“The horse is a mirror to your soul. Sometimes you might not like what you see. Sometimes you will.” - Buck Brannaman
The relationship between humans and horses has a long history. As horses evolved and became more domesticated, they became a valuable source of transportation, labour and companionship.
The development of human societies has been greatly affected by the relationship between humans and animals. Among the latter, the horse’s impact on human lives and cultures is unparalleled. In the book ‘How the Horse has Shaped Civilisations’, the author, J. Edward Chamberlin, declares that ‘the horses have had more influence on the rise and fall of civilisations than any other factor, including the weather”.
If horses, as Chamberlin says, have been the single most significant factor in the rise and fall of civilisations and cultural change, then it is not surprising that our relationship with them has made possible the world as we know it today.
A horse by nature is a herd animal. They thrive in groups and suffer from loneliness, just as humans do. It is also a prey and flight animal.
Through evolution and as a natural strategy to survive, it is genetically gifted with and instinctively driven by a highly developed ability to accurately detect, perceive and interpret vocal and body language, and even scent, through social interactions with other members of the herd – its social environment. It has the same ability toward humans. Vision, hearing, olfaction, taste, and touch comprise the sensory modalities of horses, and I believe their sensory system is far more developed and refined than we could ever fully comprehend.
This particular inborn and natural ability to perceive, process and interpret social information through scent and subtle signs of non-verbal communication (social cognition), has without doubt diminished in the genetic make-up of humans during their evolution, or at the best it is kept in the safe-deposit box of our subconsciousness.
Today about eighty percent of the population of industrialised societies live in urban centres, and technology has begun to take control of our lives, starting in childhood. This control means that humans are more separated from nature than ever before, which means that we are less in touch with our instincts and our evolutionary context and history than ever before.
Horses can serve to make us more conscious of what is unconscious; to understand more about ourselves, our lives, our desires, and our instinctual potential, expanding our own humanity by connecting with our animality.
The basic concept of ‘biophilia’, popularised by American biologist Edward O Wilson in the 1980’s, suggests that as a consequence of evolution, humans have a built-in tendency to pay attention to animals and nature. The more that humans come to understand other creatures, the more they value them as well as themselves.
This concept, defined as the interest in animals and in seeking a connection with them, underwent a widening re-interpretation during the last few decades, and has witnessed a flourishing increase of scientific studies on this topic.
In recent studies, scientists demonstrated that herd-forming animals like horses integrate human facial expressions and voice tones to perceive human emotion, regardless of whether the person is familiar or not. A research group led by Professor Ayaka Takimoto has also demonstrated that horses can read human emotions based on cues from human facial expressions and voices.
Takimoto said, “It’s been known that horses are capable of perceiving human emotions through facial expression, but this research has shown that horses link human facial expressions and voices to perceive human emotions.”
A study by the Universities of Portsmouth and Sussex reveals that horses can read and then remember people’s emotional expressions, enabling them to use this information to identify people who could pose a potential threat. Professor Karen McComb from University of Sussex comments on the findings:
“What we’ve found is that horses can not only read human facial expressions but they can also remember a person’s previous emotional state when they meet them later that day – and, crucially, that they adapt their behaviour accordingly. Essentially horses have a memory for emotion.”
Results of this last study suggest that horses may have adapted an ancestral capacity to perceive and appropriately respond to emotional expressions of conspecifics (members of the same species) and throughout their coevolution with humans, they may have extended this ability to communicate with humans.
Dr. Antonio Lanatá and his colleagues at the University of Pisa, Italy, have found that horses can smell fear and happiness. While these are just two emotions the researchers identified, further studies may reveal horses can pick up additional emotions from the body odours that humans emit.
Chemo-signals are chemical signals that the human body gives off, primarily through sweat. People emit a particular chemo-signal while experiencing a specific emotion, which induces the same emotion in another person who smells that odour.
“We know that horses perform unexpected reactions when being ridden by a nervous person. This research background led us to suspect that the olfactory system of horses is likely to enable them to read human emotional states by means of the axial chemo-signals humans emit” said the authors of a study at the University of Pisa.
Seven “study horses” of different breeds were fitted with wearable telemetry devices that measured their heart rate variability. When they were allowed to sniff the armpit pads that contained fear sweat or happy sweat, their autonomic nervous systems reacted. The autonomic system controls heart rate and breathing.
The study used sophisticated telemetry instrumentation that showed a marked difference between the horses' physiological responses to human fear and to human happiness.
The studies outlined here, and many others, shed light on the innate and acquired characteristics that horses deploy when interacting with other individuals, regardless if they are conspecifics or humans. Research to date has just grazed this subject and it will take many more studies to figure out what occurs within the thought processes of our equine partners.
People that work with horses on a daily basis, and who have had opportunities to engage with horses will sometimes talk of the beneficial effects of positive interactions, of the power of horses to influence people, of the simple pleasures of being around horses, and of the bonding that can occur between horse and human.
McCormick and McCormick (1997) have found that the hostile and defiant street smarts of adolescent gang youth erode quickly in the presence of an assumed adversary (the horse) that the youth is unequipped to control or overthrow. Such adolescents are invariably shocked as they begin to understand that openness and vulnerability are more likely to elicit positive behaviour from the horse than displays of defiance and aggression. Confidence, self-esteem and empathy are greatly increased through the accomplishment of a competently handled horse-oriented task. Today the horse has been fruitfully utilised in behavioural and motivational psychotherapeutic programs for children and adolescents.
In almost all western societies, equine-assisted therapy and equine-assisted 'life coaching' has grown in popularity over the past few decades. Mental health professionals also discovered the effectiveness and benefits of 'equine facilitated couples therapy' for couples seeking help to resolve relational issues.
Humans and horses are still coevolving. While horses’ effect on the larger course of human history is probably over, their effect on individual humans is, if anything, stronger than ever.