Do women and men ride differently? If so, would a horse know in a blind human rider test?

For centuries, horses were a tool of wealthy elites during war and so riding was largely restricted to males. By contrast, today nearly 80 percent of riders are women. Modern-day equestrian sports is one of very few fields where men and women compete directly against one another at all levels, from beginners in gymkhanas to national champions in the Olympic Games.  Even chess insists women are different than men while equestrians do not.

Does a 'theory of riding' developed by men and that has become a cultural tradition work just as well for the gender that now overwhelmingly participates? Natascha Ille, the first author a recent paper, wanted to know, so with Christine Aurich and colleagues from the Vetmeduni Vienna´s Graf Lehndorff Institute they examined eight horses and sixteen riders, including eight men and eight women. Each horse had to jump a standard course of obstacles twice, ridden once by a male and once by a female of similar equestrian experience.

Megan Etcheberry of Rodeo Girls. Credit: Pinterest

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. 

To horses, women and men are no more 'in tune' with them

The results were unexpected. The level of cortisol in horses’ saliva did increase during the test but but not because of 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.

“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, but that was not the case.

Is distribution of saddle pressure different for different genders?

In a second experiment, the authors 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,” Ille explains.

A special pad placed directly under the saddle was used to 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.

Horses don't discriminate against men

So what does all this mean for modern equestrian sports? Aurich is keen to reassure potential competitors that horses are truly gender-neutral. As she puts it, “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. 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.”

So if you can't control some horse and he ignores you and munches on tree leaves when you want him to walk, it's not because you are a man, it's because you don't know what you are doing.

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