Merits of mares overlooked

By Country News

Many riders have long considered stallions to be dangerous or difficult, but new research now shows mares are also seen as ‘‘bossy’’ or ‘‘unreliable’’, raising concerns for their welfare.

The paper, published in the journal PLoS ONE, found horse riders are applying human gender stereotypes to horses — a form of anthropomorphism — which could lead them to overlook the merits of mares and fillies.

This gender bias against mares could jeopardise their welfare, said lead author and PhD student Kate Fenner from the University of Sydney’s School of Veterinary Science.

‘‘When riders assume their horses are being bossy, difficult, flighty or unwilling they may be more likely to punish or correct them as a result,’’ Ms Fenner said.

‘‘A mare disobeying a rider’s signal could be interpreted as the horse having a bad attitude and be met with punishment.

‘‘However, when a gelding, thought to be reliable and easy-going, disobeys the same signal, the rider may be more likely to conclude that the horse had not understood the signal and work to establish the signal-response pattern with the horse using reinforcement.’’

In riding circles, it is a common perception that stallions could be dangerous.

But this is the first published research to reveal negative attitudes from riders towards mares.

The research shows that mares and stallions are considered bossy or difficult, but most leisure riders don’t ride stallions because of an existing belief that they are possibly dangerous.

While riders can be wary of mares and stallions, the preferred horse overall is a gelding, the study found.

The study surveyed 1233 people, 94 per cent of whom were women, and 75 per cent were horse riders with at least eight years experience.

The predominance of women in the study is representative of the riding population in Australia, senior author Paul McGreevy said.

The scenario-based study found that, when given the choice of a mare, gelding, or stallion to ride, more than 70 per cent of respondents chose the gelding; despite being told all the horses in the scenario were competent for a specific task.

Professor McGreevy believes the gender stereotyping is based on folklore and could ultimately be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

‘‘If you’ve grown up believing that mares are moody or fiery or difficult, you will tend to approach them accordingly and ride them differently, then the horses themselves will respond differently,’’ Prof McGreevy said.

‘‘This kind of prejudice against females is a bit like the traditional bias against horses with chestnut hair.

‘‘Many riders believe a chestnut mare is inherently stroppy or more fiery, and there is no evidence for this.’’

Prof McGreevy said mares could display less predictable behaviour while they were on heat: abrupt halts during locomotion, following of stallions, lifting of the tail and urinating.

But this does not account for all-year-round prejudice against their temperament.

Key findings

■Mares are seen as less reliable, predictable and desirable than their castrated male counterparts.

■Geldings are seen as safe, predictable, reliable, easy and willing, but even experienced riders appear confused about the attributes of mares.

■There is a clear disconnect between reasons riders cite for choosing certain horse-rider combination choices and the actual choices they make.

■By attracting more coercive or punitive training, mares may have their welfare compromised.