Get My Fix, April 18, 2011
by Carley Sparks
The notion that girls love horses falls somewhere between a predisposition for pink and hormone-related outbursts. It’s accepted as a societal norm. The question is why? What is it about horses that inspires the passionate and at times obsessive affection of young girls? And what keeps them hooked in adulthood?
I asked Amanda Slugoski M.A., an Alberta-based provisional psychologist who specializes in equine assisted psychotherapy, if horses were really a “girl thing” or just a popular gender myth. The short answer: it’s not penis envy.
A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
An avid equestrian, Slugoski is the founder of Equinox Therapeutic and Consulting Services and co-founder and clinical director of Arivaca Nature School in Arizona. She is not an expert on the biological differences between the sexes, but she does have a theory on the allure of equines. Turns out, the mystery might not be so mysterious. Slugoski says the girl–horse connection might simply be a product of public perception.
“Horses are seen as ‘girly’ so girls are more likely to be introduced to ponies, unicorns, the idea of the white knight, black beauty, and other things like that, compared to boys. This can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy for society, rather than just for an individual,” she explains.
It goes like this: we think that little girls should like horses, so we are more likely to introduce little girls to horses. As a result, more girls than boys end up liking horses, simply because they’ve been exposed more than boys have. The cycle is established.
Slugoski hypothesizes that historically the same cycle may be seen in reverse. Up until the 1900s women rode sidesaddle and were considered too delicate to ride without the assistance of a groom or hired hand. The introduction of the 2nd pommel in 1830 gave female riders the security to gallop and jump fences sidesaddle, but it wasn’t until the early 20th century that it became acceptable for women to ride astride. It follows that their exposure to horses for the better part of human history would have been limited.
“Back when horses were used primarily for work and war, my guess is that horses were seen as a ‘boy thing.’ My theory is that boys were likely introduced to horses more than girls because that was what they were going to need to know about when they were older. As a result, my guess is that more boys ended up liking them and being attracted to them because they had that early exposure. I don’t know if that is true, but I suspect that it may be,” she says.
There are a number of biological differences between men and women that might also play into the equation.
Women have greater connectivity between the two parts of the brain than men and tend to process equally well between the two hemispheres. Men, in comparison, tend to process better in the left hemisphere of the brain; the logical, analytical side.
“The greater connectivity between the two brain halves tends to lead to women consciously experiencing more feelings during the actual process of communication than men typically do. Men, on the other hand, tend to be more task oriented (rather than emotion-oriented) because of their more dominant connectivity in the left hemisphere,” says Slugoski.
Women also tend to be better at identifying and interpreting nonverbal cues than men. Known as the “empathy advantage,” this biological feature makes it easier for women to read body language than it is for men.
New research suggests that women have a larger deep limbic system than men, as well. The limbic system is part of the emotional regulation centre. “The theory behind that is that we have this deeper limbic system, which promotes the bonding and caregiving that is necessary biologically for raising children. Probably, that has evolved over the course of human evolution,” she says.
When girls hit puberty and become of childbearing age, these biological predispositions for communication and emotion lead to the development and enhancement of empathy and caregiving skills. “These natural nurturing tendencies can help women relate very strongly to animals,” says Slugoski. “And this sense of connection then reinforces the bond.”
Here to Stay
We know why more girls get into horses than boys, but why do they stay involved? “I think that is largely because of the development of non-verbal communication skills, which tend to be more strongly developed in women than in men,” says Slugoski.
“What that means to me is that we women are more easily able to become proficient at understanding horses, as they are nonverbal creatures themselves. We are able to develop this bond because of the strong impact of the non-verbal communication. As a result, we feel like we can understand them and we feel like they can understand us.
“This sense of being able to understand and being understood, I believe, can be a very powerful reinforcer. I certainly see this in my work. When a client finally gets to a stage with a horse where they feel truly understood by that horse, man, they are going to keep coming back! They get so hooked on that feeling of ‘they (the horses) get me.’ This feeling can be one of the most powerful reinforcers out there,” says Slugoski.
What do women do after they’ve had this type of bonding experience with their horse? “They tend to talk to others about it,” she says. “You’ll talk to your mom, to your partner, to your friends. As you talk about this, strength is added to the current societal expectation that women like being with horses. And so the cycle is strengthened.”
Now it’s possible, if not likely, that the affinity between girls and horses actually exists with other species. We’d have to look at other animals and other cultures to get to the bottom of it. But really, who is going to give up that much riding time?