The popularity of equine therapy has been increasing dramatically, and because of this, it has expanded into many different settings. Equine therapy can now be found as part of veteran rehabilitation programs, outpatient therapy offered to children with developmental disorders as part of a hospital’s treatment model, and even surprisingly, part of the required curriculum for Stanford Medical students.
As this expansive development has occurred, many in the psychotherapeutic field have also wondered where the research to support this new treatment approach is being published.
Some journals have produced articles supporting equine therapy, much research has been funded by the Horse and Human Research foundation, and some researchers have chosen to conduct and publish their own research independently.
With this movement toward a more solid research foundation in equine therapy, and the increasing public interest in a promising new therapeutic approach, universities have also begun to take interest in the field. A few now offer masters programs in equine-related therapy, and some also offer certification programs as well.
In any given relationship, 90 percent of what is really happening is going on under the surface, and for the most part, undetected. As we listen to the words a person speaks, and do our best to pay attention to what their body language conveys to us, we invariably miss, or misinterpret, most of it.
In fact, according to Martin Buber, the person with whom we can credit the understanding of the I and Thou, the relationship we develop with another person becomes emblematic of the relationship that we develop toward all things.
A study recently conducted by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association found that 74 percent of dog owners, 60 percent of cat owners, and 45 percent of bird owners considered their pet as a child or family member.
Sixty two percent of cat and dog owners said their pet helped them relax and relieved stress. Fifty-nine percent of dog owners and 37 percent of cat owners thought their pets were not only good for their health but would help them live longer.
The other day, a client in my office brought up an interesting issue. From the time she was young, she recalls being a “dog person,” always finding great joy and comfort in their presence. However, recently, she has noticed that the mere sight of dog hair in her house can send her into a fit.
After assessing and ruling out an OCD diagnosis, and looking back into her history to determine exactly when this frustration started, what became clear is that around the time her first child was born (she has two — ages 5 and 7), she began to resent the dog hair in the house.
I asked her about how the process of maternal bonding had gone. Pausing, she related that actually she had struggled mightily with the bonding process, and at times had to force herself to hug, comfort, and console her young boy. Given that we had already discussed her fractured relationship with her mother who could be overbearing, critical, and downright nasty, we concluded that the development of oxytocin (which typically happens during the mother-child bonding phase), had also suffered.
If you ask most people if they want to feel more connected to those around them, the answer if “yes.” However, if you then ask these same people just how to feel more connected, the answer doesn’t come so easily.
Luckily, there are researchers who devote their entire careers to answering this question. One of them is Dr. Brene Brown, the author of, “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go Of Who You Think You Should Be And Embrace Who You Are.”
According to Dr. Brown, in order to connect with those around us, we have to allow ourselves to be authentic. What it really boils down to, Brown asserts, is the willingness to be seen, fully, faults and all. When we are seen for who we truly are, with nothing to hide, we can also be truly accepted.
“Keeper!” I braced my weight against my stirrups and pulled hard on the reins. Keeper’s head was halfway down, trying to get it between his knees. I couldn’t let him — it would be all over from there.
“Come on!” I cranked the left rein back, and stepped harder in the left stirrup. He spun around and came to a halt.
“God why does he have to do that?” I kept a tight feel on the reins. I wasn’t sure he was done.
According to Greenhorn Horse Facts, “As of December 2007, approximately 45,000 horses had been shipped to Mexico, compared to the 11,000 shipped in 2006. That’s a 310% increase in the number of horses shipped to Mexico to be slaughtered for human consumption.
“The sad thing is that, not all of the horses are just old, sick or un-manageable horses. A lot of them are PMU horses and Nurse mare foals. Some of them are even back-yard pets, that have been stolen, strictly to make a buck or simply due to the over abundance of breeding horses.”
It’s true that as much as we love these animals, we also profoundly mistreat them. While cases of horse slaughter are hard to deny, the more insidious reality is the condoned cases of animal cruelty. Consider, for one thing what it would be like to wear high heel shoes, weighted at five pounds each, all the time.
While those in the world of mindfulness may be well aware that empathy toward others is a recipe for a feeling of wellbeing within oneself, for many people, just how to increase a sense of empathy can be a challenging subject.
Many people struggle with feeling empathetic towad others. To be sure, when empathy isn’t expressed, it isn’t gained either. So if this is the case, how does one go about increasing empathy?
And, further, is it possible that animals, namely horses, can help us to feel more empatheic toward one another?
To answer this question, let’s take a look at how empathy is defined, and what factors in human relationships can facilitate it.
When kids have secure attachment relationships (so that they know they can count on their caregivers for emotional and physical support) they are more likely to show sympathy and offer help to other kids in distress (Waters et al 1979; Kestenbaum et al 1989).
An interesting experiment suggests that higher levels of oxytocin can help people better “decode” the emotional meanings of facial expressions. Researchers had 30 young adult males inhale oxytocin (the “cuddle” hormone) and then examine photographs of other people’s eyes. Compared to men given a placebo, the oxytocin men were better at interpreting the emotions of the people in the photographs (Domes et al 2006).
So perhaps kids find it easier to understand the emotional signals of others if they are well-supplied with their own, naturally-produced oxytocin. Oxytocin is released when people experience pleasant touching (like hugs and massage). It’s also produced when people engage in pleasant social interactions (Uvnäs-Moberg 2003).
So now, let’s take a look at how horses may help us increase empathy.