An Ethological Perspective on the “Magic” of the Horse-Human Relationship

The horse-human relationship has long been mired in a timeless debate between the scientific-mind and the spiritual-heart. At one extreme of this debate we find those who believe that any comparison between humans and horses equates to anthropomorphism. At the other extreme are those who believe horses are actually magical unicorns living here on earth in “plain-clothes” disguise (such as in the physical form of a nondescript bay gelding).

Most of us who live in relationship with horses have, at various times, found ourselves deeply conflicted about how to make sense of the indescribable kinship we feel with these special animals. We wonder: can the connection really be explained, completely, by science? Or are there certain aspects of the relationship that are, in fact, magical?

For me, a whole new level of clarity emerged when I began to look at things from an ethological perspective.

The term ethology was first defined as the study of animals in their natural habitat by Isidore Geoffrey-Saint Hilarie in 1859 (Jaynes, 1969). Today, ethology is typically considered an arm of biology; one that focuses on the evolution of behavior. And, in my opinion, there is one critical area where the evolution of human behavior and the evolution of equine behavior are intricately intertwined. It’s called domestication.

Science Daily (borrowing text from Wikipedia) defines domestication as “a phenomenon whereby a wild biological organism is habituated to survive in the company of human beings”. This text goes on to explain, “Domesticated animals, plants, and other organisms are those whose collective behavior, life cycle, or physiology has been altered as a result of their breeding and living conditions being under human control for multiple generations.”

Most experts agree that the domestication process for horses began about 5,500 years ago. According to the Huffington Post, a team of researchers that compared equine DNA from 16,000-43,000 years ago with DNA of the modern horse detected “a general pattern showing that domestication leads to increased levels of inbreeding and accumulation of excessive deleterious mutations in modern horses.”

Melinda Zeder, an archaeologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, has identified three main routes to domestication. The following summaries are taken directly from an essay entitled “How Domestication Changes Species Including the Human“, by Jacob Mikanowski published by Aeon:

The ‘directed’ pathway is the most straightforward. It happens when humans deliberately set out to amplify some desired trait in a species, for example, breeding donkeys to be good for transport, or minks to have luxuriant fur.

The ‘prey’ pathway, meanwhile, happens when humans take animals they previously hunted in the wild, and begin managing them in herds, either by creating environments that suit them, or capturing and confining them. Goats, sheep and cattle all fit into this paradigm, as do, somewhat more unexpectedly, horses, which were raised for meat well before anyone figured out you could ride them as well.

Finally there is the ‘commensal’ pathway, in which animals are drawn to humans by attractive food sources – especially trash, but also crops, mice and other pests. Through long interaction, they essentially domesticate themselves. Cats seem to have come into our lives this way, lured by the grain-eating rodents that accompanied the earliest farmers in the Middle East some 12,000 years ago. The descendants of these Middle Eastern cats then spread to Egypt and across the Mediterranean, before expanding their range to northern Europe and the rest of the world by jumping on ships.

Mikanowski goes on to explain that, regardless of the route taken to get there, domestication comes at a cost to the animals involved. For example, most tame mammals have brains that are noticeably punier than those of their wild relatives. “Brains of domestic pigs are 35 per cent smaller than those of boars, for example, while dogs’ brains are around 30 per cent smaller than those of wolves”, he writes. “However, it isn’t clear whether this shrinkage translates into lower intelligence. Much of the reduction appears to occur in parts of the brain related to motor control and sensory processes, such as vision and smell. And it was probably advantageous for domestic animals to have reduced sensory acuity. In the wild it paid to be skittish, while under human management, those individuals who could handle stress with equanimity did best.”

Most humans regard domestication as a form of progress because it moves humans from living in opposition to nature to harnessing it for our benefit. Anthropologist Tim Ingold disagrees, and so do I. 

In The Perception of the Environment (2000), he notes that foraging peoples generally regarded animals as their equals. He argues that hunting did not originate as a form of violence so much as it was seen as a ‘willing sacrifice’ on the part of the animal because early hunters depended on trust-building in order to get close enough to make a kill. “Pastoralists, on the other hand, tend to regard animals as servants, to be mastered and controlled. Domestication doesn’t entail making wild animals tame,” Ingold says. “Instead, it means replacing a relationship founded on trust with one based on domination.”

Mikanowski explains that when humans start treating animals as subordinates, it becomes easier to do the same thing to one another. Fast forward to today. How many instances can you think of where humans treat one another as subordinates? It happens in families. It happens in marriages. It happens in the workplace. It even happens within the coaching dynamic of competitive sports. I’m not naive enough to think that humans never treated one another as subordinates prior to domestication, but there were certainly far fewer structures (literal and figurative) in place to support or reinforce that type of behavior in relationships. Human society today, however, is based primarily on a system of organized subordination.

And, ironically, I believe it is this shared experience of subordination that also creates the sense of “magic” so many of us feel in the horse-human relationship. Whether we are cognizant of it or not, when horses and humans look deeply into one another’s eyes, when we feel the power and grace of being synchronized in thought and action, when we step outside of the physical and emotional structures that hold us each captive in our daily domestic lives… we immediately recognize our shared experience, not only of being domesticated but also of being free. When humans and horses afford one another the opportunity to learn (or remember) how to build a relationship based on mutual trust and how to communicate authentically across species, we connect with inherent and sacred parts of ourselves that are slowly being snuffed out by domestication.

