New research sheds light on gender differences, running and racing animals
Was Lassie only the second fastest collie in the valley? Was Roy Rogers’s horse Trigger faster than Dale Evans’s filly, Buttermilk? Men are readily acknowledged as faster runners than women. Can the same assumption be made about gender in horses and dogs?
Regression analysis of actual race data revealed a small but significant effect of gender on the racing velocities of Thoroughbred horses and Standardbred pacers, but not Standardbred trotters or dogs. It is notable that in all cases males held a slight advantage over females, although this difference was not significant for the trotters and dogs. When compared to the approximately 10 percent gender gap in peak running speeds of humans, the difference in the animals was small – no greater than 1.2 percent.
The relatively small difference between the genders in both horses and dogs agrees with the lack of evidence of relevant physiological dimorphism in both species. Although the difference in the horses was significant, the one percent gender gap could be explained by training methods or psychological factors as well as physiological attributes. It is a widely held belief among racehorse trainers that female horses should not be trained as hard as male horses, and trainers are loathe to enter female horses in races that are also open to males. Greyhound races are not segregated, presumably signifying that Greyhound owners and trainers believe that females can compete successfully with males.
Given the evolution of the horse as a prey species and the ancestors of the dog as a predatory species, both dependent on running, it is tempting to speculate that natural selection operated on the running ability of both males and females of these species. In contrast, archeological evidence suggests that human ancestors were tool users and may have had gender-specific tasks at least as much as one million years ago, possibly lessening the importance of running speed particularly in females. This analysis is strictly speculative, yet it is clear that humans have selectively bred both racehorses and Greyhounds for speed in both genders for several hundred years, whereas humans do not select their own mates based solely on running ability.
In conclusion, although male horses and dogs do hold a slight speed advantage over conspecific females, the difference is an order of magnitude smaller than that seen in humans (one percent versus 10 percent). Factors other than physiological differences may explain why horse races are traditionally segregated by gender.
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