Ability of horses to emotionally interplay with humans a key part of therapy – review

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The effectiveness of equine-assisted therapy may lie in the capacity of horses to emotionally interplay with humans, Italian researchers suggest.

The use of animal-assisted intervention to helped troubled patients is an emerging field. Horses play an important part, being employed in a wide variety of therapeutic activities with humans.

Chiara Scopa and her colleagues set out to examine emotional transfer in the human-horse interaction during therapy in a review published in the open-access journal Animals.

In particular, they explored whether the emotional transfer hypothesis applied. It suggests mutual coordination of emotional states of humans and horses, who go through a coupling process during the interaction.

“Even though this mechanism is supported by few existing studies on human-horse emotional fine-tuning, it could play a key role in equine-assisted interventions,” the review team wrote.

The researchers cited 175 scientific papers in their review.

“Starting from the investigation of those mechanisms required for a human–horse encounter to become a ‘relationship’, we defined the socio-emotional world of horses by reviewing the most significant studies on the topic,” they said.

“Eventually, we hypothesized that detecting emotions of other individuals and developing the capacity to fine-tune its own emotional state accordingly with that of others, may have fostered the success of equine-assisted interventions, bringing positive effects on both sides.

“From the body-to-body contact up to the emotional transfer, horses and humans became able to coordinate physiological activities through bonding, which subsequently increased the similarity in the way both perceive and experience their common world,” they concluded.

“However, it has been often suggested that horses can ‘sense’ the human mental state of mind when involved in equine-assisted interventions; this misconception could generate questionable beliefs about horses’ capacity to empathize with suffering people.

“Instead, the horse is not supposed to be the principal caregiver of a patient, rather it represents the catalyst of the healing process with due regard for the animal’s welfare and needs.”

They said they had hypothesized that the effectiveness of equine-assisted interventions may lie in the capacity of horses to emotionally, and not only physically, interplay with humans, to such an extent that they eventually act together as a unique system.

“Emotional transfer and connectedness along with mutual beneficial effects of touching and physical proximity, may represent the backbones sustaining the relationship.

“The fact that animals could have beneficial influence on people has been recognized for centuries,” they said. “Today, it is well known that the deliberate inclusion of animals in a treatment plan leads to a ‘healing’ effect on patients.”

Human side explored

Researchers, they noted, have widely investigated the ‘human side’ of such interventions, examining how it is used and the applicability of various approaches.

“But what the animal actually feels, and which is the unequivocal mechanism which makes the intervention effective, are still open questions.”

The authors noted that an earlier review examined several original studies on human-animal interactions that proposed the activation of the oxytocin system as the main cause of the psychological and physiological benefits to human participants.

“Recently, it has been demonstrated that the existence of an oxytocin-mediated positive loop modulated by gazing between humans and dogs, puts a spotlight on animals’ perspective.”

Authors, they said, hypothesized that the human-animal bond has been promoted by a socially rewarding effect coming from sharing a common non-verbal language, confirming the effect of oxytocin on the animal side of the relationship as well.

This oxytocin-mediated loop seemed to require the sharing of individual recognition of the partner.

“Since horses and dogs partly share the same features in this case (such as individual recognition of familiar humans), this study offers a promising line for future studies on equines.

“Yet, research on oxytocin levels in both humans and animals are still quite rare, but the existing evidence clearly points to a bilateral positive effect of interacting, looking at both the human’s and animal’s perspective.”

Enriched environments

Throughout a lifetime, our individual development takes place in enriched environments, promoting learning and social stimulation.

“This process does not rely on a unique factor but rather is the result of progressively more complex reciprocal interaction of the individual with other organisms and with the environment. Thus, interacting on a regular basis over a certain period is what stimulates growth and change.

“We could speculate then that both human and horse acted as developing organisms to each other and that their enduring forms of interaction (from domestication onwards) may have contributed to the progression of a bilateral competence: The horse towards the human and vice versa.

“Animal-assisted interventions, in which enriched environments and affiliative prolonged interactions are crucial parts of the practice, probably represents the best setting to observe the byproducts of this convergent human-animal evolution.”

The review team says more research is needed to explore how the human-animal duo works in a therapy setting.

The team comprised Scopa, Laura Contalbrigo, Alberto Greco, Antonio Lanatà, Enzo Pasquale Scilingo and Paolo Baragli, variously affiliated with a range of Italian institutions.

Emotional Transfer in Human–Horse Interaction: New Perspectives on Equine Assisted Interventions
Chiara Scopa, Laura Contalbrigo, Alberto Greco, Antonio Lanatà, Enzo Pasquale Scilingo, and Paolo Baragli.
Animals 2019, 9(12), 1030; https://doi.org/10.3390/ani9121030

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

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