Horses and emotion: The bonds that can help us to heal

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The mental and physical benefits of horse-related therapy have been shown in a wide range of studies, but exactly how does it work?

Researchers from Bournemouth University in England have examined the question in a pilot study, the results of which were published recently in the journal Animals.

Ann Hemingway and her colleagues said although there was increasing international interest in the use of horses to help those with behavioural, mental, physical and disability-related issues, there had been little exploration of what “mechanism of action” may be causing any potential positive impacts.

“Though long alluded to, there is now an accumulation of evidence of the vital contribution that emotion makes to learning,” they said.

They focused their work on a horse therapy initiative used by a charity in a bid to help young people with chronic mental health and behavioural problems.

The study involved nine individuals aged 18 to 24. In each of their cases, talk-based interventions were not working.

Previous research had shown long-term benefits in terms of health and wellbeing among the 150 to 200 people who undertook the programme each year.

The researchers wanted to obtain a picture of the “emotional landscape” of people’s learning through the programme, which is structured around the philosophical basis of Parelli natural horsemanship.

At the introductory level, this involves playing seven games with horses and inviting them to respond to requests, with the person working from the ground with the horse on a loose rope.

The study team videoed the half-hour session each of the nine young people had one-on-one with a horse. They also measured their skin conductivity response, which is an indicator of emotional arousal. Two were measured in real-time during the horse work, others while watching a video replay of their horse sessions.

Examples of more advanced manoeuvres with the horse under the direction of the participant.
Examples of more advanced manoeuvres with the horse under the direction of the participant.

They also interviewed them afterward.

The sessions were analysed by a group of five cross-disciplinary researchers to determine when significant learning episodes occurred. They found that these significant learning episodes were associated with powerful skin conductance responses.

“Our findings indicated that learning natural horsemanship skills through this intervention caused participants to experience emotional arousal when they asked the horse to perform a task,” the researchers reported.

“We would suggest that this process of experiencing a positive outcome following emotional arousal helps participants to achieve the reported behavioural outcomes from this intervention, which include increased calmness, assertiveness, focus, empathy, communication skills, taking responsibility for behaviour, planning, and confidence as a learner.”

These changes in behaviour then translate from the horse environment to the participants’ everyday lives, thereby achieving the improvements in behaviour recorded by the social workers and teachers who referred young people such as these to the programme in the first place.

The researchers reported that all participants experienced a positive change in mood as the intervention progressed.

All results, they said, supported the findings that emotional arousal occurred in relation to the participants asking the horse to perform a task.

“The sense of growing a conscious connection with the horse seemed to be directly related to the positive learning experience for participants,” Hemingway and her colleagues said.

“The participants appeared to increase their understanding of themselves, which seemed to enable them to build a connection and achieve success with the horse.

“The emotions expressed on completing their interaction with the horse were universally very positive and linked to the connection or bond they felt with the horse.”

They continued: “Interestingly, in the interviews while the participants watched themselves on video, they were not consistently aware of their own embodied emotional arousal; however, all participants stated that in the second half of their play with the horses, they started to express feelings of calmness, happiness, and achievement.”

This, they said, concurred with their initial ideas about this learning, that it is occurring initially through each individual’s emotions and bodies rather than cognitively.

“Our pilot findings suggest that cognitive recognition of changes in mood or emotion seemed to happen later, although obviously further research is required to specify timings in relation to these changes.”

The programme used is being further researched through a feasibility study involving 155 young people aged 8 to 18 for whom “talking” interventions have failed.

The course has already been shown in a small sample to have a potentially positive impact on one-year reoffending rates among young men kept in a young offender’s institution, who also showed some positive changes in problem behaviour after the intervention.

“It would appear from emerging literature on this area that the nature of the horse as a prey animal and the skills required to successfully interact and learn with a prey animal may be the characteristic which helps humans to control their behaviour, and in this case, learn to be calm.

“The initial emotions expressed by participants were dominated by anxiety, fear, and nervousness, and all of them reflected extensively on the imposing presence of this large, charismatic, unpredictable mammal.”

They suggest that these emotions may focus the participants’ embodied responses on finding a way to successfully communicate and build a rapport with the animal.

The full study team comprised Hemingway, Sid Carter, Andrew Callaway, Emma Kavanagh and Shelley Ellis.

An Exploration of the Mechanism of Action of an Equine-Assisted Intervention
Ann Hemingway, Sid Carter, Andrew Callaway, Emma Kavanagh and Shelley Ellis.
Animals 2019, 9(6), 303; https://doi.org/10.3390/ani9060303

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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