Horses and Humans: Better Together?

It is commonly assumed by riders that horses have therapeutic benefits for their wellbeing. This article discusses the evidence surrounding the mental and physical benefits of the horse/human relationship. 

The Horse’s Effects on Mental Health

Horses have a positive effect on the mental wellbeing of humans. An anthropological study conducted by Davis and associates [1] investigated the horse/human relationship in regards to its effects on human mental wellbeing. They interviewed eight men and 52 women over an age range between 20-70 years of age and found that while no questions were asked directly about horse’s providing therapeutic benefits to their owners, this was a common theme [1]. The riders claimed that being around horses was pleasurable and enjoyable and found riding to be a form of stress relief and a way to cope with negative emotions such as depression, grumpiness or anger [1]. Some have even claimed that riding has helped them cope with clinical disorders or deviant behavioural tendencies, describing being around horses being a kind of prophylaxis [1]. One of the interviewees, Lara, claimed that “I ride because it is sort of my therapy. It keeps me sane. I could do bad things like drugs or drinking but riding works through the emotions and isn’t bad for you” [1]. This research suggests that riding or being around horses had a positive effect on the mental wellbeing of humans, which is strengthened by the relationship that the human has with the horse.

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) is a therapeutic approach in which horses are used as a part of the therapeutic process where the participants learn about themselves through their reactions to the horse [2]. It is an experimental approach that is often used in conjunction with other forms of therapy [2] and is used to assist with mental issues around anger control, self-esteem, trust, empathy and communication [3]. EAP has been reported to be beneficial for a range of human participants including war veterans, troubled adolescents, people with drug and alcohol abuse and survivors of sexual abuse [2].

Pam is an example of the way this therapeutic approach is implemented. She’s a teenager with a diagnosis of oppositional defiant behaviour who was referred to EAP after traditional therapy was found to be unsuccessful. When Pam sat in the car with her baseball cap on, refusing to attend the therapy session, the therapy horse reached into the car and grabbed Pam’s hat, pulling away when she tried to grab it. Later, Pam claimed that she only participated due to her instant connection to the horse [2]. Through this therapeutic approach, the relationship between horses and humans is implemented to create a safe, comforting environment for the human participant and helping them to improve their mental health and overall wellbeing.

Riders have a special relationship with their horses

The Horse’s Effects on Physical Health

While horses have a positive effect on our mentality, evidence suggests that they also have a positive impact on our physical wellbeing. Riders have claimed that the physical benefits of horse-human relationships include the balance of physical and intellectual activities within their lives, the release of endogenous opioids and skill-building [1]. A recent study quantified the energy expenditure of humans while horseback riding [4]. They found that the metabolic equivalents for horse riding included activities such as jogging, playing soccer, and rugby [4]. They also found that different disciplines of riding were more physically intense than others. Reigning was the most intense in short durations, while 45 minutes of walk, trot, canter had a greater energy expenditure overall [4]. This suggests that riding horses does have a positive impact on our physical health, improving it over time.

Hippotherapy

Hippotherapy uses horse riding therapeutically for “physically and emotionally disabled people, or for people recovering from conditions such as strokes” [3]. The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association defines hippotherapy as “the use of movement of a horse as a tool by physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech-language pathologists to address impairments, functional limitations and disabilities in patients with neuromusculoskeletal dysfunction”. This tool is used as part of an integrated program to achieve functional outcomes [5]. During hippotherapy, the horse influences the movement of the human, providing them with the sensory input of a repetitive pattern of movement that simulates a human gait [6]. Hippotherapy has been found to improve a large number of physical elements including posture, balance, strength, coordination, normalisation of muscle tone, and improvement of endurance, symmetry and body awareness [6]. Using horses as a form of physical therapy is particularly effective for humans with cerebral palsy [5]. Due to their impairments, humans with this condition have little experience with rhythmic movements and so the combination of the human gait simulated movement, warmth and rhythm of the horse can have positive effects on the humans with this condition [5]. Hippotherapy is just one form of therapy that uses horses to improve the physical condition of humans.

The Human’s Effects on Horse’s Health

But what about the benefits to the horses? It has been suggested that “animals that live in a close relationship with humans will likely have a better physical, emotional, and mental health, and more social interaction than those who live in isolation, or who have different functions such as racing, entertainment, food, etc” [3]. However, just because they have better lives than animals used for other functions, this doesn’t mean that their lives are considered good, healthy or morally right.

