The bonding seen between adolescents and horses, even in a one-off session, points to the animals’ potential to motivate youngsters to get involved in therapy, according to researchers.
“There are motivational elements even in a short one-off session involving horses,” Erna Törmälehto and Riikka Korkiamäki reported in the open-access journal Animals.
“These elements may help to create a good first impression, which was found to be of vital importance in the beginning stage of a therapy or care process with adolescents,” the researchers from Tampere University in Finland said.
The pair set out in their study to explore the potential of human-horse bonding to create favorable settings for professional therapeutic care.
Their findings were based on observations of six girls and three boys, all aged 16 to 17, who visited a farm where they interacted with free-roaming horses. The horse session was followed by an open group discussion.
Organised by their local church, the teenagers were attending a course on becoming tutors for younger children in the church’s camps in the coming summer. For most, it was their first time around horses.
Törmälehto and Korkiamäki reported that the horses were attractive and appealing to the adolescents.
The youngsters’ interaction with the horses provided space for self-reflection, with their descriptions of the experience revealing elements of “therapeutically powerful activity”.
“We suggest that horses are animals that can create a positive first impression and a therapeutically favorable space for adolescents,” the authors concluded.
The pair, from the university’s Faculty of Social Sciences, noted that although previous research had shown that features of an attachment bond were fulfilled in human-dog relationships, it was still unclear if people formed attachments to horses in the same way.
In their study, the youngsters’ contact with the six horses was in an equine-assisted social and emotional learning session.
In their discussions afterwards, the youngsters described the horses as nice and very sociable.
One commented: “I felt the horse acted like a magnet. Although I didn’t want to go to face the horse, I felt the horse was very attractive, and it made me want to face it.”
Some admitted to nervousness but noted the calmness of the horses.
One of the youngsters said the farm visit made them realize their own shyness. “I suddenly realized that in new situations, I am always too nervous to meet new people or animals. But after being in that new situation for a while, I gradually dared to reach out to others.
“I realized it just now when I met the horses in the paddock. Maybe other people think that I don’t want to get familiar with them because I am a little bit reserved, but it takes time for me to face others. After being with others for a while, I start to open up to people and let them in.”
The power of relationships
“It is generally assumed,” wrote Törmälehto and Korkiamäki, “that a good therapeutic relationship between a client and a care professional is the most powerful factor in a therapeutic process.
“The therapeutic alliance is perceived to be closely linked to the attachment between the client and the professional.
“As research has shown, the emotional bond between humans and animals has similar features to the emotional bond among humans; thus, a therapy animal can ‘attract a client like a magnet’, creating a strong attachment between the client and the animal.”
The results, they said, substantiate the findings from 2018 research in Australia involving younger children with special needs, which found that horses provided feelings of safety and security and enhanced personal and social development.
The findings of another study suggested that horses have a calming effect and provide adolescents with non-verbal and non-judgmental feedback on their emotions.
“Given the rise in equine-assisted interventions in recent years, it is important to inquire what are the mechanisms that make horses create an effective environment for therapy or professional care.
“It has been suggested that for children and young people, an attachment bond between them and an animal may work as such a mechanism.”
The pair said their study offered preliminary information about horses’ therapeutic and care potential for dealing with adolescents with and without special needs.
Future studies need to explore more deeply the relationships between adolescents and horses, also including the horses’ experience, and the further development of a potential attachment between horses and humans and its significance in reaching the expected outcome in the therapy and care of adolescents.
This would require research participants to develop a relationship with horses for longer periods, they said.
Törmälehto, E.; Korkiamäki, R. The Potential of Human–Horse Attachment in Creating Favorable Settings for Professional Care: A Study of Adolescents’ Visit to a Farm. Animals 2020, 10, 1707.