Value of human-animal interactions to youngsters highlighted in research

Human-horse “mirroring” and relating. Carlyle et al.

The importance of human-animal interactions to the healthy development of youngsters has been highlighted in a British study.

Researchers with Northumbria University explored children’s relationships with a classroom dog named Ted and older adolescents’ relationship with a companion horse named Henry.

Donna Carlyle and Pamela Graham, who are in the university’s Department of Social Work, Education and Community Well-Being, said the horse and dog research pulled together for their paper were found to share striking common ground.

“We have offered an alternative perspective on why human-animal interactions are fundamental to both species,” the pair wrote in the open-access journal Animals.

“The activation of caregiving skills in the children and young people by Ted and Henry is a noteworthy outcome, which is of mutual benefit to both species.

“The potential of human-animal interactions to therefore increase empathy in children and young people could also impact their self-esteem and well-being, for multi-species well-being.”

Carlyle and Graham said children’s beneficial relationships with animals are well known. Companion animals, particularly dogs, have become an integral part of family life and children’s material culture.

However, aside from the proven physiological benefits, there is little research about what children say about their relationships with animals and how they describe them.

“Dogs in schools are fast becoming a trend in helping to support and enhance children’s learning as well as their social and emotional well-being. Studies have shown that the very presence of a dog can increase children’s concentration, executive function and behaviour,” the pair said.

In addition, equine therapy is gaining momentum, with studies showing noteworthy benefits to children and young people.

“However, the lack of children’s voices means that the mechanisms for these benefits are comparatively unknown and unclear.”

Ted enjoys a tummy rub. Carlyle et al.

The dog-related research was carried out in a North East England Primary School, over two phases, with Year 4 (aged 7 and 8 years) and Year 6 (aged 10 and 11 years) children (60 in total) and their classroom dog, Ted.

The children have grown up alongside Ted, a springer spaniel, and he has been in the school setting since he was a puppy. He is now three years old.

Ted joined the school after a landslide victory in a mock election that took place when the children were learning about democracy and voted to get a school dog.

The head teacher honoured the vote and the school carefully planned Ted’s introduction into the setting. He has become an integral part of the children’s learning community, joining in school life as he wishes, such as lessons, reading time, play activities and sharing time with staff in their offices.

Ted is cared for by his class teacher, and returns home with them at the end of every school day. Ted is free to move around the classroom and the children are assigned care duties.

The researchers learned about their relationship with Ted through a series of workshop activities, with creative multiple media used to elicit the children’s voices about their interactions with Ted.

Henry is described as a companion horse. He is a key participant in a programme in which young people discover what can be learned from horses about communication as they learn to ride and care for them.

The horse phase of the study involved two separate groups of young people aged between 16 and 19 who were excluded from mainstream education and identified as vulnerable due to perceived behavioural, social or emotional difficulties.

This study phase used mixed methods to gather and examine data from focus groups, interviews and statistics using the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale.

The authors noted that, in horse-human encounters, horses instinctively recognise authenticity. Horses tune in to emotional and tactile cues that may be transmitted by humans through different channels: voice, posture, expression and pheromones.

“What we observed in our separate research studies was a striking ‘common ground’ in not only the tactile-kinaesthetic movements and rhythms between dog–child and horse–adolescent but also the synergy and synchronicity in movement and ‘becoming-with’ one another.

This is dramatically seen when both human and animal bodies appear to merge, whether cuddling the dog or riding the horse.

Such entanglements seem fundamental to child well-being and flourishing, as touch in middle childhood, in particular, diminishes rather significantly.

Animals such as horses and dogs could potentially be crucial in addressing imbalances or deficits at key times of development.

Indeed, animals could support children who have been subject to abuse (emotional, physical, sexual) and are withdrawn or defensive to touch, they said.

Bodies of Knowledge, Kinetic Melodies, Rhythms of Relating and Affect Attunement in Vital Spaces for Multi-Species Well-Being: Finding Common Ground in Intimate Human-Canine and Human-Equine Encounters
Donna Carlyle and Pamela Graham
Animals 2019, 9(11), 934;

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

3 thoughts on “Value of human-animal interactions to youngsters highlighted in research

  • November 24, 2019 at 4:56 am

    Horse people have Always known the benefit of youth and horse interactions. So many people who are new to the Industry like the people above making this article/research. Horses we have known since the 70s have been very beneficial to therapy, it just took until the 90s to get non horse owners to utilize it. As for child, inner city youth, domestic violence survivors, and many more have been for decades getting the benefit. If you dont know what children benefit from horse chrelationships it’s because you have Never asked. There are are boys homes with horses that have been around for decades, youth rehab ranches that have been around for decades, youth have expressed the helpful nature of horses and Most grow up to own horses and help other children. Groups like PETA however are bent on destroying this help. They publish dont ride articles to children online. Horses are the best provider of health, balance, mental stress relief and physiological wellness in children. The horses are capable of saving lives.

  • November 24, 2019 at 5:03 am

    Youth interaction with horses is documented by Youth horse clubs tracking successes with their equine lives. Horses have helped people from childhood up for possibly hundreds of years. Our awareness of it in the horse Industry has always been there. Horses prove good companions and we have evidence youth ha bc e benefitted all these years. A new study doesnt mean it wasn’t always known. In the Industry it’s Always been known. Troubled youth, physical disabilities, mental health, stress reducers, horses help in every capacity. It’s never been just about the riding….its been about brushing horses, training them, building confidence, becoming stable. The chores the responsibility, being outside, making independent decisions that affect others, learning to work and as well learning to relax. Kids absorb horses like a sponge, and given enough choices they developed into confident youth who are willing to learn and treat others fairly. Just because it’s not printed doesnt mean we dont already know the extreme benefits from the youth themselves.

  • November 24, 2019 at 5:11 am

    I want to state an example from 1990 a kid with an attitude who had gone to juvenile detention, smoking, relied on drugs and wanted to fight came to learn to ride. After a few days of being placed with the horses he was standoffish, angry and wanted to leave but our friends older mare was giving birth, she had complications in the middle of the night. We called for the Veterinarian but who wound up staying in the stall holding the mares head calming her down? Yes, the toughest kid we had ever met, He whispered she could do this, after 1 1/2 hours the vet arrived and the foal was pulled out. He slept in a pile of straw outside the stall to be there when she awoke in the morning feeding her foal. He surprised us by asking if we could buy her and he could take care of her. We did, gave her to him as a gift after 6 months of daily care she bcwas his and he cared for her for 10 more years until she passed. Him? He went bcfor his GED, college, graduated and has a few acres with horses and his kids ride today with his grandkids. He tells me every once in awhile the mare was intended to save his life, she did.


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