I often hear people describe a horse as a “woman’s horse,” or conclude from a horse’s behavior that he must have been abused by or received rough handling from men in the past and, therefore, prefers women. What is the likelihood that a horse would relate past experiences with a human’s gender?
Your question raises interesting issues, not only about whether horses form memories of people on the basis of gender, but also about the different relationships that men and women have with horses. Let’s look at these two points separately.
1. Horses can form lasting memories based on past experiences.
The way a horse was treated in the past can definitely affect its future behavior toward people.1 Horses that have had positive experiences are friendlier and more likely to approach strangers, while horses with negative experiences tend to ignore or avoid people.
Fear conditioning can occur if anxiety or pain are linked to the experience. The long-lasting effects of fear conditioning can be seen in the anxious reactions that some horses have toward veterinarians and farriers, where restraint and discomfort may have occurred in the past. Fear conditioning resulting from abuse by men is probably quite rare, and there are more plausible reasons that a horse would be wary of men or show a preference for women.
Horses can easily distinguish between men and women using cues like odor, body size, and voice quality, but would only behave differently toward them if a person’s gender was consistently linked to positive or negative experiences. To illustrate this point, consider a horse that is routinely fed by women and trained by men; it could likely form a more positive memory of women and behave in a friendly way toward them.
An animal’s familiarity with people can also affect its behavior. For example, women might be perceived as unfamiliar to a horse that had been socialized only to men, and vice versa. Horses seek safety in their relationships with humans, and for many animals the unfamiliar is unsafe.
2. Horses might react to gender differences in personality and relationship expectations.
A horse’s preference for men or women reflects a “good fit” with the owner’s personality and the type of relationship they seek with the horse.3,4 The horse’s temperament also plays a role; even between species, some personality types are complementary and others lead to social conflict.
Most human personality traits are unrelated to gender, but there are a few exceptions; in general, men tend to focus on personal goals and achievement (a personality trait called “agency”) and women are more warm and nurturing (a trait called “communion”), and have higher levels of social intelligence.
Cultural norms also lead to different expectations about the way men and women relate to horses,5 from “little girls and their love for ponies to modern versions of the tough but sensitive, cowboy.”6 It’s possible that a “man’s horse” is a good match with an owner who emphasizes power and performance in the relationship, and a “woman’s horse” is a good match with an owner who seeks an emotionally satisfying social partner.
In summary, most horses don’t behave differently toward men and women but, when they do, past experiences, personality fit, and cultural norms about horse-human relationships might all play a role.
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