Do Horses Prefer Female Riders to Male?


“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.

The full journal article is here, if you’re curious to learn more. Thank you to Andrew Curry for the tip off.

The Pre-Evolution Of My Little Pony

The Huffington Post have a  great slideshow showing the evolution of MLP from the babyish but still equine Cotton Candies of the early 1980s to the bizarre-o “Equestria Girl” of 2013, a new model that’s an even stranger mutant than the hideous “Struts, fashion-forward ponies” that were unveiled and then disappeared a few years ago. Equestria Girl is a kind of anime-goth human–horse hybrid whose designers must have had at least one knowing eye on the pony girl fetish scene, which also draws on Japanese comic book and goth influences. The mini skirts, the brightly coloured hair, the stacked boots… It’s a direct appeal to the much-trumpeted “Brony” craze that’s seen young men adopt a girl’s toy and cue up an avalanche of press interest and pseudo-analysis. How did we get here?

I wrote a bit about the history of the toy in If Wishes Were Horses, and the still earlier stage of evolution that predates the transition from tchotchke to dolly bird. The proto MLP was dreamt up by a woman and former little girl called Bonnie Zacherle. This is an extract from an interview she gave that was originally published on (accessible on this MLP forum):

I got the idea for My Little Pony because a pony or horse was the only thing I ever wanted.

I came up with drawings of miniature, realistic horses like a Pinto, Paint, or Appaloosa, but my vice president of R&D told me little girls liked to cook, clean and iron. I knew he was just killing my idea. Later he got his own group that came up with another idea, and it was nothing like a horse – it was a pony. …

It was [aggravating]. This toy was hard, had an ear that wiggled, an eye that blinked. They thought that little girls would like to sleep with it. They called it My Pretty Pony, and it sold a couple million units. The VP of marketing took this thing home, and his wife said, “You know, this is nice, but it should be soft, simple, and have a combable mane.” …

They asked me to miniaturize what I had already designed – I did original design work on all of them – and make it soft with rooted hair. And the first ones, believe it or not, were Palominos, Pintos, and one was black. My marketing director asked what I thought of making them pink and purple. Though I was a purist, we tested it and it tested great. …

The sellers, all men of course, said they couldn’t sell it. But the VP of marketing said he was going to stick with it. He thought it was his wife’s idea, which if she hadn’t had it, my idea wouldn’t have seen the light of day. I was the inventor of My Little Pony, though several people claim that. I am the undisputed designer, along with the original sculptor.

So there you have it: marketing has taken a girl’s love of horses from realism to kitsch to sexualisation, keeping MLP at the forefront of a long-running Western tendancy to anthropomorphise animals and sexualise children. Will the Equestria Girls be a hit with real little girls, or are they solely for the cosplay-attending Bronies and Pegasisters? Which is the better source of cash and brand loyalty for Hasbro? What do little girls really want?

* The all-new Equestria Girls are in fact a reworking of an earlier attempt to create a “My Little Pony goes to High School” scenario, called My Little Pony Tales, in 1992. It didn’t really take off, despite the jocks, rollerskating and dating. The ponies were anthropomorphic, but still resembled equines. Perhaps the world wasn’t ready for ponies with lockers in the early ’90s, but apparently we’ve evolved too…

** Excuse choppiness and scant blogging. I’m hard at work on plans for book two, and it’s making coverage here skimpy.

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links


  • The US Equestrian Federation has finally – yes, FINALLY – banned the chains, weighted shoes, pads, collars and rollers used to produce the monstruous “big lick gait. Good news for the beleagered Tennessee Walking Horse. (The Horse)
  • This week was, mercifully, a week in which images of Shetland ponies wearing woolly jumpers flooded the internet. This is my favourite account of the story, thanks to the clash  between the chirpy CNN reporter and the indignant Scotswomen she interviews. Don’t tell a Scotswoman that her jumper makes a pony look fat. Just don’t do it. (CNN)
  • The UK Food Standards Agency has issued an update about findings of bute in horse meat. (FSA)
  • Brony fan art. Including porny My Little Pony graphic novels. I remember that there was joke slash fic on the subject years ago, but now it seems to have crossed a line. More fascinating developments in our everchanging weirdness about horses. (Cracked)
  • A horse in Norwich City scarf turned up at Carrow Road to watch a game, sadly on the wrong day. (SB Nation)
  • The Pony Racing Authority has a new fearless leader: ex-Cheltenham racecourse MD, Edward Gillespie. Chief exec Clarissa Daly commented: “The PRA is committed to increase the numbers from non-racing and non-horsey backgrounds and to make racing more accessible to children and young people from all walks of life.  With Edward as our new Chairman we are better placed than ever to achieve this.” (Horse Talk)
  • HSUS is forming a Responsible Horse Breeders’ Council in the USA. Hopefully they will be able to reach irresponsible horse breeders too. (The Horse)
  • Here’s my Telegraph piece on the history of hippophagy, taboo, rite and rational consumption. (Telegraph)

If Wishes Were Horses: March of the Pink Hooves

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Pink pink pink at Olympia in 2006, although I was too mesmerised to get any good shots of the showjumping. The NYT piece by Peggy Orenstein that I mentioned in the chapter is here, and you can see photos of the horrible, “sexy” Struts pony toys on Princess Sparkle Pony’s blog. Thank you to Dominique for the photo of her Christmas pony who, disappointingly, turned out not to be a My Little Pony but a real pony after all.

This post relates to a chapter of the book If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of an Equine Obsession. If you have any questions to ask about the content, please fire away in the comments. The main online index for the book is here.

Empowerification Through Princess Pony Primping!

Pony Royale, a new girls line starring beautiful princess ponies, steps onto the red carpet of the toy world – the fashion doll aisle – bringing a fresh new approach to princess play in the fashion doll category. Pony Royale combines girls favorite play patterns – hair play, fashion play and nurturing play – to give girls endless hours of open-ended creative play with a fun and easy fashion system. …
The foundation of the Pony Royale brand is a back story that invites girls to imagine they are princesses taking care of the royal ponies. It’s an empowering way for girls to play out their princess fantasies with imaginative storytelling and creative styling. …

Ah yes. Yet more “fashion forward ponies”. Remember Struts? *shakes head, sighs*

Rounding up the Bronies

I’ve kept a weather eye on the “Brony” phenomenon (male geeks who love My Little Pony cartoons) and even done a post about it, although I’m not as excited as the rest of the media who keep bronies constantly in the news and all over the blogosphere. These stories piqued my interest though, so here’s a brief round up from Planet Pony:

  • The Berlin Pirate Party have introduced “pony time” into their rules of procedure, meaning that during meetings and debates any member can request time out to watch My Little Pony cartoons. Original story in German here, and translated into English here. Thanks to Matt for spotting this.

Children’s Party Chic for the Over-Achieving Pony Mother

Blimey. Have a look at the attention to detail and sheer effort that went into creating this “shabby chic vintage pony party“. I remember Horse and Pony magazine’s tips for a pony party that included oat-based treats and carrot sticks. I bet my mum’s glad I didn’t see anything like this when I was eight.