Stroll the barn aisle of any horse show, regardless of breed or discipline, and you’ll notice women. Lots and lots of women. You’ll find them grooming their horses, whispering in their horses’ ears, feeding and caring for the animals, and talking about horses with other women. And, when asked, most will say they have a special relationship with their horse.

This phenomenon left researchers in The Netherlands wondering: Do women see horses as an extension of themselves? Sports psychologist Inga Wolframm, PhD, MSc, of the University of Applied Sciences Van Hall Larenstein in Wageningen, and her team decided to investigate with two related studies. She presented her team’s findings at the 9th Annual International Society for Equitation Science, held July 18-20 at the University of Delaware in Newark.

In her previous research Wolframm found that women indicated feeling better after spending time with their horses. But science doesn’t offer unifying concepts for what motivates humans to own animals or the human-animal bond.

“We do, however, seem to know that owning animals is good for you,” she said, citing examples of lower blood pressure in the elderly who own dogs and animals helping children overcome trauma. But none of this evidence explains why women in particular are drawn to horses.

For answers, Wolframm turned to self-psychology, a school of psychoanalytic theory developed by Heinz Kohut in 1984. Established research indicates that animals provide varying degrees of self-object feedback for their owners who form lasting relationships with them, Wolframm explained.

“Self-object” is a term used in in self-psychology to describe external things, people, or activities that are not experienced as separate or independent from the self. The theory further defines:

  • Mirroring self-objects (MS) as those that confirm the self in its entirety. “They recognize the self in (the object’s) greatness,” Wolframm said.
  • Idealizing self-objects (IS) as those that provide the self the opportunity to become part of or like. (“That horse is so beautiful,” Wolframm said.)
  • Twinship self-objects (TS) as alter-egos, or that with which the self finds a likeness or “oneness.”

Wolframm’s research asked two questions:

  1. To what extent do women perceive horses as self-objects?
  2. Does this perception change as a woman ages?

In the first study she and her colleagues recruited 296 female German riders to complete the Companion Animal Self-Object Questionnaire developed by Sue Ellen Brown in 2007. The questionnaire ranked participants on MS, IS, and TS in relation to their horses. Participants also indicated their age range as:

  • Younger than 20 years old;
  • 20-40 years old; or
  • Older than 40 years old.

Results indicated that female riders in romantic relationships scored significantly lower on the MS and TS scale than riders without a partner. Or, conversely, “women without partners confirm their identities more positively through their horses (TS) and experience greater levels of ‘oneness’ (TS) with them,” Wolframm explained.

“One possible explanation may be that women without romantic attachments create meaningful relationships with their horses, which would once again support the idea that animals can considerably enrich our lives,” she said.

Living arrangement and whether the women had children did not impact MS significantly in female riders.

To answer the second question, the researchers conducted an additional study surveying 451 Dutch female riders who were also asked to complete the Companion Animal Self-Object Questionnaire. Here, Wolframm and her team correlated participant responses with their age ranges. Results indicated that, as women age, they rely slightly less on their horses to confirm their identity through either mirroring (MS) or idealizing (IS), Wolframm said.

“It is likely that, as women age, they become more secure in their own identities,” she explained.

In the future, Wolframm hopes to investigate whether differences in self-object perceptions also affect women’s behavior toward their horses.