How to connect with a horse – the science side of it
How do you connect with a horse? Is it important that a horse always is in connection with the human he is interacting with?
This seems like straightforward questions, right? But to answer them, we need to look closer at the horse-human interaction, but also at the concept of interaction between subjects (individuals). And we need to define what we are talking about.
Follow me into this discussion – and you will see that they are far from easy questions and that there are no simple answers. But this is an important topic, and we need to untangle some common use of words and concepts. It is especially an important topic for those of us that work with horses and humans in therapy.
So let us start with defining what we are talking about. What is
Connectionis intersubjectivity. It is the shared experience of "us" and the world around us Connectionis something we feel. Meaning it is not a cognitive experience
- A connection – the mental/emotional life of others – is "felt immediately", meaning it can be hard to describe in words
Connectioncan be felt on an emotional, physical or mental level
- It can not be measured
- We can learn to read
signsand behavior of connection Connectionis a "social dance", a way of playing and exploring. We develop into social beings by interconnecting, bysocial learning
- A feeling of connection is based on feeling free to chose – do I want this connection? Without a sense of agency – there can be no true connection.
- For you to be connected to a horse – you need to be (fully) present and take responsibility for your intentions.
- For a horse to be connected with you – he needs to be (fully) present and take responsibility for his intentions.
- For a horse and a human to be connected to each other – they both need to be (fully) present, and both take responsibility for their intentions.
This means that a human, you, can feel fully connected to a horse, without the horse being fully connected to you, and vice versa.
Horses understands this too. A young horse wants to play, shows the intent to play, but his mother wants to eat, shows her intent to continue to do so – and a negotiation occurs. As it does between a horse and a human. A human wants to go riding. The horse does not want that. Time for negotiation. If you think the horse always needs to go riding with you when you "ask" him, there is no negotiation. Your intention always wins. This is not partnership. And it is not asking. Asking requires for the one asking to equally respect a yes and a no.
What happens if I demand connection of a horse? The importance of choice
Connection with another individual is social interaction. It is intersubjectivity – on all levels above described. It can be likened to how we play, dance – it is reciprocal actions, mutual exchange with the effort to understand and respect the other individual and be met with understanding and respect. It is something that you take part in out of your own free will. It needs to be – otherwise it is not true connection.
Of course there are situations that are not negotiable. We are in the end responsible for our horses wellbeing. Maybe he needs to see the veterinarian? This is a responsibility we took upon us when we became horse owners, to sometimes
But we often treat also grown up horses the way we treat children. A
Why can't we force
Individuals protect themselves with disconnection and dissociation, also from unwanted connection. It is a very powerful and effective defense system. It is also triggered involuntarily. Sometimes it is a mild defense against boredom. A bored individual wish he were somewhere else, and he daydreams, or goes into a resting mode. Sometimes it is a protection from pain, physical or mental. It can be an escape or defense from anything. We all do it, dissociate. It becomes a problem when it becomes involuntary and the individual can not come out of it on his own, or stop it from progressing.
Once you have learned to recognize dissociation it is fairly easy to spot. For an untrained eye – it can look like calmness, sleepiness, inattention and so on. And as I said before – dissociation comes on a scale. A dissociated individual is more or less present. Maybe 90 % present, or maybe just 10 % present.
If you request connection, but do not leave it open to the individual who got the request to say yes or no, then you are forcing a connection. This can trigger, as I said, defense systems of dissociation. It can also be re-traumatizing. If it is an individual with a trauma history, where forced connection was a part of the trauma, either it was emotional, mental or physical – or all of them – you will not be considered trustworthy. Frankly, you are too dangerous to trust. You are not a safe partner.
If you want to build a trusting and honest relationship with a horse – you need to be there for him, be able to take a no and a yes, and a maybe, or even a suggestion to do something
If you still go ahead and initiate an activity with him, despite the fact that he said no, then be prepared to see him disconnect or dissociate from you, or even from himself. He might choose to do that, or will be triggered into doing that. Or he will comply, without disconnecting or dissociating. Will he feel listened to? Respected? Does he do what you ask him to do just because he is trained to obey?
How much you want to listen to a horse is up to you. It is your choice. And it is your choice to respect what you hear. The horse is not a child (if he is not a foal). He needs and wants to be treated as an adult. You need to feel that he is an adult and trust that he can take care of his own needs (apart from the fact that he can not choose or affect his living conditions).
If you force connection, demands that he is there for you, even when he does not want to, you are harming him and potentially re-traumatizing him, or just proving to him that you (humans) are not interested in his point of views, his interests, his needs, wants and desires.
In my opinion – a horse, as well as a human, must be given the choice not only if to participate in an activity, but also the choice if he wants to connect or not. Connection is not the goal, the choice of connecting is. To be made by every individual on their own.