Horses have earned a uniquely special and honored place as comrades and partners to humans throughout our shared history. I believe this unique relationship has only been possible because horses, like humans, have an uncanny (and possibly unparalleled) ability to adapt their behavior to the environment and surrounding challenges that they face. Both horses and humans are also deeply social animals. Communal cooperation has always been necessary for self-preservation in both species. Intelligence, language, social attachment and altruism are essential parts of both equine and human nature because each of these has served a purpose in our individual and collective struggles to survive (Miller, 2001).

Today, domestic horses spend much of their lives confined physically in paddocks, barns and stalls.

We humans spend much of our own lives physically confined in buildings, offices, vehicles and cubicles. Not to mention all the ways both species live in mental and emotional isolation.

In their natural (feral) environment, horses spent 15-17 hours per day grazing and they walked an average of 20-30 miles per day (most of this done incrementally while grazing but also while traveling to water sources). Meanwhile, early humans who were responsible for hunting and/or gathering also traveled many miles per day. And while those humans who were more involved with care-taking activities may have traveled less, they were still intimately connected with, and dependent upon, the natural world around them. Too many of today’s humans and horses rarely have the opportunity to make meaningful physical or emotional connections with the natural world, or to work cooperatively with one another for survival. This disconnect with our very natures comes at a tremendous cost, physically and emotionally, for both species.

But when horses and humans are able to make a heart-connection with one another, our collective unconscious experience arises and finds its way to the surface again. And we remember. We remember what it feels like to connect, to trust, to see, to be seen, to know, to share and to be… free.

And yes, it feels like magic.

Kim Hallin is the founder and lead facilitator at Unbridled, LLC, a unique experiential learning program in South Carolina that brings horses and humans together to experience relationship in liberation from the mindset of subordination.

Should EAL/EAP be designed to benefit the human or the horse?

I’m excited to see this question being asked more often, at least within certain sectors of the equine-facilitated industry. It’s a question that has been at the center of my own heart from the beginning. In fact, this question is precisely what led me into the world of Equine-Assisted Learning (EAL), and it’s what continues to drive my passion for diving deeper into this amazing work. For me though, the question has turned into an unequivocal statement of belief: EAL/EAP should be designed to equally benefit the human AND the horse.

In fact, I now believe that well-designed, ethical approaches to EAL could lead the entire equine industry into a new age of enlightenment around the healing power of the horse-human relationship. More and more studies are helping us understand that, as highly sensitive, sentient beings, horses operate much like empaths. In other words, they are highly sensitive to the emotional states of others.

Several professors and students at the University of Tokyo recently conducted a study that suggests horses respond to human facial expressions and voices in an integrated way, meaning horses will often become confused, hesitant and/or even stressed when a person’s voice and facial expression are not congruent, emotionally speaking. In my own work with horses and humans, I see very consistent evidence that the horses become skeptical and hesitant to interact whenever they sense that a person’s outward behavior or body language is not in alignment with his/her inner emotions. In fact, the horses are often significantly more aware of this type of incongruity than the humans themselves! (I have a strong theory about why this is true too, but I’ll save that for another blog post).

When we give horses the freedom to respond authentically to our energy and emotions, coupled with respect for the feedback they offer us, we open the door to some incredible opportunities for healing and growth – both within ourselves and for the horses.

Another ground-breaking study showed that horses not only recognize human emotions (this particular study focused on their ability to recognize emotions based on facial expressions but I believe that’s just one of many indicators they use), but that horses also remember their previous experiences with certain individuals. As an experienced horse trainer, I know all too well that it’s challenging to find a horse in today’s domestic world that does not have some level of emotional trauma from its past experiences with humans. And given how little choice most horses have in any of their interactions with humans, it’s not difficult to understand why this is true.

But here’s the rub. It’s just as challenging to find a human being in today’s domestic world who does not have some level of emotional trauma from our own experiences with other humans. The truth is, horses and humans alike suffer emotional trauma from domestic life. Horses are just more likely to be honest about it.

Let’s look at this discussion from a slightly different angle now. Most people agree that humans are among the most highly evolved species on the planet. If this is true, wouldn’t it make sense that humans are also capable of perceiving the emotional states of animals, especially horses that have been proven to share many of the same facial expressions we do? Now that’s a study I would be really interested in seeing!

But I’m pretty sure I already know the answer because every day in my work at Unbridled I see evidence that humans (even those who have never spent time with horses before) ARE capable of very accurately perceiving how horses feel. Ironically, I’ve found that this can actually be much more challenging for humans who have previously been “trained” to handle and relate to horses in more traditional ways. Which leads me to perhaps the most compelling question of all:

What does it do to humans when we are required to ignore or dismiss our own higher sensitivities about how a horse is feeling in order to accomplish an activity or task, regardless of whether this is being done in the name of “good therapeutic/coaching practice” or “good horse training/handling”?

If what I’ve said and asked here resonates with you (or even if this conversation simply intrigues you), I invite you to visit my website to share your thoughts or join my mailing list. I’m excited to be at the forefront of exploring and unleashing the full potential of “empathy and choice-based” relationship-building between horses and humans, not just within the EAL/EAP sector but hopefully for the benefit of the entire equine industry!

Kim Hallin is a pioneer in the art of “observation and empathy based equine-inspired learning”. She lives on a small farm outside of Charleston, South Carolina with her healing herd of five horses and one charming pig.