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Horse-Human Interactions and Equine Welfare in EAAT: Aligning Our Practices With Our Goals

PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee Guest Tip from Emily Kieson, PhD candidate at Oklahoma State University

The world of equine-assisted activities and therapies (EAAT) is saturated with activities and horse-human interactions based almost exclusively on the historical use of horses for work and equitation. The same routines of haltering, grooming, riding, leading and lungeing that have been used for years in equitation have been adapted by the EAAT world to serve new purposes, and professionals in EAAT consider the horse a partner. These interactions, useful for training and schooling our horses for use in work and pleasure, may not, however, be in line with the goals of therapy. (Editor’s note: PATH Intl. Certified Professionals do not practice therapy but rather equine-assisted activities. Those participants in need of therapy are served by licensed physical and occupational therapists, speech/language pathologists and mental health professionals.) Researchers are learning more about how domestic horses communicate with each other and us, which can lead to improvements in equine welfare through better understanding of equine-human interactions and what it means for the psychological welfare of the horse. This means that, if we want to improve client-horse relationships and model good horse-human relationships for our participants, we may need to make different choices with regards to how we handle or interact with our equine partners.

As humans, we explore the world through our hands and express emotional connection through touch [1], [2], words and sharing of food [3]–[5], whereas emerging research shows that horses create bonds through proximity [6], time and mutual engagement rather than touch or pressure. Based on recent (unpublished) studies, horses engage in social connection with other horses through close proximity and a sharing of quiet space repeatedly over time. Instead, they stand quietly near their favorite partner and share mutual space while resting or grazing. Perhaps even more importantly, the relationships they build with one another are based not only on predictably safe interactions, but also mutual exploration and partnership in problem solving. Once a safe space has been established between two horses, they will begin moving and exploring together. Everything is mutual with no single leader or follower and even touch is always simultaneously reciprocated. One may demonstrate more confidence than the other, but there is no pushing or pulling to force engagement of the partner, just an invitation to join in curiosity and exploration. The joint involvement in uncertain environments is what makes horses build better relationships.

The same is true for humans, too. We build safe environments with each other over time in order to build trust and, once that trust is established, a relationship is strengthened by small challenges and uncertainties that are explored as a team [7]–[10] . These concepts have been supported by scientists who study marriage, families, friendships and work partnerships and have been studied in a wide range of species. It appears these same concepts apply to horses as well.

So how do we incorporate this into EAAT and what does this mean for welfare? Traditional equitation relies almost exclusively upon negative reinforcement (pressure and release) [11]–[13] which, when properly used, can adequately train a horse to engage in a behavior of our choosing. This use of small aversive tactics, however, does not align with how either species builds relationships. If we are hoping to work with horses in a way that both encourages and models balanced partnerships, perhaps we need to incorporate other types of interactions into our EAAT programs. This may mean, then, that we do not always ride or halter a horse and that the horse may have a choice to not engage with the participant. This may require us to set different expectations for participants and parents and help them understand why we are encouraging at-liberty work and what that means for building mutual communication and engagement for both horse and human. Horses have amazing memories and build unique relationships with each individual human that can build and develop over time. If we give our horses the choice of engaging with clients in a way that better aligns with their natural behavior, perhaps we can improve the welfare of our equine partners while simultaneously finding even better ways to build confidence, communication and emotional strength in our clients.

[1]         R. I. M. Dunbar, “The social role of touch in humans and primates: Behavioural function and neurobiological mechanisms,” Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev., vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 260–268, 2010.

[2]         A. V. Jaeggi, E. De Groot, J. M. G. Stevens, and C. P. Van Schaik, “Mechanisms of reciprocity in primates: Testing for short-term contingency of grooming and food sharing in bonobos and chimpanzees,” Evol. Hum. Behav., 2013.

[3]         J. Koh and P. Pliner, “The effects of degree of acquaintance, plate size, and sharing food intake,” Appetite, no. 52, pp. 595–602, 2009.

[4]         A. N. Crittenden and D. A. Zes, “Food Sharing among Hadza Hunter-Gatherer Children,” PLoS One, vol. 10, no. 7, 2015.

[5]         J. M. Koster and G. Leckie, “Food sharing networks in lowland Nicaragua: An application of the social relations model to count data,” Soc. Networks, 2014.

[6]         M. C. Van Dierendonck, H. Sigurjónsdóttir, B. Colenbrander, and a. G. Thorhallsdóttir, “Differences in social behaviour between late pregnant, post-partum and barren mares in a herd of Icelandic horses,” Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci., vol. 89, pp. 283–297, 2004.

[7]         J. K. Rempel, J. G. Holmes, and M. P. Zanna, “Trust in Close Relationships,” J. Pers. Soc. Psychol., vol. 49, no. 1, pp. 95–112, 1985.

[8]         B. Vollan, “The difference between kinship and friendship: (Field-) experimental evidence on trust and punishment,” J. Socio. Econ., vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 14–25, 2011.

[9]         R. J. Lewicki and B. B. Bunker, “Developing and Maintaining Trust in Work Relationships,” Trust Organ. Front. Theory Res., no. October, pp. 114–139, 2015.

[10]      R. J. Lewicki and R. J. Bies, “Trust and Distrust : New Relationships and Realities,” vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 438–458, 2018.

[11]      J. Murphy and S. Arkins, “Equine learning behaviour.,” Behav. Processes, vol. 76, no. 1, pp. 1–13, Sep. 2007.

[12]      P. D. McGreevy and A. N. McLean, “Punishment in horse-training and the concept of ethical equitation,” J. Vet. Behav. Clin. Appl. Res., vol. 4, no. 5, pp. 193–197, Sep. 2009.

[13]      A. N. McLean and J. W. Christensen, “The application of learning theory in horse training,” Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci., vol. 190, 2017.

Additional Resources:

J.M. Gottman, The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company. 2011

Feltman, The Thin Book of Trust. Bend, OR: Thin Book Publishing, 2008.

Rees, Horses in Company. London: J A Allen & Co Ltd. 2017

McGreevy, Equine Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Specialists 2nd Ed. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2012.

McGreevy, A. McLean, Equitation Science. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010

About the author: Emily Kieson is a PhD candidate at Oklahoma State University in comparative psychology studying equine behavioral psychology and equine-human interactions. She has a M.S. in Psychology, a graduate degree in Equine Science, is certified and practices as an Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning through PATH, and is certified as an Equine Specialist in a number of other EAP models. She has spent the last 20 years working full time in the horse industry and has focused the last 10 years on equine-assisted therapies. Emily, along with her colleagues at MiMer Centre, a Swedish non-profit, are helping to develop a research and education center at OSU with a focus on animal-human interactions and animal welfare.

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