So the Alpha Mare is back, and I have a blog that’s sure to trip some triggers. I’m finally going to tackle that long-trusted myth, that fillies and mares aren’t as strong, fast or built as well as colts and “horses.” (As you know, the official designation of an older male Thoroughbred is, “horse.” This, unfortunately, excludes all the older females…which means that they get to be called “mares.” And “mare,” as we know, is often an assumption NOT of grace, or wisdom, or experience—but is usually preceded by the phrase, “old gray…”)
And that trips MY trigger.
I know. I know. The stats SEEM to prove otherwise, but what they really prove is that culture; attitude; expectations and human bias can, indeed, effect the outcome of a race…albeit in a way that takes generations to realize.
You see, there’s a scientific (and social-scientific) explanation—calm down, and let me go on. If you follow the logic and physiological reasoning here, you’ll see that my opinion is not opinion at all. I’m merely the gleeful messenger, clapping her hands and jumping up and down as I deliver that which may be the death knell to misogyny in horse racing.
Enter Dr. Pauline Entin, Ph.D. Dr. Entin is a physiologist at Northern Arizona State University. I came across a white paper she wrote a couple of years ago—I found it online—in which she boldly states that IF, indeed, fillies and mares can’t cut it against the boys—it’s OUR fault, not theirs. And it all has to do with that funky place where physiology intersects with psychology, culture and expectations.
Now, I do not claim to know anything about the science of physiology: Dr. Entin’s paper contained symbols and equations that made my head spin. I can read (ancient) Greek, but when a Theta is placed next to a number—I practically get vertigo.
But the words that explained the numbers, now—those I can grasp. Words are my stock-in-trade. I read and understood every word of Dr. Entin’s scientific magic, and encourage you to get your hands on a copy of her paper and read it, too.
Here goes: prepare to learn, grow and perhaps have the world-as-you-know-it shattered.
It’s all very logical: Dr. Entin studied the histories (not anthropologies, that’s about humans. The zoo-opologies?) of dogs and horses.
Dogs are predators. Always have been. Yes, even the society dame’s seemingly-useless little Chinese Crested falls into that category: there’s a potential killer lurking in even the most innocuous or ridiculous-looking of dogs.
And horses are prey.
Both critters must run in order to accomplish their goals: the dogs, that of eating.
The horses, that of avoiding being eaten.
Are you with me so far?
Dr. Entin argues that—going back millions of years, to the present—if the females of either species couldn’t keep up with the males of their tribes—the tribes would have died off.
(Female dogs don’t sit home and wait for Daddy to bring home the bacon. Male dogs—again, going back to the wild dogs that evolved into our contemporary spoiled, coiffed, AKC purebreds—male dogs were not/are not the most nurturing of beings. The thought process has never been, “Tear off a leg for me, take the rest home to The Little Woman and the pups…”)
If female dogs couldn’t run with the pack—they starved.
If all the female dogs failed to run, and therefore, to dine—no baby dogs. So it seems that…ahhhh…female dogs…for many millennia, have been able to keep up with the boys.
Ibid., horses. If female horses couldn’t run as fast as their male companions—as the slowest of the tribe, they would have been caught first, consumed first. No foals. Horses, like dogs, would have died off after the first generation—if the females thereof had not been fleet-of-foot.
Dr. Entin studied thousands of dogs and Thoroughbreds, at hundreds of dog and horse tracks.
And, interestingly enough, she came to two fascinating conclusions:
1) (Regardless of what we may think of the world of dog racing): Female Greyhounds are treated, trained, etc.—exactly the same way as their male counterparts. And they’re raced against male dogs.
2) The key reason--and this statistic is fact, based on Dr. Entin’s findings—while there’s a generally-accepted 10% difference between human males and females regarding muscle mass and lung capacity—check this out, readers—the difference between male and female horses is a negligible 1.2%—"...hardly worth mentioning,"
(So all the nonsense about fillies and mares being smaller than males; having noticeably less muscle mass, etc.—is just that, nonsense. Cannot be scientifically proven—in fact, Dr. Entin proved just the opposite with this study.)
So where do the “facts” about female Thoroughbred physiology originate?
Enter conclusion #3:
3) The key reason why female Thoroughbreds—fillies and mares alike—are not often raced against the boys, and why they don’t often win when they do—is that…their human handlers assume that they can’t cut it against the boys.
In other words, to quote Dr. Entin: Tradition, psychology and training are the reason. There is absolutely no physiological basis for the long-established myth of female equine inferiority.
Now, I can hear the Kentucky hard-boots screaming at me now. And I know—I know!—that we’re going up against generations of skilled, wonderful, brilliant trainers here, men (and even some women) who know and love the critters in their care.
