Women, it seems, have the edge over men when it comes to teasing out the social confidence of horses among humans, fresh research suggests.
Horses handled by males were found to be more difficult to catch and significantly more defensive when approached, the findings reveal.
“The differences found between male and female horse handlers suggest that sex is an important factor to consider when understanding equine behaviour,” Ashley Anzulewicz and her University of Sydney colleagues reported in the open-access journal Animals.
Such differences may have welfare implications, they said, because equine welfare is influenced by horse–rider interactions.
The study team set out to explore reported differences in confidence, handling and working compliance, and touch sensitivity among horses ridden and handled by males and females.
They based their findings on data supplied in relation to 1420 horses through the Equine Behavior Assessment and Research Questionnaire (E-BARQ), an ongoing online global survey of horse owners and caregivers.
The questionnaire includes demographic inquiries about the sex of the respondent and how frequently their horse has been ridden or handled by males and females. It then gathers observations on the horse’s behaviour on the ground and under saddle, or when driven.
“Using E-BARQ’s battery of 97 questions, the current study showed differences in ridden and non-ridden horse behaviour that were related to the sex of the rider or handler,” they said.
In all, the responses of 1361 females and 59 males were explored.
While horses handled by males were reported as being significantly more difficult to catch and significantly more defensive when approached, they proved to be significantly less likely to pull on the reins or toss their head than horses handled more often by females.
Discussing their findings, the researchers said: “Our results show that the probability of human social confidence decreases as handling by male humans increases. Conversely, the probability of handling compliance was seen to increase when handling by male humans also increased.
“It is possible that variations in gait may affect the way in which male and female humans approach horses,” said the researchers, who noted the smoother and more rhythmic gait of women.
Studies have suggested that the appropriate manner to approach a horse is at a 45-degree angle and with a slow gait. The longer and less smooth gait reported in males may help to explain why horses ridden or handled by male humans are more likely to be reported as difficult to catch, they suggested.
“The current data revealed that horses handled by male humans were more likely to be defensive when approached.
“It can be hypothesised that the confidence of these horses may have been compromised at some point in their lives because they lack the traits that E-BARQ analyses cluster together under the label ‘human social confidence’.
“Alternatively, it could be posited that the reported defensive behaviours are responses to the more assertive behavioural postures adopted by male humans.”
The defensive behaviours reported more frequently towards male humans may reflect increased vigilance or their innate fight-or-flight response, they said.
So, under saddle, why were horses ridden by males significantly less likely to pull on the reins or toss their head, which is generally indicative of more compliance?
“It is possible that male humans, often being physically stronger than their female counterparts, exert greater tension with rein use, which could result in less response-trialing, such as head tossing, from the horse.
“Differences in rein tension exerted by male and female riders would be an interesting area for further research,” the study team added.
They said it is important to consider how some training and handling methods may inadvertently condition a horse to be relatively less compliant or more likely to toss its head.
The authors said that, in interpreting the findings of their study, it is important to consider the impact of gender, and not sex alone.
“The concept of gender incorporates societal and subgroup rules and expectations about how people should perform their biological sex, as well as individuals’ efforts to conform to or challenge those expectations.”
The differences in the way males and females walk are but one example, fueled not only by anatomical variations but social factors.
“The ways that people move, in addition to the ways in which they use their voice, choose their clothing and relate to others, are further examples of human characteristics affected by social forces that are laid over physical bodies.”
It is likely that male and female riders react differently to their horses pulling on the reins or head tossing, they said, noting that demanding compliance with harsh or punitive actions is perhaps traditionally considered characteristic of masculinity more than femininity.
“The current findings cannot be explained by sex alone — the concept of gender is needed,” they said.
“Gender, as a concept, thus allows us to consider that both male and female humans can and do express themselves in ways that are considered more or less masculine or feminine.”
“Our results show that the probability of horses showing social confidence around humans decreases as handling by male humans increases.
“Conversely, the probability of handling compliance increases with increased handling by male humans. Handling compliance, as measured by standing for maintenance procedures, head handling, bridling and catching, describes a set of desirable behavioural traits that may make the horse more manageable, particularly on the ground.
“Human social confidence, as measured by defensive or aggressive behaviours displayed by the horse when approached in the field, stable or when eating, can be an important predictor of handler safety.
“Further research will be required to investigate this relationship and discover ways to balance confidence and compliance in horses and thus optimise horse welfare and handler safety.”
More study will be required to establish whether the influence on horses results from the sex or the gender of the humans, they said.
“Equine welfare and rider safety can be improved by taking the sex and gender of humans into consideration when seeking to evaluate the origins of equine behaviour.”
Anzulewicz, A.; Fenner, K.; Hyde, M.; Heald, S.; Burattini, B.; Romness, N.; McKenzie, J.; Wilson, B.; McGreevy, P. The Impact of the Sex of Handlers and Riders on the Reported Social Confidence, Compliance and Touch Sensitivity of Horses in Their Care. Animals 2021, 11, 130.