The Challenges of Women Working with Horses

Let me start by acknowledging that I’m not a scientist and this is in no way a scientific treatise on the differences (real or imagined) between men and women.

Rather, this is more a look at some anecdotal observations I personally have made over many years of helping horse owners work with their horses. Over years and hundreds of interactions, some patterns have formed and have caused me to think about some things.

So whether my observations correspond with your own or not, good horsemanship is always about personal awareness and presentation, and male or female, these observations apply to all of us. So, as has already been said, “If the shoe fits, wear it. If not, it wasn’t meant for you anyway.”

I feel like I’m uniquely qualified to talk about the challenges of being a woman who works with horses because I, of course, am one. The primary difference between me and my average female student is simply that I spend (and have spent, over the span of my life) more time working horses than they have. Even so, we are more similar than we are different. We all have many demands on our time, we’re not getting any younger, we have partners who want to see us enjoy our horses and not get hurt and we have made a lot of sacrifices to have horses in our lives. We all have a lot in common.

But let me tell you how this all started, because it started a LONG time ago for me. When I was in my early teens, I entertained Olympic dreams – I wanted to ride on the Olympic show jumping team. So I started following the team and studying up. And way back then, at 13 years old, I noticed something very interesting that still appears to be fairly true today: that at the local, grass roots level, the horse community was/is mostly female. But when I got to looking at the professionals and the top people in most horse sports and disciplines, it was/is mostly men. Now, that’s a generalization and there are exceptions, but if you think about it, it’s mostly true. So where does that switch happen and why? I’ve been wondering that for almost 40 years. I still don’t have the answer.

So anyone who works in the horse business will tell you that women drive the equestrian economy by their sheer quantity. Most of the riding students out there are women. Most of the owners of horses in training are women. Most of the competitors at horse shows are women. But most of our instructors and trainers are men. When we picture who we want to emulate, who we want to look like and ride like and “copy”, most of us picture men.

So ladies (or anyone else for whom “the shoe fits”), let’s chat about a couple things I’ve noticed over the years. Firstly, I’ve noticed that women (generally speaking) have a hard time separating pressure from emotion. Women tend to use very little pressure until their use of pressure is driven by some emotion like fear, frustration or anger. In our horse work, this is a cardinal sin, and it seems like we’re just set up for it. It’s a battle to change it. Think of the mother in a parking lot whose kid runs out in front of a car – her passionate scolding (and perhaps punishment) of that child is driven by fear, not by logic or rational planning and thought. Same with our horses. A lot of women will go along with a horse, using very little pressure, letting things slide and become inconsistent, right until some emotion is triggered. Then watch out!!!!!! Lots of pressure and lots of emotion. The pressure tends to come AFTER and BECAUSE OF the emotion.

Horses don’t operate well that way. Horses need to know that things are going to be fair. I think they’re way more concerned about fairness than they are about gentleness. Their value system is a bit different from ours. So when a woman goes from a bit of pressure to crazed-out emotional banshee, it doesn’t make any sense to him and he’s going to lose confidence and understanding.

Women can also relate increased levels of pressure to “fighting”. “I don’t want to use more pressure because I don’t want to fight with him”. Pressure is just pressure. It can be measured in ounces or pounds per square inch. Pressure does not have to equal fighting. I don’t think the horse sees increased levels of pressure in an emotional context. One horse can get kicked very hard by another horse and the horse that got kicked just goes and finds somewhere else to be, away from the pressure.

So here’s something easy to work on. At all times, we could put our pressure on a scale of 0 to 10. We could know at EVERY moment what number our pressure is at and why. We could know what the horse needs to do to get a release. This is just good horsemanship, but emotion will cause us to lose track of these. If we start to feel emotional while working with a horse, in extreme cases we may need to stop (though now the horse gets a release and that may or may not be a good thing) but if we can keep going, a helpful thing to do might be to ask the question, “What would I do right now if I weren’t (insert emotion here)?” and do that. Focus on being effective, clear and fair, rather than the emotional values of being “loving”, “gentle” and “likeable”.

We could also be watchful and aware that we adjust our pressure BEFORE we start to feel emotional. Just changing the timing and relationship between those two things could change our presentation to the horse a lot.

