Horses are incredible animals that have served alongside mankind for centuries. In more recent years, experts have begun using them in Equine Therapy practices to help people suffering from both physical disabilities and mental health conditions.
Not only is equine therapy highly effective, but any horse owner will also tell you about the amazing bonds and emotional connection they have with their horses. The question of whether horses can pick up human emotions sparked research that ultimately concluded that yes, they do, and they can also remember a person’s previous emotional state. Incredible, isn’t it?
The Research Behind Horses and Human Emotion
Horses tend to be very reactive to humans and even seem to mirror their emotions back at them. When researchers began looking closer into a horse’s ability to detect human emotion, they used what is called the “expectancy violation” which is a method often used to assess cognitive development in infants.
During this study, the horses were shown pictures of either happy or angry human facial expressions displayed on a screen. They then were exposed to either calm or angry-toned voices behind that screen. In some cases, the emotions between the voices and pictures matched up, called congruent conditions, but in some cases, they didn’t, called incongruent conditions.
The researchers even went a step further and alternated voices between that of their caretakers and the voices of strangers. The study revealed when the photos and voices did not match up, the horses responded to the voices 1.6 to 2 times more quickly than when they did match up.
The horses also looked at the speaker for a significantly longer time when the voices and photos did not match up when the voice was their caretaker but did not do so when it was a stranger’s voice.
Ultimately, this revealed that when the horses involved in this study heard a voice whose emotion did not match the facial expression they were viewing, their expectancy was violated. This led to the conclusion that horses normally respond to human facial expressions and voices in an integrated way.
Horses and Their Memory of Emotion
Not only have horses displayed an incredible ability to pick up on human emotion, but they also have memory of a person’s previous emotional state when they meet with them later on. They were also noted to adapt their behavior according to the person’s previous emotional display.
According to Karen McComb, a professor of animal behavior at the University of Sussex and a lead author in this study, “essentially horses have a memory for emotion.”
The Unique Relationship Between Horses and Humans
Horses and humans have a long history that is dated back as far as 10,200 B.C. Humans domesticated horses and began riding them, using them for labor and in various aspects of agriculture, and much more. This relationship has developed over the centuries as we learn more and more about these amazing creatures. Here are some of the key aspects of the relationship between humans and horses:
Horses Display Emotion
Not only are horses capable of detecting human emotion and understanding their facial expressions, but horses display their own emotion, too. They may not be able to communicate these emotions verbally, but they do so very well with body language and various noises.
When a person learns how a horse communicates and understands their emotional displays, it allows them to get in sync with the horse and truly connect to them. It’s a mutual understanding between two separate species, which is truly special.
Horses Have a Family Structure
Horses are herd animals by nature and in the wild, horses live in family groups that consist of one or two stallions, several mares, and their foals. Domesticated horses should always be kept in herds too, even if it means having at least two horses or even other farm animals to keep them company.
They are social animals that rely on companionship and a social structure to properly thrive. Not only can humans relate as social creatures, but we can form solid bonds with horses based on trust and friendship.
Humans Develop a Natural Respect for Horses
Horses tend to mirror back many traits that humans can relate to, which results in a certain level of respect. It’s not often that humans observe these kinds of behaviors in animals to such a degree. Not only that but the sheer size and power of a horse commands respect.
Experienced horse owners understand that to bond, connect, and build a lasting relationship with a horse, you must first earn their trust and respect.
Horses Help Humans Both Physically and Mentally
Being around horses offers humans plenty of physical and mental health benefits. Horseback riding and caring for horses can help improve muscle tone, increase flexibility, improve core strength, help with balance and coordination, and even help lower blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health.
When it comes to mental and emotional health, humans can naturally identify with horses. Not only will they actively display emotion and detect human emotion, but they tend to mirror emotions back at you. Just like people, horses are very unique and have individual personalities, which makes them very relatable, and forming a bond with these animals has proven to significantly improve a person’s mental health.
Horses provide a wide range of emotional benefits for people both in therapy settings and in general. These benefits include increased confidence, better problem-solving skills, trust-building, non-verbal communication skills, and social bonding.
How to Interact with Horses When You Don’t Own One
Now that we’ve gone over all the incredible emotional aspects of horses and their bonds with humans, you may be wondering how on earth you could experience this kind of relationship when you don’t have a horse.
Horse ownership takes a lot of commitment with time, finances, and physical labor and not everyone can do it. Don’t worry though, there are plenty of ways you can interact with horses. Take a look:
1. Take Riding Lessons
Horseback riding lessons aren’t just for kids wanting to learn how to ride. Anyone can participate in riding lessons whether they are beginners or experienced riders. This is a skill that can be learned at any age and there’s always something new you can learn.
You can often choose between individual lessons or group lessons. Not only will you get to experience bonding with horses, but you can also socialize with fellow horse lovers and maybe even develop friendships with people that have similar interests. You won’t just be riding either, you will also learn all aspects of care.
2. Sign Up for a Trail Ride
If you don’t have the time for riding lessons regularly but still want to saddle up and go for a ride, search for some nearby stables that offer trail rides to the public. You generally get to choose between private rides or going along with a larger group.
Most stables will even offer varying levels of trails and lengths of time for these rides, depending on experience. This is a great way to get out of the house, enjoy the outdoors, and get some quality horse time in.
3. Volunteer at a Horse Rescue
One of the most rewarding ways to get involved with horses is by volunteering at a horse rescue. These groups work tirelessly to save the lives of unwanted, neglected, and abused horses that would otherwise be shipped to slaughter. These are horses that could really benefit from a genuine and loving human connection and volunteering will allow you to do that.
Regardless of your experience with horses, a rescue will be able to use your assistance. From socializing, grooming, care, clean up, riding, or even training, there is certainly no shortage of things you can do to help out the rescue and their horses.
Horses can most certainly detect your feelings and there is a science to prove it. Not only can they pick up on emotions from voices and facial expressions, but they also have the memory of a person’s emotion that will cause them to behave accordingly when they meet them again. Horses and humans have a long history and a connection that goes beyond words. One thing is for certain, we sure are lucky to share this planet with such incredible animals.
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