Milani [7] conducted a review on the ethics of the physical and mental welfare of animals used for human therapeutic purposes. Milani [7] claims that the potential of inappropriate use and exploitation exists for animals such as horses that are used in animal assisted therapies. This is due to the “special relationship” that is formed between a human and non-human animal which may blind a human to ethical considerations [7]. However, it was concluded that the animals mental and physical welfare is considered by most services that provide animal assisted therapy. Maintaining the animal’s wellbeing was found to be more cost-effective than treating problems that may arise should those needs be overlooked [7].

Zamir [8] also conducted a study on the moral basis of animal assisted therapy from a liberationist’s point of view. She claims that using horses to treat humans is morally wrong as it puts limitations on their freedom, takes away the animal’s life determination, and forces them into training. It also may create social disconnection, cause injury, or make them feel like an instrument to be used [8]. However, she concludes that the animal’s relationship with humans means that the horses are comfortable and safe and treated well in most cases, something that may not be the case if the relationship did not exist and horses were left to their means [8]. While it is important to consider the negative effects that the human/horse relationship may have on horses, it is generally considered that they are better off being in a relationship with humans than without as their mental and physical wellbeing is considered and cared for.

Studies have also shown that the rider/horse relationship can positively affect their mental and physical wellbeing in similar ways to which they affect humans. Hama and associates [9] conducted a study to analyse the effects of stroking on the heart rates of humans and horses. They found that when horses were stroked by humans with a negative attitude towards horses, the horse’s heart rate increased during the first 20 seconds before gradually reducing as the stroking continued [9]. In comparison, there was not a significant change in heart rate when the horse was stroked by a human with a positive attitude towards horses. However, when the horse was stroked by a human that the horse had a relationship with, there was a decrease in heart rate [9]. This indicates that horses feel more relaxed when around humans with a positive attitude towards them and most relaxed when stoked by a human that the horse currently has a relationship with. Therefore, the horse’s physical and mental wellbeing is positively impacted by their relationship with humans, creating a mutually beneficial relationship.

In conclusion, humans benefit both mentally and physically from their relationship with horses. Many modalities use this relationship to benefit humans both physically and mentally such as equine assisted psychotherapy and hippotherapy. Horses assist humans in many other ways, such as general mental health maintenance, prophylaxis for an unwanted behaviour, stress reduction, physical fitness, and possibly have a positive effect on blood pressure and heart rate. While horses have a positive effect on humanity’s physical and mental wellbeing, we must consider the impact that humans have on horses mental and physical wellbeing. However, it has been found that animals used for animal assisted therapies have their needs maintained and that while some may still claim that it is unethical, the animals would be worse off if they were left to fend for themselves. Finally, horses are more relaxed when around humans with whom they have a relationship. The relationship between humans and horses has a positive mental and physical impact and this is a relationship that should be continued for a long time to come.

References

[1] Davis, D, Maurstad, A & Dean, S 2014, ‘My Horse is My Therapist: The Medicalisation of Pleasure among Women Equestrians’, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 3, pp. 298 – 315

[2] Masini, A 2010, ‘Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy in Clinical Practice’, Journal of Psychosocial Nursing, vol. 48, no. 10, pp. 30 – 34

[3] DeMello, M 2012, Animals and Society: An Introduction to Human-animal Studies, Columbia University Press, Columbia

[4] O’Reilly, C, Zoller, J, Sigler D, Vogelsang, M, Sawyer, J & Fluckey J 2021, ‘Rider Energy Expenditure During High Intensity Horse Activity’, Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, vol. 102, pp. 1 – 8

[5] Travis, S 2007, ‘Hippotherapy’, in Freeman Miller (ed.), Physical Therapy of Cerebral Palsy, Springer, New York, pp. 350 – 351

[6] Meregilliano, G 2004, ‘Hippotherapy’, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinics of North America, vol. 15, pp. 843 – 854

[7] Milani, M 2016, ‘Animal Welfare in Human-Animal Interactions’, HABRI Central, pp. 1 – 10

[8] Zamir, T 2006, ‘The Moral Basis of Animal-Assisted Therapy’, Society and Animals, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 179 – 199

[9] Hama, H, Yogo, M, Matsuyama, Y 1996, ‘Effects of Stroking Horses on Both Humans and Horses Heart Rate Responses’, Japanese Psychological Research, vol. 38, no. 2, pp. 66 – 73

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