The next biggie is another one related to emotion. I was talking with my husband Glenn about this topic, and I think he summed this next one up really well so I’m just going to use his words. “Men,” he said, “Don’t tend to make horses a love object.” I had to think about this one a bit and work a little to not take offense! But once we get over our brace, think about it. To lots of men, horses are just that – HORSES. To many women, if you listen to them talk about their horses, they could be talking about a child, a friend or even a lover or boyfriend. This is a form of anthropomorphizing and while I don’t know what it means about the human involved, I think it might be a bad deal for the horse. The horse is a horse and he’s got his own values and he operates in his world in a way that’s different from humans. When we try to make him have a “human-like” position in our lives, that puts pressures on him that he isn’t designed to tolerate. So it will cost him.

If we give our horse the emotional position in our life of a child, friend, lover or boyfriend, we get into that place where we can’t make good decisions for the horse. Simple training glitches become the source of relationship crisis and drama. We start to concoct long-winded stories about our horses’ pasts and futures that are mostly fiction but that we’ll retell over and over again. We’ll saddle him with the responsibility of making our day or giving meaning to our existence. In the worst cases, we will stay with the horse when it’s obviously a bad match because “I love him and he needs me” or we’ll fall passionately in love with a horse who doesn’t even like us and wants nothing to do with us.

At the end of the day, it is BECAUSE the horse is NOT a human that makes this deal so fascinating. But humans are really pretty egocentric, and I think it’s very difficult for humans to really see the world from any other perspective than their own. It easiest for us to describe a horse’s actions like they’re human actions, and attribute a horse’s behaviors to familiar human emotions. And women, especially, seem to have a difficult time separating human emotions and motivations from a horse’s actions.

Lastly, let’s talk about the most obvious challenge for us women: size and strength. Luckily, most of us are interested in a kind of horsemanship that does not rely on brute force to get things done, but even so, horses are big powerful animals and there is some strength and size involved at times. Stamina can be an issue as well, as many times we may need to choose between using a higher pressure for a short period of time or less pressure for a longer period of time.

Many of our teachers in the horse world are men. Some of them are a foot or more taller than their students and outweigh them by sometimes 100%. Sometimes we can’t use the techniques and movements that our teachers use because we just don’t have the size and strength. That’s just the way it is. Lots of teachers will claim that it’s not a matter of size or strength, but I’m here to tell you that the horse can tell a difference between someone 5’4”, 120 lbs and someone 6’4” and 250 lbs. That person who is 6’4” can get up over the top of a horse from the ground, while the 5’4” hasn’t a hope. Hopefully, mostly we can work in an area where that doesn’t matter, but at times, it’s a real “thing”.

I have spent a lot of time modifying the techniques I’ve learned from men so they work better for a person my size and strength. I’ve become okay with the idea of outlasting a horse if I can’t muster up enough pressure to get a change quickly. I break things down into smaller parts if I have to and I don’t hesitate to use tools to increase my reach or physical presence. I try not to use an amount of pressure that I couldn’t maintain for a long time just in case we’re there for a while. I also make sure I’m physically fit enough for the kind of horses I’m working, as I don’t want to have to quit on a horse in a bad spot because I’m just too tired to carry on.

Women have a lot to offer horses and the horse world, no doubt. Many women have been fabulously successful in horses, in all disciplines, breeds and competitions. Whether you’re male or female, if any of these challenges ring true, we can all help each other work on them so the horses can benefit. If the horse is always right, and we want to leave the horse in the horse, then we have to respect where he’s coming from and do our best to be the person he needs us to be. Who that person turns out to be, at least in my experience, can be a bit of a surprise to the human.

4 thoughts on “The Challenges of Women Working with Horses

  1. Linda Hurley March 2, 2018 / 1:11 am

    Agree, especially about the anthroposmorphizing. And the size part since I am one of those that is 5’4″, 105lbs…good article


  2. Tina March 2, 2018 / 2:07 am

    Wonderfully expressed.
    I have thought many of the same thoughts~

    Thank you Kathleen! I miss riding with you as it’s been a long time~


  3. Elaine November 15, 2018 / 4:37 am

    Excellent Article. I can relate to many of your points. However, I feel there is one very important point missing from your article regarding how many professional horse people are men vs women. And that is ‘male privilege’. Boys that show talent and enthusiasm are often given opportunities that women may not get no matter how hard working and talented. Unfortunate but true as for many other careers. Hopefully this is becoming less and less of an issue as time goes by.


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