“It is both a blessing and a curse to feel everything so very deeply”. ~David Jones

Photo by Colin Perry@ Flickr Colin P2009

The Equine Whore

Why the shock tactics? Why the use of an image that could be considered disreputable? Why the arresting use of the word ‘whore’? It’s because The Equine Whore blog reflects the emotions I felt when the notion of ‘equine emotional prostitution’ was introduced to me: shock, uneasiness, denial… and a desire to know more. My own career is based around developing peoples’ life skills through Equine Assisted Learning (EAL), where equines are not ridden but, instead, share a space with humans in order for the human to explore their emotions in the presence of these animals. This means I am personally invested in research into, and opinions on, the welfare implications of emotionally focussed human-equine interactions. I used The Equine Whore to show how non-ridden EAAs may be viewed as an emotional burden, from an equine’s point of view. To what extent is this accurate? What differences are there in the way EAL is provided? What support, or refute, is there from literature? In this blog I’ll look at the extent to which EAL could be considered empathic prostitution and explore what impact these interactions may have upon equine welfare. Are we pimps who have, in some situations, created The Equine Whore?

Emotional Perception

Working as an EAL facilitator, I often hear that equines detect, understand and even ‘take on’ our emotions. By some they are described as a ‘mirror’, with the tendency to display behaviours indicating the same emotional state as those they interact with. If equines can detect human emotion, certainly if they ‘take on’ these emotions, continued exposure to the various emotions of clients could arguably impact on their welfare. This was the story depicted in The Equine Whore. However, what evidence is there that equines 1) perceive human emotion, 2) mirror the emotions they perceive and 3) may have their wellbeing affected?

Visual and Auditory: It’s important here to understand what ‘cross-model perception’ means. Cross-modalperception involves the interaction between more than one sense in detecting stimuli. Because horses perceive and respond to facial expressions and vocalisations of other horses, they may use cross-modal perception (voice and facial expression) to perceive and respond to human emotion. An experiment measured various parameters of 19 horses shown a video of a human face expressing negative or positive emotions whilst at the same time hearing a recording of either a positive or negative voice (either praising or scolding).

Horses were first exposed to the video of a positive face and played the recording of the positive voice, and similarly exposed to the video of the negative face and played the recording of the negative voice. This means that the stimuli agreed with each other; they were what the horse would expect. They were then exposed to the positive face and played the recording of the negative voice (and vice versa). These were situations where the stimuli disagreed with each other; they violated what the horse expected. All of this was repeated both with a person whom the horse knew and again with a stranger and each time the horses heart rates were measured immediately before the audio recording and 15 seconds after.

The researchers found that, when a negative voice is heard, horse heart rate increases significantly if the facial expression does not match the tone of voice, and that goes for both people who the horse knows and strangers. If increased heart rate is to be considered a sign of stress, presenting incompatible visual and auditory signals to horses in an interaction session could negatively affect an equine’s welfare. A co-author of the research stated: “Our study could contribute to the understanding of how humans and companion animals send and receive emotional signals to deepen our relationships, which could help establish a better relationship that emphasizes the well-being of animals”.

Perhaps the ‘better relationship’ that needs establishing is one where consistent, compatible behaviour is given by all humans involved, in order to minimise stress to the horse. The problem here is that, whilst working with humans in order to build their life skills, the very presence of inconsistent behaviours is how the client and facilitator identify what needs to develop. At best the client may be able to understand more about how their own inconsistent behaviours are impacting on the horse, and how to behave in the most appropriate and welfare-positive way.

Olfactory: It has long been supposed that horses detect and use human body odour (chemosignals) as a way of perceiving emotion. One experiment collected male sweat from odour donors who had been exposed to either fear or happiness inducing videos. Pads were presented for seven horses to smell (including scentless control pads) whilst a smart belt recorded horse heart rate. The study found that heart rate was significantly more variable when horses were exposed to either fear or happiness induced sweat. The fact that odour caused changes in the horse’s autonomic activity is a good indication that the way a human feels in an EAL session can be detected by horses in a way that bypasses what humans can see.

Heart-beat perception: Several studies have investigated the ability of horses to detect, and subsequently synchronise, their heart rate with the heart rate of humans. Findings have been tentative, having only included small participant samples and forming conclusions such as: “the relationship between horse and human heart rates during interactions is not straightforward or consistent between horses and humans, and is likely to depend on a number of factors” . Many of these studies suggest that ECG measurements would provide valid data about the physiological effects of horses participating in EAL sessions.

“Mirroring” concept

After briefly exploring the various ways in which horses may perceive human emotion, what evidence is there that horses ‘mirror’ what they perceive? Some people believe that it is a perceived ability for horses to mirror the emotions of humans that makes EAL sessions so beneficial. Yet, what is there to support such claims?

One theory proposed to substantiate horse (and other) animals’ ability to perceive and imitate the behaviour of members of their own and other species is that of ‘mirror neurons’. Mirror neurons in the brain fire both when active movements are made by the individual and also when the same movements by members of their own species (and in the case of non-human primates, similar movements in other humans). As a result, scientists have suggested mirror neurons play a key role in understanding and mimicking emotions.

One spiritual blogger writes: “the horse has more mirror neurons in its brain than dogs, cats, or even humans, which cause them to experience and reflect the emotional state of those in their territories. Mirror neurons enable our companions to ‘get where we’re coming from’, often better than we do”. However, some researchers discredit the idea that these neurones lead to mirroring behaviour, stating that the function of mirror neurons can’t be action imitationbecause imitating the actions of other species has only been observed in apes. There is no evidence that such imitation occurs through a mirror system in equines.

