How to connect with a horse – the science side of it

How-to-connect-with-a-horse

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 connection?

  • Connection is intersubjectivity. It is the shared experience of "us" and the world around us
  • Connection is 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
  • Connection can be felt on an emotional, physical or mental level
  • It can not be measured
  • We can learn to read signs and behavior of connection
  • Connection is a "social dance", a way of playing and exploring. We develop into social beings by interconnecting, by social 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.

Why and how do we as individuals connect? The development of our ability to connect 

The ability to connect develops from infancy, right from the moment we are born, this goes for humans as for horses. This builds our ability to attach. 

Connection develops through stages, beginning with imitation and (emotional) contagious behavior, the so-called chameleon effect (I yawn, you yawn) – this could also be called mirroring. When everything "works" it is a subconscious process and occurs spontaneous (it can, of course, be made aware of and used consciously, by parents, therapists, horse handlers etc). This is the first steps in social exchange and learning. It is basically a sharing of affects, so-called interaffectivity.

The next step is when the infant/foal joins his mother/caretaker in attention directed towards an object. You look, or otherwise focus your attention towards the same object, situation or another 3rd individual. Here you see gaze following, following pointing (in different ways – not only with fingers, horses follow body orientation and direct their ears to "point out" sources of attention, e.g.), gaze alternation (looking at an individual, then looking at an object, and back to the individual – it is also a kind of pointing, making clear what we are having "a conversation" about), attention reading and joint attention. This is a sharing of attention, so called interattentionality. It can be non-verbal or verbal.

The third step is when the child/young horse starts to understand that he is an individual with intentions that might, or might not, correspond with the intentions the one he is interacting with have, or with the intentions the ones surrounding him have. Now an understanding of myself and others develops. This also means you can go "outside" of yourself and see things from another individual's perspective. Here enters the possibility for more mature relationships, but also more complex relationships. Here enters negotiations. This is the foundation for true partnership, true friendship and so on – either it is between human-horse, human-human or horse-horse. This is sharing of intentions, so-called interintentionality.

What is disconnection? Dissociation? How do we disconnect? How does dissociation works? Why does it occur? Is disconnection or dissociation always a bad thing?

What are we disconnecting or dissociating from? To disconnect or dissociate from someone else can be healthy – also disconnecting and dissociating form oneself can be healthy. It becomes unhealthy when you (feel like you are) involuntarily disconnecting and dissociating from yourself or someone else. And the same goes for when you involuntarily are forced or you feel you need to, are forced to, connect and associate with someone. This may not feel intuitively right, from an outside perspective, but connection is not always the best option, either it is an inter- or intra connection.

Disconnection and dissociation can occur from overwhelm, fatigue, physical illness/pain, boredom, trauma and so on, but also from more positive things like daydreaming, focusing inwards, paying attention to internal processes, both in mind and body, thinking, fantasizing, dreaming at night etc.

To be disconnected simply means that you are not in connection, either with someone else or yourself (or parts of yourself).

To be dissociated is somewhat different, and dissociation exists on a scale. The same goes for dissociation as for disconnection, you can either be dissociated from someone else or from yourself (or parts of yourself). And it is also based on a feeling of having, or not having, a free choice. If you disconnect or dissociate without wanting to, chose to – you are not choosing (consciously), it is not voluntarily. This affects your sense of agency and power to control, or at least impact your situation, and can leave you with feelings of powerlessness (in horses learned helplessness).

So you can feel connected to someone else without being interconnected. You can also feel disconnected without the other individual experiencing it in the same way. To be fully interconnected you need to be connected both to yourself and to the other individual.

Connection and dissociation is not each other's opposites

To be interconnected, where two individuals are in connection with each other is to fully see and hear each other, to be attentive and attuned to each other, to be present for the other to explore the relationship and the world. True connection can only arise if both parties are doing this willingly. Coercion and connection cannot exist at the same time.

What looks like connection, but not necessarily is can be; (over)attention, (hyper)vigilance, being partly present, seeking eye contact, or body contact, anxiety reducing coping strategies and so on.

  • 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 has nothing to do with what I want to receive from another individual. As soon as we demand, coerce, require connection from another individual – the option of true connection is gone.

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 sidestep the negotiation and on our own decide the best course of action. This is the same responsibility we have as parents. In this way – the relationship between a horse and a human can look like the relationship between a child and his caregiver.

But we often treat also grown up horses the way we treat children. A grown-up horse, with not to many traumatic events in his life, can make his own decisions, knows what is best for him. Have a lot of intentions. Can negotiate. He can be a partner in a partnership with a human. An adult horse that has gone through traumatic events can of course also be in a partnership with a human, but here the human need to be aware of what trauma can do to an individual. How trauma distorts the concept of free choice and the ability to stay present, e.g.

Why can't we force connection? Isn't connection always the goal?

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 altogether different. You need to be able to accept that he might choose to disconnect from you. Everything you do, or suggest that you do together, is not interesting to him. If he is in the mood, he might do it anyway, because you have a relationship, and sometimes, in a relationship, you do things that maybe is not a high priority to you, but you know it will make your partner happy. Or he might not. He might have a very good "horse reason" to say no, one that is not obvious to you, or even understandable to you. You might think that your request for something is perfectly legit and fine, acceptable and maybe even necessary, from your point of view.

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!

You can register at the symposium and find more info about it at www.mindsnmotionsymposium.org or contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Ilka Parent at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you have any questions.

References:

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 or course also based on my own observations of domestic, feral and wild horses (the Przewalski horse), and horse-human interactions in various contexts.

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. doi: 10.1007/s10071-016-0987-0

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 (pEATT). In A Horse is a Horse, of Course: 1st International Symposium for Equine Welfare and Wellness: Compendium Part 2, Ilka Parent, CreateSpace

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. doi:10.1007/s10071-016-1056-4

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

Text and picture are copyright protected © Katarina Felicia Lundgren 2018 

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