"He’s sensitive so he goes better for a lady". "He’s more of a man’s ride.” How many times have you heard that?
But do horses really respond differently to male and female riders?
Austrian scientists wanted to find out, so they undertook a study that measured the various parameters of stress in horses and riders when they jumped a course of fences.
Historically, horses were owned by the wealthy and also during war, so riding was largely restricted to men. However, nowdays nearly 80 percent of riders are women. Modern-day equestrian sports is one of very few fields where men and women compete directly against each other at all levels. Most other sports treat women differently to men. Equestrians do not.
Natascha Ille, the first author a recent paper, wanted to know if there's a difference, so with colleagues from the Vetmeduni Vienna´s Graf Lehndorff Institute they examined horses and riders, including eight men and eight women. Each horse had to jump a standard course twice, ridden once by a male and once by a female. The riders had similar equestrian experience.
The researchers monitored the stress levels of the horses and riders by checking the amounts of cortisol in the saliva and the heart rates.
To horses, women and men are no more 'in tune' with them
The level of cortisol in horses’ saliva increased during the test but but not because of the gender of the rider. Heart rates also increased as a result of riding the course but the increase was irrespective of the rider in the saddle.
Tests on the riders gave similar results. There was no difference in the level of cortisol between men and women. The riders’ pulses sped up when the horses moved from walk to canter and accelerated during the course. But the heart rates for male and female riders were very similar.
“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,” says Ille. However, this study shows that was not the case.
Is distribution of saddle pressure different for different genders?
In another experiment, pressure exerted on a horse’s back via the saddle was studied.
“Depending on the rider’s posture and position, the pattern of pressure on the horse’s back may change dramatically,” Ille explained.
A pad placed under the saddle analysed saddle pressure during walk, trot and canter. As female riders are generally lighter than males, the saddle pressure was lower with female riders. However, the distribution of pressure did not differ and there was no difference in the riding posture between males and females.
Can a horse tell the difference in a blind human rider test?
Horses don't discriminate against men
So what does all this mean for modern equestrian sports? The study shows that horses are gender-neutral. Assuming that there is no difference in riding ability it does not seem to matter whether the rider is male or female. The results suggest that it is unlikely that horses have a preference for male or female riders. So male and female riders competing against one another have similar chances of doing well.
Citation: Natascha Ille, Christine Aurich, Regina Erber, M. Wulff, Rupert Palme, Jörg Aurich, Marie von Lewinski, 'Physiological stress responses and horse rider interactions in horses ridden by male and female riders', Journal of Comparative Exercise Physiology, DOI 10.3920/CEP143001