Gender bias could be harming the prospects of mares, researchers find

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Some horse owners could be overlooking the merits of mares and fillies, considering them bossy, according to a new study.

This gender bias against mares has the potential to jeopardise their welfare, said lead author Kate Fenner, a doctoral student with the University of Sydney School of Veterinary Science.

The fresh research, published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, identified a tendency among horse riders to apply human gender stereotypes to horses.

This anthropomorphism – the tendency to attribute human characteristics or behavior to animals – could lead them to underestimate the abilities of mare and fillies.

In riding circles, it is a common perception that stallions could be dangerous. Indeed, most leisure riders didn’t ride stallions because of an existing belief that they are possibly dangerous, the study found.

But this is the first published research to reveal negative attitudes from riders towards mares, with a tendency to consider them bossy or unreliable.

The preferred horse overall was a gelding.

“When riders assume their horses are being ‘bossy’, ‘difficult’, ‘flighty’ or ‘unwilling’ they may be more likely to punish or correct them as a result,” Fenner said, highlighting a welfare concern raised from the finding.

“A mare disobeying a rider’s signal could be interpreted as the horse having a ‘bad attitude’ and be met with punishment,” Fenner said.

“However, when a gelding, thought to be reliable and easy-going, disobeys the same signal, the rider may be more likely to conclude that the horse had not understood the signal and work to establish the signal-response pattern with the horse using reinforcement.”

McLain Ward and Sapphire winning the 2009 CN $1 Million at Spruce Meadows. 
McLain Ward and leading showjumping mare, the late Sapphire, in 2009. © Bob Langrish/Spruce Meadows

The study surveyed 1233 people, 94 percent of whom were women, and 75 percent were horse riders with at least eight years experience.

The predominance of women in the study is representative of the riding population in Australia, said senior author Professor Paul McGreevy, in the Sydney School of Veterinary Science.

The scenario-based study found that, when given the choice of a mare, gelding or stallion to ride, more than 70 percent of respondents chose the gelding; despite being told all the horses in the scenario were competent for a specific task.

McGreevy believes the gender stereotyping is based on folk-lore and could ultimately be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“If you’ve grown up believing that mares are moody or fiery or difficult, you will tend to approach them accordingly and ride them differently, then the horses themselves will respond differently,” he says.

“This kind of prejudice against females is a bit like the traditional bias against horses with chestnut hair. Many riders believe a chestnut mare is inherently stroppy or more fiery, and there is no evidence for this.”

McGreevy says mares can display less predictable behaviour while they are on heat: abrupt halts during locomotion, following of stallions, lifting of the tail and urinating. But this does not account for all-year-round prejudice against their temperament.

In previous studies of working dogs and their handlers, McGreevy and his team have shown similar trends in the way that men and women work with male and female dogs differently.

He says the prejudice underlines the need for the upcoming global survey of horse behaviour from the University of Sydney, due to be launched next month, after eight years of planning.

Key findings:

  • Mares are seen as less reliable, predictable and desirable than their castrated male counterparts;
  • Geldings are seen as safe, predictable, reliable, easy and willing but even experienced riders appear confused about the attributes of mares;
  • There is a clear disconnect between reasons riders cite for choosing certain horse-rider combination choices and the actual choices they make;
  • By attracting more coercive or punitive training, mares may have their welfare compromised.

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

The full study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here.

Earlier Horsetalk report 

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