On the other hand, a horse, as a human, who is learning about connection, can by a careful and empathetic human, be helped to connect, or to re-connect. But it must always be a choice to connect. If not, you are possibly violating his boundaries. Your agenda has then become more important than his. This is not how you learn about trusting relationships. It can also be taught the other way around, a horse can help a human that "uses" disconnection or dissociation as a coping strategy and defense – to learn to stay present, to connect again.
As you can see the topic of connection, agency, disconnection, dissociation, building relationships - is a huge topic that can be looked upon from many different angles. This is just a quick look at the surface of things. Join in the discussion, attend and participate in the "A horse is a Horse, of Course symposium - 2nd International Symposium for Equine Welfare and Wellness!
And we will of course explore and discuss many other equine and equine-human related topics! I am looking forward to meeting you there in August!
Note! The last day to use the early bird rate discount is the 15th of April!
I want to point out. There is no research specifically (yet) on these topics, on equines. What I discuss and talk about in this article is inspired by articles on the topic of intersubjectivity, dissociation, trauma, attachment, and so on – in humans, or other non-human animals, and articles on equine cognition, and animal cognition in general. In this reference list I have gathered a selection of the research I base my ideas, questions, hypothesises and theories on. But they are
Bard, K. (2017) Dyadic interactions, attachment and the presence of triadic interactions in chimpanzees and humans. Infant Behavior & Development 48 13–19
Birke, L. & Hockenhull, J. (2015) Journeys Together: Horses and Humans in Partnership. Society and Animals. Doi: 10.1163/15685306-12341361
Brinck, I. (2008). The role of intersubjectivity in the development of intentional communication. In The Shared Mind, Perspectives on Intersubjectivity. Ed. by Zlatev, J., Racine, T.P., Sinha, C. and Itkonen, E., John Benjamins Publishing Company
Buirski, P. and Haglund, P. (2001) Making sense together. The Intersubjective Approach to Psychotherapy. Jason Aronson Inc.
Lundgren, K.F. (2017). Sharing Minds – Equine-Human Intersubjectivity in Equine Assisted Psychotherapy – An Outline to a Theoretical Framework. In A Horse is a Horse, of Course: 1st International Symposium for Equine Welfare and Wellness: Compendium Part 1, Ilka Parent, CreateSpace
Lundgren, K.F. (2017). Equine Cognition and Equine-Human Interactions – Expanding Our Knowledge on Equines to Improve Equine Assisted Therapies and Equine Welfare and Wellbeing. In A Horse is a Horse, of Course: 1st International Symposium for Equine Welfare and Wellness: Compendium Part 1, Ilka Parent, CreateSpace
Lundgren, K.F. (2018, in press). What Science Says About Equine-Human Interaction in Equine Assisted Therapy: An Outline to a Theoretical Framework. In Equine Assisted Therapy Activities for Counselors: Harnessing Solutions to Common Problems.Taylor & Francis.
Malavasi, R. and Huber, L. (2016). Evidence of heterospecific referential communication from domestic horses (Equus caballus) to humans. Animal Cognition 19:899.
Nolan, P. (2012). Therapist and Client: A Relational Approach to Psychotherapy. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Parent, I. (2017). Horses as Sentient Beings in Psychodynamic Equine Assisted Trauma Therapy (
Parent, I. (2017).Human-Horse Interactions and Relationships – Relating, Bonding, and Attaching. In A Horse is a Horse, of Course: 1st International Symposium for Equine Welfare and Wellness: Compendium Part 2, Ilka Parent, CreateSpace
Ringhofer, M. & Yamamoto, S. (2017). Domestic horses send signals to humans when they face with an unsolvable task. Animal Cognition 20: 397.
Rochat, P. & Passos-Ferreira, C. (2009). From imitation to reciprocation and mutual recognition. In Mirror Neuron Systems. The role of Mirroring Processes in Social Cognition. Ed. By Pineda, J.A. Human Press
Sipiron, S. (2012). Open Space. Talking horses: Equine psychotherapy and intersubjectivity. In Psychodynamic Practice 18:4. Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group
Schlote, S. (2017). Somatic Experiencing® and Attachment Principles. In A Horse is a Horse, of Course: 1st International Symposium for Equine Welfare and Wellness: Compendium Part 2, Ilka Parent, CreateSpace
Schlote, S. (2017). Applying a Trauma Lens to Equine Welfare. In A Horse is a Horse, of Course: 1st International Symposium for Equine Welfare and Wellness: Compendium Part 1, Ilka Parent, CreateSpace
Trevarthen, C. (2005). "Stepping Away from the Mirror: Pride and Shame in Adventures of Companionship" - Reflections on the Nature and Emotional Needs of Infant Intersubjectivity. Dahlem workshop on attachment and bonding; a new synthesis. MIT Press