“He’s a woman’s horse.”
“Women are more sensitive riders – they’re much better at handling horses.”
How often have you heard this? I think the Victorian era might be the period when this notion became established. Writers like Trollope believed that “rarely [do men] have such hands as a woman has on a horse’s mouth.” When I wrote If Wishes Were Horses I wanted to stress that there was nothing biological in the fact that women currently dominate horse sports in many countries – I wanted to trace the social and cultural history behind the phenomenon instead.
Because of the “snob” value of equestrianism, women (of certain classes) were allowed to ride alongside men, and it gave them an outlet that was rare in a fairly repressive society. When it was clear that many women could ride well or even out-ride men, riding became even more appealing to women, and perhaps less so to some men. Now in some places this has become a self-reinforcing phenomenon, with boys pushed out by pink equestrian accessories and assumptions that horses are a “girl thing”. Nothing to do with anything physically innate in women.
We all know of men who are superb, sensitive riders, and of women who have hands like meat hooks. What about horses themselves? Do they distinguish between human genders in their responses? Scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna set out to test this.
They sent male and female riders out around a jumping course and measured the stress responses of their mounts. They decided to test the stress responses of the riders, too. Their press release explains the results:
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 gave similar conclusions. 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.