Equine Therapy: Learning Empathy from a Horse
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.
In addressing the concept of animal assisted therapy, here is what the national Institutes of Health had to say,
“Working with animals, such as horses, dogs, or cats, may help some people cope with trauma, develop empathy, and encourage better communication. Companion animals are sometimes introduced in hospitals, psychiatric wards, nursing homes, and other places where they may bring comfort and have a mild therapeutic effect. Animal-assisted therapy has also been used as an added therapy for children with mental disorders. Research on the approach is limited, but a recent study found it to be moderately effective in easing behavioral problems and promoting emotional well-being.”
Beyond this statement, we know that interaction with animals also increases oxytocin, and particularly in the case of horses, mutual understanding. Horses size alone dictates that some form of empathic reading must occur in order to preserve safety. But also, horses, more than any other animal, are used in environments that are dependent on training of the horse. Being uniquely sensitive to nonverbal cues (the basis of detection of emotion in humans), horses also demand our attention to our own nonverbal presentation, as well as interpreting theirs.
So maybe if we have trouble developing empathy through interaction with the humans around us, we should consider looking to a horse. After all, empathy is second nature for horses.
Nimer J, Lundahl B. Animal-assisted therapy: a meta-analysis. Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of the Interactions of People and Animals. 2007 Sept; 20(3): 225-238.
Horse and woman photo available from Shutterstock.
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2012). Equine Therapy: Learning Empathy from a Horse. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 14, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/equine-therapy/2012/03/equine-therapy-learning-empathy-from-a-horse/