But culture—not just horseracing culture, all human culture—is a fascinating machine. If we do something expecting a certain result—we’ll likely see that result. That’s why the Scientific Method is so difficult to master, and so necessary to help sort out Truth in a case like this.
Generations of human expectations—not equine inability—have relegated female Thoroughbreds to the back of the proverbial bus. Dr. Entin further states that she observed that female Thoroughbreds are, more-than-likely, spoken to in a different manner than their male counterparts.
Imagine that…now, I personally think that a loving, gentle approach (cooperation, vs. domination) is the way to train a horse to greatness. LOVE the horse to victory, don’t beat it to death. So I think that all Thoroughbreds deserve to be treated with respect, love and affection. But even those horses who ARE treated thus—the females are, more often than not, treated differently, spoken to differently, than the colts and “horses” (older males).
And no one realizes it, because it’s just the way it’s always been. Females are said to “tire more easily,” “lose it in the stretch,” not able to prove themselves in a long race, ad nauseum. And, like magic—those low expectations are often met.
Not because the respective fillies and mares can’t cut it—but because we just don’t expect them to be as big, or strong, or capable as the males.
Of course, trainers and owners in America hope that their fillies and mares will be great—but they usually expect that to be in a test against their own gender. It’s rare when a female Thoroughbred is tossed in there with the boys by her handlers—and it’s a joy when it does happen, because it indicates an enlightened team of connections, humans who look tradition in the eye and realize that tradition isn’t always right, or beneficial.
(Cannibalism is a tradition in some cultures—but not everyone involved in the transaction is happy about it.)
Michael Paulson had that faith in Azeri: he insisted that she be trained like a Thoroughbred—not like a FEMALE Thoroughbred. Train her, expect great things of her—and she lived up to those expectations.
American horseracing is still far behind Europe and Oz (Australia) when it comes to female horses. Makybe Diva was the greatest Australian Thoroughbred—not the greatest Australian FEMALE Thoroughbred. The Ozmen took her all the way to her stars, because Oz, of all places, knows a thing or two about being in the one-down position. As a nation, Oz has fought to earn respect, and that translates in so many ways in which they now teach others to see the world differently.
Ozmen treat their female Thoroughbreds like horses, without gender bias.
So much of the culture of American Thoroughbred racing is stuck in the Victorian rut of fat men with fat cigars, making plans for their prissy hostess wives and their high-stepping horses. And their women—Stepford Mamas, who are content to be in the background, whirling and twirling while serving tea, or Dom Perignon, or whatever is the Flavor du Jour, would never consider taking the reins of the family stable, themselves.
And then…and then you have strong, smart, take-charge women like Penny Chenery; Allaire DuPont and Charlotte Weber. Horsewomen, women who know that a horse is a horse is a horse—and that a woman’s place is, indeed, in the Clubhouse—but also in the backstretch, in the foaling barn, and in the Boardroom.
In the Middle Ages, these women were referred to as Viragae: strong, smart, educated—“…almost as good as a man.” A woman who could match wits and power with a man in 14th Century Europe was insulted with the moniker, Virago. (And we know what they were implying, don’t we?)
Women like Saint Catherine of Siena embraced it.
I’m a Virago. You may be a Virago, or know and love one. And admit it—isn’t it more fun to spend time with an engaging woman, than one who hangs on your every word and expects you to pet her like a Siamese cat?
Women like Penny don’t treat female Thoroughbreds like second-class equine citizens. And I suspect that those Viragae have little tolerance for those who still think that the REAL job of a female Thoroughbred starts when she retires to crank out babies.
We in American racing need to follow the lead of these three great women, and realize that hundreds of years of misogyny (gender bias) has proven only one thing: that if you expect little of a horse, that’s exactly what you’ll get.
But if you expect your filly to go out there and win the Belmont…she’ll do that, too.
Try this experiment for one week: every time you’re about to refer to a filly or a mare as a “female Thoroughbred,” or as a “female horse”—unless her gender is germane to the conversation—try just saying, “Thoroughbred,” or “horse.”
Language is the vehicle that drives the thought processes of culture. If we change the language with which we discuss our equine charges, and the manner in which we speak to them—said culture will eventually change. It’s a slow-moving vehicle, but one that must evolve if American racing is ever to truly compete on the world stage. A horse is a horse, of course, of course…and no one knows this, or can prove it more convincingly than Dr. Pauline Entin.
The scientific stats are in, and, frankly—they carry more weight than the stats generated at a race. Our racing stats may be carved in stone—but scientific statistics stand up for millennia. Time to change our minds, and therefore, our sport: denying 50%of the equine population full access, competitive purses, respect and credit is akin to denying 51% of the human population access to the administrative offices at TOBA. It’s not only stupid, it’s just plain Bad Business.
N.B.: If you'd like a copy of Dr. Entin's white paper, please email me here, send your email address and I'll zip it off to you.