Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

No Horsing Around About the Human-Equine Bond

These animals shaped our history and, today, are the ultimate therapists.

Source: Edoma/Shutterstock

I recently talked to a mother of a 13-year-old girl, who resisted moving from Wisconsin to northern Florida to spend the summer with her grandfather. Once the daughter found out that her grandfather owned nice horses and that she would be responsible for grooming and riding them, the mother wondered how she would ever get her daughter to come back home to Wisconsin.

What young girl doesn’t love horses? The seemingly natural bond between women and horses is the topic of a popular book series.

Even so, in our modern life, we’ve lost touch with horses. When it comes to the modern human-equine bond, out of sight really is out of mind. It’s only in our modern society that we humans spend little time thinking about horses. But through most of our history, horses played a huge role in the human experience.

From warfare and land transportation to leisure and sport, horses have had an impact on the human race as early as the Neolithic Age, also known as the New Stone Age, which began in 10,200 B.C. Even before this time, horses were hunted for their meat during the Paleolithic Era, also known as the Old Stone Age. Some hypothesize that horse taming began as a byproduct of hunting these mammals for their meat.

Horses as laborers

In “A Natural History of Domesticated Mammals,” J. Clutton-Brock defined domestication this way: “A tame animal differs from a wild one in that it is dependent on man and will stay close to him of its own free will.”

Horses were used to transport goods and people by means of horseback and later the famous horse and buggy. They preceded steam engines and became work animals immediately after they were domesticated.

Horses also fought alongside soldiers throughout war times. These four-legged war comrades were often easier targets than men and, as a result, if the enemy could hit a horse then the defense’s supply line was often taken out. Ten million soldiers were killed in World War I and 8 million war horses were killed—illustrating the gravity warfare had on these larger-than-life animals.

Horses as athletes

With the advancement of roads, cars and military tanks, the use of horses was geared away from infantry and transportation to game, personal use and therapy. Documented horse racing dates as far back as the Greek Olympics in 680 B.C., where horse racing took place in the form of chariots and mounted riders for the purpose of public entertainment. Horse racing developed into a lucrative industry after the establishment of horse gambling.

During the reign of King Louis XIV of France, horse gambling took on its own industry. From the English St. Leger originating in 1776 to the American Kentucky Derby originating in 1875, thoroughbred horse racing has become a billion-dollar industry.

“National figures compiled by the Jockey Club, considered the official statistician of the industry, show that rebate operations may have had an impact. In 1997, before they became prevalent, $12.5 billion was bet on horse racing held in the United States; in 2003, more than $15 billion was wagered, a 20 percent increase,” reported The New York Times.

Horse racing is a profitable and popular industry, but it does not come without extreme consequences for the horses, jockeys and spectators alike. From gambling addiction to disastrous injuries to horses, many view horse racing as a cruel industry. One in 22 horses is injured during a race, preventing them from finishing the competition. Horses begin training while their muscles and bones are still growing, putting immense strain on their bodies, leading to injury. Horse trainers and veterinarians keep injured horses racing by injecting them with painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs and performance-enhancing drugs — no different than the doping and steroid epidemic seen in cycling and baseball. The difference is that the horse is not choosing to partake in this “sport.” At the end of their young racing career, some horses are released in pastures and others are sent to the slaughterhouses.

Today horses are used for companionship in the form of pets and therapy animals. About 1.5 percent of households in the United States keep horses as pets compared to 60 percent of U.S. households keeping a dog, a cat or both. The reason for this is horses are expensive to keep. Although they are loyal, friendly and kind, they need to be exercised, trained, shoed and boarded, costing hundreds to thousands of dollars a month, not to mention the cost of food, supplements and veterinary bills as well as the time and energy spent feeding, riding and cleaning them.

Horses as therapists

Equine or equestrian therapy was first introduced in 1946 in Scandinavia during the vast outbreak of poliomyelitis, a neuromuscular debilitating disease. Since this time, horses have been used for emotional and physical therapy to reinforce the rider’s muscle tone, socialization and communication skills development, building trust, and to improve a person’s fine motor skills, gait and balance, and hand-eye coordination.

Equine therapy consists of the patient, the horse, a therapist and a horse trainer. Equine therapy does not solely consist of riding a horse, as these gigantic animals can often be intimidating, and it takes time and patience to gain trust between the rider and the horse. Equine therapy can consist of grooming, feeding, saddling and basic equestrian care.

In 1969, the Community Association for Riders with Disabilities began therapy riding in the U.S. and Canada. That same year, the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association was established. Both of these organizations establish the guidelines for therapy, provide training and certify riding instructors as well as therapy centers.

Equestrian therapy is particularly applied to patients with ADD, anxiety, autism, dementia, delay in mental development, down syndrome and other genetic syndromes, depression, trauma and brain injuries, behavior and abuse issues and other mental health issues. In many instances, riders with disabilities have proven their remarkable equestrian skills in various national and international competitions. This is the reason why equestrian therapy has been recognized as an important area in the medical field in many countries.”

Horses as friends

I have a print hanging in my home of horses standing in the early morning light on recently showered grass. It looks like the horses are standing on a mirror or a lake. After I was first drawn to the photo, on closer inspection, I realized that several of the horses were nuzzling, an image I now view as an expression of mammalian love and tenderness.

As majestic, hardworking and loyal companions, horses have befriended and helped humans for thousands of years and, for this, they deserve our love, respect and protection.

“It's always been and always will be the same in the world: The horse does the work and the coachman is tipped.” —Author Unknown

Contributed by Kristen Fuller, M.D.