocated geldings
More than half of the respondents allocated the gelding to the girl. Analysis revealed that the girl was 2.5 times more likely to be allocated the gelding compared to the boy.
Nearly all respondents gave the stallion to an adult, and were significantly more likely to give the stallion to the man. Nearly half of respondents did not allocate a horse to the boy at all, even though they ranked rider gender as least important to their choice.
Neither the boy nor the girl was allocated the stallion to ride, other than by a handful of respondents.
For the stallion, the man was 104 times more likely to be selected over the boy, and the woman was 72 times more likely of being selected over the boy.
Human gender had a significant influence on responses when participants allocated the mare. Both the girl and the woman had twice the odds of being allocated the mare over the boy or the man.
Despite this clear finding of gender influence, about 40% of respondents had nominated age as their most important consideration when allocating riders to horses, whereas about 30% each nominated strength and gender as the most important decision-making characteristics.
Analysis showed that respondents were about twice as likely to give importance to age over strength, with age having 2.24 times the odds ratio of gender, and 1.37 times the odds ratio of strength, when respondents considered horse allocation.
In a forced-choice selection of a positive or negative descriptor from a series of nine paired terms to describe horse temperament, a greater proportion of respondents assigned geldings positive ratings on terms such as calm, trainable, reliable and predictable.
Mares least popular for dressage and jumping
In terms of suitability for the three equestrian disciplines of showjumping, dressage, and trail riding, participants overwhelmingly chose geldings for trail riding, with mares being least preferred for both dressage and showjumping disciplines.
Stallions and geldings were nominated as equally suitable for dressage by 42.1 to 42.6% of respondents respectively, with 15.3% selecting mares.
Most of the respondents, 71.8%, nominated a gelding for trail riding, whereas 23% chose mares and just 5% chose stallions.
For showjumping, half nominated a gelding, with the rest being roughly divided between stallions (27.2%) and mares (22.2%).
Compared to stallions, geldings were about eight times more likely to be nominated for trail riding than for showjumping. Mares were about six times more likely.
On the other hand, both geldings and mares were less likely than stallions to be nominated for dressage than for show jumping.
Respondents with more riding experience were more likely to expect to see a stallion in the dressage arena, and riders of all experience levels preferred a gelding for trail-riding purposes.
“Our results suggest that participants in this study, who were mainly female, hold preconceived ideas about horse temperament and suitability based on the sex of the horse and the age and gender of the rider.
“The large proportion of female respondents in this study accurately reflects the gender distribution of riders in Australia, as found in many other studies,” they noted.
“Horse-rider allocation decisions must have been made based on rider gender, age, and horse sex because the questionnaire described each horse as being suitable for any of the riders.
“Predictably, the stallion was almost always allocated to an adult, and preferentially, the man.
“The gelding was most often allocated to a child, with the girl being assigned the gelding more often than the boy and the mare more likely to be assigned to the woman or the girl.
“The most unexpected finding in this section of the survey was that the boy was not allocated a horse to ride by almost half of the respondents.”
The authors said there was a clear disconnect between respondents’ actual choices and the factors they cite as important when matching horses and riders.
“Preference for female riders appears to extend to the adults, with the man failing to be allocated a ride twice as often as either the girl or the woman.”
Further stereotypes and biases were encountered in the study when respondents were invited to choose between adjectives to characterize mares, geldings, and stallions.
“The results for geldings were clear and they were positively classified in each of the nine categories by almost all respondents.
“Positive and negative attributes were mostly evenly spread for mares, with ‘Bossy’ and ‘Bad’ being the only negative factors significantly attributed to them.
“Stallions scored very highly on trainability, but at the same time were considered ‘Difficult’, ‘Bossy’ and ‘Dangerous’.”
These results, they said, suggested that female participants enter the horse-human relationship with specific ideas based on the sex of the horse.
Similar findings were reported when these same participants provided short answers concerning their horse choice for particular disciplines.
“We could also speculate that this set of ideas is also being transmitted from woman to girl riders and is part and parcel of the culture of horse-riding that sees horse-riding as a sport for girls and women, rather than for men and boys.”
But, just how accurate is this set of ideas that are being transmitted, they asked?
“Given that most studies of equine learning and temperament do not report sex influences on horse temperament, trainability or learning ability, including between geldings and stallions or mares and stallions, the reason respondents assigned the term ‘Bossy’ to mares and stallions but not geldings appears to reside in beliefs and is yet to be explored experimentally.”
This bias, they said, may reflect the respondents’ past encounters with male and female horses, in which horse behavior was identified as resulting from the influence (or lack of influence, in the case of geldings) of sex hormones, rather than other causes such as pain, training confusion or rider failures.
Mares and stallions considered ‘bossy’
“The attribute ‘Bossy’, which the current participants used to characterize both mares and stallions, is of concern.
“The concepts of leadership and dominance are still commonly applied in horse training contexts and may encourage or justify the application of punishment,” they said.
“The attribution of gendered characteristics onto horse behavior by female respondents suggests that they may default to attributing undesirable horse behavior to gender, rather than factors such as pain or training confusion.
“This attribution may hinder riders’ seeking appropriate remedies for unwanted behavior in their mares or stallions.
“Further research into the attitudes of male riders towards mares, geldings and stallions could confirm if such views are shared by male riders too.
“In preferring male horses, and particularly geldings for most equestrian activities, riders may be unnecessarily limiting their options by avoiding mares which current evidence suggests are no less likely to achieve training outcomes and no more likely to possess emotional or fearful temperaments than geldings.”
In conclusion, the authors found that gender, behavior, and sex stereotyping are prevalent in equestrian industries.
Female riders appeared to have preconceived gendered ideas about horse temperament and view horse riding as a sport for females.
“Women riders express a preference for combining female riders with castrated male horses.
“Castrated male horses were also preferred for each equestrian discipline of showjumping, dressage and trail riding. Mares are perceived, largely without scientific foundation, as being less reliable, less predictable and less desirable than their castrated male counterparts.
“In some cases, this is likely to compromise mare welfare,” they said.
The results, they said, suggest that female riders are entering the horse-human relationship with gendered ideas about horse temperament and view horse riding as an activity primarily for women and girls.
This, they argued, could have far-reaching implications for equine training and welfare.
The full study team comprised Fenner, Georgina Caspar, Michelle Hyde, Navneet Dhand and Paul McGreevy, all with the University of Sydney; Cathrynne Henshall, with Charles Sturt University; Fiona Probyn-Rapsey, with the University of Wollongong; Andrew McLean, with Equitation Science International in Australia; and Katherine Dashper, with the School of Events, Tourism and Hospitality Management in England.
Fenner K, Caspar G, Hyde M, Henshall C, Dhand N, Probyn-Rapsey F, et al. (2019) It’s all about the sex, or is it? Humans, horses and temperament. PLoS ONE 14(5): e0216699. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0216699