According to stats from the University of Glasgow and American Horse Publications, 90% of horse owners in both the UK and US are women. And in a 2019 economic report by the American Association of Equine Practitioners, 4 out of 5 equine veterinarians are women. But why do women gravitate so viscerally to horses?
A recent article published in Psychology Today seeks to answer that very question. Written by Diana Santos Fleischman, PhD, an evolutionary psychologist at Portsmouth University in the UK, she admits that she was (and remains) horse-mad. Given her field of study, it’s not surprising her way into solving the ancient mystery is to go, well, into ancient history. Understanding gender differences and how modern men and women evolved offers up one theory about why women might be more interested in keeping and caring for horses than men: “women are practicing [with horses] the same skills they use to train their boyfriends and children.”
She further points out that men dominate their lives through physical strength, whereas women, being physically less strong, lean into psychology to influence those around them. This difference is also used for defense in any situation where a woman might feel threatened. If a man is under threat, he is more likely to physically fight off a combatant. But consider how some women during the initial #MeToo revelations admitted to being on speaking terms or even being friendly with their aggressors as a way to prevent further attacks.
Dr. Fleischman suggests that to this end, “Horses are a super stimulus for the dynamic of acquiring strength through influence. They’re big, strong and fast but also aloof and challenging to train.” In other words, women learn how to influence men by working with horses.
She also cites another article written by animal behaviorist Sue McDonnall, who writes, “One truism…is that women have to handle horses with their brains because they intuitively recognize that strength is not likely going to work for them in most cases. They tend to have more patience, while men often try to use brute strength and typically have less patience.”
Another theory that Fleischman uses to explain the female obsession with horses has to do with myths, legends and fairy tales. In these stories women often are able to communicate with animals and have special skills and abilities solely due to these female/animal relationships. “Stories like these are an extension of the idea that one of women’s major psychological strengths is understanding and harnessing the psychology of others; that they have the motivation and skill to build influence even with minds that are very different from their own.”
While there will probably never be a definitive explanation for our female fascination with horses, it’s not difficult to imagine that deep down in our brains (and souls) a special connection to these large, gentle and beautiful animals exists. What is undeniable is that this relationship does give women strength and solace in ways that science could never understand.