What there is evidence to support is the tendency for humans to project their emotions onto the behaviours of animals. Correlations have been seen between human assessments of their own personality traits and the assessment of personality traits of dogs they observed. This suggests that there is some degree of projection when humans interpret the ambiguous behaviour of novel animals. Perhaps, then, the concept of equines mirroring human behaviour is actually the projection of the human’s emotional state.

Equine Burnout

Equine burnout brings together the ideas of ‘empathic prostitution’ and the ability of equines to perceive human emotion. It is well established that humans working in therapeutic roles can experience ‘burnout’ – “an imbalance between the psychological resources of an individual and the demands being made on those resources”. Being emotionally involved whilst listening to, and discussing, the emotional lives of others can lead to short- or long-term symptoms of feeling emotionally and physically burdened. Whereas equines do not talk through issues with clients, they are nevertheless still asked to be in the same vicinity as emotionally charged humans during EAL sessions. As horses can perceive, and be physically affected by, the emotions of humans. This begs the question: can equines experience burnout themselves?

In a survey of 74 professionals in the equine therapy industry, participants were asked about the prevalence of burnout symptoms in the horses they worked with. Burnout symptoms included becoming harder to catch and lead, foot stomping, biting, ulcer related symptoms, pinned ears and running away. Most burnout symptoms did occur in ridden therapies, yet the surveys showed that “around 30 percent observed burnout in equine assisted psychotherapy. Around 25 percent said they see burnout in the equine assisted learning”. It must be stated that this was not a peer reviewed journal article, however the professionalism of those surveyed seems robust. Rather than reduce the validity of the survey, this highlights how little has been done on burnout in equines in the academic sector.

Equine veterinarian Madalyn Ward suggests that horses are most prone to burnout when they are in consistent or reoccurring states of fight or flight. Receiving information form the environment that elicits a fight or flight response stimulates hormone production which taxes the horse’s body. As we have seen, when horses receive visual, chemical or (potentially) electrical signals from the humans around them, they can exhibit fight or flight symptoms when signals are intense, inconsistent or incompatible. By being exposed to clients during EAL sessions who exhibit a number of heightened emotions, and therefore exhibit such signals, may be at the core of burnout during non-ridden equine interventions.

Photo by Colin Perry @ Flickr Colin P2009

Avoiding equine burnout through empathic prostitution…

When considering how burnout could be described as a consequence of ‘empathic prostitution’, we need to look at the advice given to humans to avoid burnout and whether the same opportunities are afforded to working equines. If they are not, could a stronger argument be made that organizations are indeed ‘prostituting’ animals to paying clients?

Dr Ryan Howes of the American Board of Professional Psychologists (ABPP), suggests:

Boundaries: Be sure that you are aware of the boundaries between work and private life.

Hours: Be mindful of working hours, making sure time spent in therapy work is appropriate.

Balance: Don’t take work home; have time where work doesn’t invade personal time and space.

Diversify: make sure time is given to tasks and experiences outside of therapy.

Quit: If burnout occurs despite other interventions, have the ability to step away from the work.

For me, a non-prostituted horse is one who has these same opportunities. i.e:

They have the ability to enforce, and maintain, their own boundaries – where staff members understand when a horse does not want to share the same space, allowing them to remove themselves from clients. Attention should be paid to natural horse flight distance, and the space used should accommodate this.

Their working hours are considered – a number of equines are present in order to share the presence of clients and the demands of the organisation. Ideally, each horse would get a ‘holiday’, where certain periods of the year they are not utilised at all.

There is balance – there are clear spaces and times where EAL work is not done; a certain field, perhaps, or a barn where clients and sessions do not have access.

Their lives are diversified – where staff make sure that session work is not the largest part of a horse’s weekly routine, but instead incorporate enrichment, exercise, time with conspecifics, etc.

They have the ability to quit – carers understand the behaviour of the animals in their care, identifying when a horse should no longer be used during sessions, whether this be related to age, behaviour, health or length of service.

Finally, I believe that organisations should have a policy of interpreting equine behaviour from equine, rather than human, perspectives in order to better understand the reasons why horses are behaving the way they are. This way, clients will be encouraged to adapt their own behaviour in a way that maintains the most appropriate psychological and emotional wellbeing for the horse, rather than projecting their own interpretation of how the horse may want them to act. This policy would have the aim of reducing stimuli that maintain horse flight or fight responses.

Prostitution vs Partnership

Google’s dictionary notes that the word prostitute derives from the Latin meaning: ‘offered for sale’. In EAL, we need to be mindful of what is being prostituted; is it the experience, or is it the equine? Google’s dictionary also notes that the word partner means to be engaged together in the same activity, whose interests are shared. Ideally, an equine should be a partner involved in providing (and selling) the same therapeutic and learning experiences.

When the equine is present by human choice, exposed to human emotion, having their behaviours explained through a human-lens and managed to human timescales and schedules, I suggest they are being prostituted. They are being sold to humans who need a stationary presence that cannot express their judgement and who provides a crutch of perceived calmness and naturalness. It is not the choice of the equine to sell their life-skill enhancing presence, but the humans.

However, by utilising the strategies designed to prevent equine burnout, I believe that the client is paying to share the space of liberated, unrestricted animals who are being treated as partners, rather than objects. I believe this utilises the natural characteristics of equines, rather than utilising the equines themselves as a tool. If an equine gives their presence and participation freely, for the length of time they choose, and the facilitator makes well-timed and insightful use of these situations to develop a client’s life-skills, I believe this is not prostitution but partnership.

With this in mind, it is up to those working closely with equines in EAL whether they act as pimp or partner, and whether the equines in our care are empathic prostitutes or liberated colleagues.

References on Page 2…

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