Of Horses, Fear and Trauma

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From The Art of Taming and Educating the Horse, by Dennis Magner (1887). Via Archive.org.

I had a whirlwind trip to London recently to take part in the BBC World Service’s The Forum with presenter Bridget Kendall, Zimbabwean psychiatrist Dr Dixon Chibanda and US neuroscientist Dr Joseph LeDoux. You can listen to the programme here. The subject matter was fear and anxiety, with some horsey stuff thrown in. I talked about the US veterans I met when I was writing The Age of the Horse and the way they worked with horses to deal with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

My own anxiety issues about riding are footling compared to the issues Dr Chibanda’s patients face! It was easier to talk about therapies involving horses and the papers behind them, which often raise more questions than they answer. Here’s a brief run down of some of the pieces of research I mentioned in the programme.

As you’ll see, they are generally small studies with very different subjects. How could we factor in the different life experiences of the different horses, and the conditions in which they’re kept? Or the different relationships they have to the humans who participate in the experiment with them?

‘Investigating horse–human interactions: The effect of a nervous human’ – this is the Swedish study in which horses apparently responded to the fears of their handlers and riders:

The heart rates (HR) of horses and the people leading them (10 horses, 20 people), and riding them (17 horses, 17 people), were recorded in an indoor arena. The horses were Swedish leisure horses of mixed ages, sex and breed. All except two of the people were female and all were of mixed age and riding experience. Each horse–human pair walked or rode between points A and B (30 m) four times on each test occasion. However, just before the fourth pass, participants were told that an umbrella would be opened as they rode, or led, the horse past the assistant. The umbrella was not opened, so this pass was no different to the previous control occasions, but nevertheless there was an increase in HR for both the person (leading, P = 0.06; riding, P < 0.05) and the horse (being led, P < 0.05; being ridden, P < 0.05). The findings indicate that analysis of HR recorded simultaneously from people and horses under different experimental handling or riding conditions presents a useful tool to investigate horse–human interactions.

‘Equine behaviour and heart rate in temperament tests with or without rider or handler’ – Univesity of Goettingen, Germany, led by Uta König von Borstel.

The aim of the present study was to compare horses’ heart rate (HR), heart rate variability (RMSSD, pNN50) and behaviour in the same temperament test when being ridden, led, and released free. Behavioural measurements included scores and linear measurements for reactivity (R), activity (A), time to calm down (T) and emotionality (E), recorded during the approach (1) and/or during confrontation with the stimulus (2). Sixty-five horses were each confronted 3 times (1 ridden, 1 led, 1 free running in balanced order) with 3 novel and/or sudden stimuli. Mixed model analysis indicated that leading resulted in the lowest (P<0.05 throughout) reactions as measured by A1, A2, E1, E2, R2, and pNN50 while riding produced the strongest (A1, T2, HR, RMSSD, pNN50) or medium (E1, E2, R2) reactions. Free running resulted either in the strongest (A2, E1, E2, R2) or in the lowest (A1, T2, HR, RMSSD, pNN50) reactions. The repeatability across tests for HR (0.57), but not for RMSSD (0.23) or pNN50 (0.25) was higher than for any behavioural measurement: the latter ranged from values below 0.10 (A1, A2, T2) to values between 0.30 and 0.45 (E1, E2, R2). Overall, the results show that a rider or handler influences, but not completely masks, the horses’ intrinsic behaviour in a temperament test, and this influence appeared to be stronger on behavioural variables and heart rate variability than on the horses’ heart rates. Taking both practical considerations and repeatabilities into account, reactivity appears to be the most valuable parameter. Emotionality and heart rate can also yield valid results reflecting additional dimensions of temperament although their practical relevance may be less obvious. If a combination of observed variables is chosen with care, a valid assessment of a horse’s temperament may be possible in all types of tests. However, in practice, tests that resemble the practical circumstances most closely, i.e. testing riding horses under a rider, should be chosen.

‘Transfer of nervousness from competition rider to the horse’ – a joint study from Guelph, Goettingen and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

Twenty-six   horses   and   36   riders   in   an   international dressage   and   show-jumping competition  participated  in  the  experiment  immediately  following  their  participation  in the competition.  There were 53 different pairings of horses and riders (up to six rides per horse).    The  experiment  required  riding  a  course  that  included  the  following  situations: Riding  walk  as  a  control  situation  (C),  the  rider  was  made  nervous  (RN)  by  telling her/him falsely to expect the horse to be startled by a water-jet; and both rider and horse were made fearful (BF) by an experimenter opening and closing an umbrella at a specific point during the course. Riders were asked to rate on scales from 1-10 different aspects of their  riding  skills,  their  nervousness,  and  harmony  (quality  of  communication)  between themselves and the horse.
Mixed  model  analysis  revealed,  that  horses’  heart  rates  (beats/min ±  SD)  tended  to  be higher  during  RN  (92.0±23.3;  p=0.08)  and  BF  (93.5±25.8;  p=0.06)  than  during  C (88.2±21.8). In addition, horses’ heart rates were lower during all experimental situations (RN,  BF,  C)  when  the  riders  rated  the  horse’s  responsiveness  as  good  and  when  riders had  more  rather  than  less  training  with  an  instructor  (p<0.05).  These  findings  indicate that  more  trained  riders,  and  those  more  in  harmony  with  the  horse  are  at  lower  risk  of inducing nervousness in the horse, that can potentially lead to dangerous fear reactions in the horse.

And this is the one that seems to have the most significance for equine therapies:

‘Study: Horses more relaxed around nervous humans’ – just to throw a curve ball, the horses in this study responded to nervous humans by calming down. This is the excellent Christa Lesté-Lasserre at TheHorse.com:

In her study Merkies and colleagues employed 10 horses (draft-type geldings very familiar with people) and 16 humans. They first asked the humans to evaluate their comfort level with horses on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most afraid of horses. Merkies also recruited two horse-friendly humans to be physically stressed (just after intense exercise) at the moment of the experiment to evaluate horses’ reactions to individuals in physical distress in addition to those in emotional distress.

Then Merkies tested each horse’s reactions to each of the humans individually by setting one animal at a time loose in a round pen for five minutes. A randomly chosen human subject stood blindfolded at the center of the round pen so as to not make eye contact with the horse. For five minutes the researchers observed the horse’s reactions. During this time Merkies also measured both horse’s and human’s heart rates and observed and recorded various equine physical reactions.

Merkies determined that the more nervous the human, the lower the horse’s heart rate. And over the five-minute period that the human was in the ring, the horse’s heart rate would continue to decrease when in the presence of a nervous or physically stressed human, whereas they would increase when in the presence of a calm human. They also tended to keep their heads lower and move around less when they were with nervous humans.

Here’s the website for Sven Forsling, the Swedish psychologist and social worker who ran a residential home and stable for at-risk girls in care. You can read all about Frossarbo in his book, The Girl and the Horse and in my first book, If Wishes Were Horses.

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