When people talk about the “human-animal bond,” they’re not always talking about dogs and cats. The relationship between horse owners and their horses is an interesting topic for discussion and study as well.
“Horse owners and caretakers vary considerably in their attitudes toward their horses, from almost family-member-like attitudes and interaction, as some dog and cat owners have,” says Sue McDonnell, MS, PhD, adjunct professor of reproductive behavior, New Bolton Center Hospital for Large Animals, University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, and founding head of the University’s Equine Behavior Program.
“I am not sure of the metric one would use to compare, but the real financial and the apparent emotional investment can be huge, in my opinion, sometimes to a fault, in that the horse’s welfare is compromised for the sake of the owner, or the interaction with the horse is so anthropomorphically off base that the horse’s welfare is compromised, just as so often [is the case] with household pets.”
Horses differ from companion-animal pets in that they usually do not live so closely with their owners, continues McDonnell. “Also, the relationship between horse and owner is typically different from dogs in that the horse usually does not seem to be as bonded to the owner as the owner is to the horse. Dogs tend to show much more behavior suggesting bonding – for example, separation stress.”
Mismatches between horses and owners occur all the time, says McDonnell. “Some trainers and owners are ill-trained in learning theory. Certain individual horses, and some breeds, are better able to handle this stress without becoming dangerous with punitive poor training.
“We say, for example, some lines of stock Quarter Horses ‘can take a lickin’ and keep on tickin,’” she says. “Saddlebred horses can take outright torture and anise that is accepted as good training, yet most do not become explosively dangerous, as most Thoroughbreds would.”
The Human Animal Bond Research Initiative Foundation, or HABRI, is currently funding a study conducted by Daniel Stroud of Oregon State University that is focused on the human-horse bond and its impact on trauma survivors, says HABRI Executive Director Steve Feldman.
“Victims of trauma can especially benefit from animal therapy involving horses,” he says. “Studies have focused specifically on the impact of interacting with a horse as well as the impact of riding a horse. A horse’s high sensitivity and responsiveness to human body language is used as an aid for therapy patients to improve their own awareness of their emotions and communication. Riding horses or hippotherapy utilizes equine movement as a therapy and has been effective for people with various conditions to help improve quality of life.”
The aim of the Oregon State study is to determine the influence equine-facilitated group psychotherapy has on 42 women trauma survivors’ post-trauma symptoms, as well as what each of these women consider their own most personally meaningful incidents throughout their treatment experience.
Researchers expect to find improvements for symptoms of anxiety, depression, bodily dissociation, bodily awareness, self-esteem and self-worth among the participants. In addition, they anticipate individuals will consider their interactions with their equine partner, and other women in the group, as the most personally meaningful aspects of treatment.
Data collected thus far indicates each participant has improved in terms of lower levels of depression, anxiety and dissociative tendencies. Gains were also made in terms of improved post-traumatic cognitions, mindfulness and bodily awareness.