Do Horses Prefer Male or Female Riders?

A new study indicates that horses apparently don't care which gender is in the saddle.

True or false?

· Women tend to be gentle, subtle riders. Male riders are stronger and more assertive.

· Men and women sit differently in the saddle. A man’s narrow pelvis makes it easy for him to take a deep seat. A woman’s wider pelvis gives her a less stable position.

Whatever you think, horses apparently don’t care which sex is in the saddle. That’s what Austrian scientists concluded after analyzing how horses are affected by the gender of their riders.

If women and men ride differently, “Male and female riders should elicit different types of responses,” says Natascha Ille, the lead author of the study. To find out, Ille and her colleagues at Vetmeduni Vienna´s Graf Lehndorff Institute examined eight horses and sixteen riders—eight men and eight women with similar skill and experience levels. Each horse completed a standard jump course twice, ridden once by a man and once by a woman. The scientists assessed stress in the horses and riders alike by monitoring heart rates and checking levels of the stress hormone cortisol in saliva.

The results were not what they expected. The horses’ heart rates and the level of cortisol in their saliva increased during the test, but the increases were not affected by the gender of the rider. The results for the riders were similar. Cortisol increased, but there was no difference between men and women. The riders’ pulses sped up during the jumping course, but the heart rate curves for male and female riders were close to identical.

In a second experiment, the researchers measured saddle pressure to detect differences in position. “Depending on the rider’s posture and position, the pattern of pressure on the horse’s back may change dramatically,” Ille explains. She and her colleagues used a special saddle pad to analyze pressure at the walk, trot and canter. Pressure was less with female riders—because women are generally lighter than men—but there was no difference in the way pressure was distributed and no evidence that men and women had different positions.

Horses, it seems, have no preference for riders of one sex or the other. And that makes riding a truly gender-neutral sport.

This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.

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