Do Horses React Differently to Male and Female Riders?

Do Horses React Differently to Male and Female Riders?

Researchers concluded that, assuming that there is no difference in riding ability, from the horse’s point of view it does not seem to matter whether the rider is male or female.

Photo: Juliane Kuhl/Vetmeduni Vienna

Scientists at the Vetmeduni Vienna recently analyzed whether horses are affected by the sex of their riders, and found that horses had similar stress responses when ridden by male and female riders of comparable riding abilities.

For centuries, horse riding was largely restricted to males. The previous situation is in stark contrast to the present day, when nearly 80% of riders are women. Modern-day equestrian sports are unique in that men and women compete directly against one another at all levels, from beginners in gymkhanas to national champions in the Olympic Games.

“For this reason it is interesting to consider whether a theory of riding that was developed exclusively for men can be applied to women,” explains study author and doctoral candidate Natascha Ille.

“It is often assumed that women are more sensitive towards their horses than men. If this is so, male and female riders should elicit different types of response from their horses,” Ille said.

So, Ille; Christine Aurich, DVM, PhD; and colleagues from the Vetmeduni Vienna´s Graf Lehndorff Institute tested this notion by examining eight horses and sixteen riders—eight men and eight women. Each horse jumped a standard course of obstacles twice, ridden once by a male and once by a female of similar equestrian experience. The scientists monitored the levels of stress in the horses and their riders, checking the amounts of cortisol in the saliva and the heart rates.

The team said their 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, again, 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.

In a second experiment, Ille and her colleagues studied the pressure exerted on a horse’s back via the saddle.

“Depending on the rider’s posture and position, the pattern of pressure on the horse’s back may change dramatically,” she explained.

The team used a special pad placed directly under the saddle analyze saddle pressure in walk, trot, and canter. Because female riders are generally lighter than males, the saddle pressure was lower when horses were ridden by females. However, the distribution of pressure did not differ and there was no evidence of differences in the riding posture between males and females.

So what does all this mean for modern equestrian sports? Aurich is keen to reassure potential competitors that horses are truly gender-neutral: “Assuming that there is no difference in riding ability, from the horse’s point of view, it does not seem to matter whether the human partner is male or female," she said. "Our results make it extremely unlikely that horses have a preference for riders of one sex over the other. And when male and female riders compete against one another in equestrian sports, all of them have similar chances of doing well.”

The article, "Physiological stress responses and horse rider interactions in horses ridden by male and female riders,” was published in the Journal of Comparative Exercise Physiology.

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