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.