Horse owners who show gender bias may be doing harm, say researchers

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Horse owners should leave their sexual stereotypes at the barn door, according to fresh research.

Research has shown that people in the horse industry have preconceived ideas about horse behaviour, temperament and rideability based solely on the sex of the horse.

This gender bias could be harming the prospects of mares, researchers found, with some horse owners potentially overlooking the merits of mares and fillies, considering them bossy.

Researchers, writing in the journal Animals this week, say such ideas can have welfare implications if riders allow their bias to affect their interactions with particular horses.

Unfounded sexual prejudice is likely to contribute to unconscious bias when simply attributing issues to the sex of the horse rather than the more complex legacies of training and prior learning.

In their study, Anne Aune and her colleagues set out to explore reported behavioural differences between geldings and mares, delivering findings that clearly challenge sex-driven stereotypes in ridden behaviour.

The study explored data provided by riders and trainers about the behaviour of their horses under saddle.

Bevahiours were evaluated based on 1233 responses from the pilot study of the Equine Behaviour and Research Questionnaire (E-BARQ) — a free online tool developed by University of Sydney scientists that allows riders to benchmark their horses against thousands of others in terms of welfare, training and behaviour.

Riders reported on the behaviour of their horses using the 151-item questionnaire, ultimately drilling down into 110 traits, which were later narrowed even further.

Results from the study suggest there are some sex-related differences in behaviour between male and female horses.

“Mares were significantly more likely to move away when being caught compared to geldings,” the researchers reported.

“Geldings were significantly more likely to chew on lead ropes when tied, and to chew on rugs.

“However, despite sex-related differences in these non-ridden behaviours, there was no evidence of any significant sex-related differences in the behaviours of the horses when ridden.”

Discussing their findings, the researcher said that non-ridden sex-related differences between mares and geldings have been reported more generally in the literature.

Stallions herd their mares and move them away from other males and bachelors.

The authors suggest that the tendency of mares to move away when being caught may hark back to the natural herd dynamics when a stallion is present. Stallions herd their mares and move them away from other males and bachelors.

This may result in a tendency among mares to move away when “chased”, even when that was not the intention of the handler.

“Mares moving away when approached in paddocks may be blamed on anthropomorphic characteristics of female horses rather than normal social behaviours.”

They continued: “Most naïve horses react to humans the same way they react to potential predators, in that they move away to avoid physical or psychological pressure.

“It is also worth noting that horses that succeed in avoiding people who are trying to catch them may be inadvertently rewarded by extended liberty and autonomy, and moving away thus becomes a learned behaviour.

“Horses negatively reinforced in this way are more likely to move away next time an attempt is made to catch them.”

Turning to the oral behaviour of geldings, the authors pointed to research showing that young male horses may be more likely than fillies to use their teeth, displaying more oral activity and grooming behaviours.

This, they said, could explain the current finding that geldings chew more on rugs.

“Most geldings are castrated in their first year of life … It is therefore possible geldings remain in a suspended developmental stage.

“This could help explain why geldings were found to exhibit more oral activity compared to mares, as young colts, in particular, demonstrate a submissive chewing face to reduce adult aggression directed at them.”

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The researchers noted that, within professional sport-horse training circles, sex preferences relating to the use of horses for various horse sports are commonly known to exist.

For example, mares are widely valued for polo, equally valued in both racing and showjumping but, to some extent, less valued in dressage and eventing.

“In the leisure horse world and more particularly in the non-professional equestrian domain, bias against mares is thought to reflect their perceived unreliability.”

However, such preferences are largely anecdotal and further research is warranted in this area.

“Practically, preconceived ideas of sex-related differences in horse behaviour may be detrimental to horses.

“Unfounded preconceptions can have welfare implications as they may lead to an increase in the use of punishment when mares are perceived as bossy or difficult. Wastage of mares may also increase, with trainers and riders being less willing to work with mares than with geldings and stallions.

“Racehorses with reportedly poor temperament, for example, are more likely to be sent for slaughter when exiting the industry compared to horses with injuries and poor performance.”

Misinterpretation of displayed normal social behaviours of horses may also harm horse welfare.

The authors acknowledge that personality traits in horses are important because these can influence rider perceptions of horses, and their perceived value as a companion.

“There is scant research on the topic of horse personality, with low inter-study agreement on the topic.

“While one study found geldings to be more trainable than mares, with mares being reported as more anxious and panicked than geldings, another study found the direct opposite, with geldings scoring higher than mares on ‘anxiety’.

“It is possible,” they said, “that owners are more tolerant of perceived negative behaviours in mares due to their residual reproductive value as a broodmare.

“Geldings, having no reproductive potential, may lose value quickly if they become unsuitable for their intended use, as a result of injury or perceived negative behaviours.

“This may encourage horse handlers to invest more effort into correcting negative behaviours to maintain a gelding’s value.”

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The authors stress that horses have not evolved to be ridden any more than humans have evolved to ride, despite strong artificial selection pressure on horses for riding for hundreds of years.

“Horse-riding is not likely to be perceived by horses as sexual; if it were, distinct sex differences would be reported during foundation training.

“For example, females would differ to geldings in that they would respond either by rejecting or complying when being mounted and ridden, as they do to stallions.

“Findings from this study may be used to educate riders and trainers about the need to regard behaviour and motivation in ridden horses as sex-neutral.”

The study team comprised Aune, Kate Fenner, Bethany Wilson and Paul McGreevy, with the University of Sydney; Elissa Cameron, with the University of Canterbury in New Zealand; and Andrew McLean, with Equitation Science International in Victoria, Australia.

Aune, A.; Fenner, K.; Wilson, B.; Cameron, E.; McLean, A.; McGreevy, P. Reported Behavioural Differences between Geldings and Mares Challenge Sex-Driven Stereotypes in Ridden Equine Behaviour. Animals 2020, 10, 414.

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

More on E-BARQ

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

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