This past August I attended the 2022 HHRF research conference – a conference about horses and human research. I joined roughly 60 other people in our field for one and one half days of presentations on some of the latest research in the field.

If you are not familiar with HHRF, it is the Horses and Humans Research Foundation. Its mission: “Through Sustained Investment In Rigorous Research, HHRF Serves As A Catalyst To Advance Global Knowledge Of Horse-Human Interactions And Their Impact On The Health And Wellness Of People And Horses.” The conference was attended by a fairly equal mix of researchers and practitioners, including some who represent both roles, as well as HHRF Board members, volunteers and industry leaders.

The presentations and panel discussion at the end opened up many fruitful conversations about the state of research in the field and where we go from here. I’d like to share a few of my impressions followed by the Natural Lifemanship Institute’s (NLI) research goals, moving forward.

Major Takeaways:

  • The value of employing mixed methods to better understand complex phenomena (horse-human interactions)
  • The imperative of adopting common terminology and the need for sufficient ways to distinguish between different approaches to intervention through EAS so that findings can be discussed in terms of program components
  • The need for more research examining the mechanisms of change in different EAS interventions (therapeutic riding, psychotherapy incorporating horses, etc.)
  • The relative plethora of research examining the impact of EAS on individuals with disabilities and on veterans with PTSD, and the need for studies that broaden the populations of interest to include children and adults undergoing mental health treatment for complex trauma

Beyond Rating Scales: Objective Physiological Measures are Increasingly Employed in EA Research

A highlight of the conference, for me, was the number of investigations that examined biobehavioral and/or psychophysiological measures of human and equine well-being and stress.

Several of the studies sampled the horse’s and/or human’s cortisol, oxytocin and heart rate variability (HRV), for example.  Some examined the efficacy of EAS interventions in terms of human outcomes while simultaneously taking the horse’s wellbeing and stress response into consideration. This is a very encouraging movement in the field and while there is still much to be understood, many of the methods presented were both feasible and reliable, and can be used with both horses and humans.

Others presented research on the perceived benefits and impact of EA services on the humans who participate in such services. Studies of this nature abound in this field and rely mostly on rating scales where the participants themselves and/or close others rate the participant on variables of interest (e.g., anxiety, depression, mindfulness skills) by completing questionnaires or interviews. These are typically pre-post designs that compare the data collected before, during and after the EAS intervention to observe change.

Yet other studies utilize behavioral observation protocols to document observable behaviors of the human and/or horse participants within and outside of EA sessions. These focus on behaviors that can be seen and counted. Specific behaviors are watched for, counted over a period of time or at specific intervals, and sometimes rated in terms of intensity. Scores may then be generated in terms of frequency, duration, and intensity of behaviors and these scores may be compared at different points in time to detect change.

Triangulation of Data & Breaking Things Down

The general consensus is that each approach has its strengths and limitations, and that, ideally, research projects should aim to employ mixed methods wherever possible to collect both subjective and objective data collected in quantitative and qualitative ways. Triangulation of data, which means taking into consideration multiple sources of data, generally provides researchers a more comprehensive picture of what they are seeking to understand.

In my experience with research and especially program evaluation, I feel it’s important to emphasize the need to break things down. We tend to want to demonstrate the effectiveness of interventions as a whole without taking the pains to understand and test their component parts. We always get the question, “Does psychotherapy incorporating horses work?” when we still need to understand how it works, under what conditions, and for whom. It’s important to devote our attention to understanding the mechanisms of change, meaning, what occurs in an intervention that produces its effects or lack thereof? What specifically serves as a catalyst of change, what other factors support those catalysts, and what factors may constrain them?

The Key: Carefully Selecting Mixed Methods

Furthermore, as many of the researchers at this conference pointed out, there are things we wish to measure (for example, stress) that are considered latent variables and cannot be measured directly. They must be measured indirectly by measuring observable concrete variables that occur when the variable of interest is considered to be present. In the case of stress, several things can be measured that point to stress, such as increased heart rate and decreased heart rate variability, increased cortisol, decreased oxytocin, and, of course, the presence of behaviors and/or affects associated with stress. The more valid and reliable sources of data that point to the same thing, the more confidence we can have in our findings and interpretations. This underscores, again, the need for carefully selected mixed methods in our field.

At the Natural Lifemanship Institute, we are strong proponents of research in the field. We base our approach on the science-based understanding of how relationships and relational interactions shape our individual lives across the lifespan. Because relationships matter so much to our development and our well-being as a species, our founders made it their work to figure out what qualities of relationships and relational interactions lead to the greatest well-being for both humans and horses in their relationships. This pursuit is principle based so that it may be individualized. What contributes to well-being in any horse-human dyad is dynamic and dependent on what each party needs and experiences moment to moment. Well-being in relationships requires a dance of attunement. This heuristic applies equally to horse-human relationships and relationships between humans and any species, for that matter.

The phenomena of an individual’s subjective experience of intra- and interpersonal relationships has historically been viewed as a psychological matter and studied within the field of psychology.  However, increasingly, the biological sciences have contributed to our understanding that this phenomenon is inextricably linked to our bodies. Our experience of relationships is not strictly psychological; it doesn’t exist solely in our minds. It occupies our brains and nervous systems – and encompasses that which occurs biologically within us and between us.

The biological sciences underscore the influence that individual bodies and their behaviors (both explicit and tacit) have on the bodies and thus the felt experiences of each other. This interpersonal influence makes relationship more than a context or a field in which two individuals co-exist and have discrete psychological experiences; it is more like a shared body, where a third being (the relationship itself) emerges and loops back to each partner, affecting each in potentially healing or damaging ways. There is me, there is you, and there is us. We seek to understand and be responsive to all three. From a research perspective, to observe, describe, and understand these complex phenomena, a translational approach is needed. We must cross disciplines and come together with our respective lenses to undertake productive inquiry.

What’s Next

There is much work to do, still, with respect to research in this field, AND it appears we are on the right track. Thanks greatly to HHRF and similar initiatives worldwide, researchers and practitioners from a variety of approaches and disciplines are joining forces to better understand what we intuitively know to be true: That while it is surely the case that “the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man [sic]”, the relationship is actually more multidirectional; we believe that the inside of a horse is good for the inside of a person, and the inside of a person can be very good for the inside of a horse, as well.

Look for more to come from Natural Lifemanship in this regard. We are dedicated to promoting research that explores horse and human interactions, the effects we have on one another’s positive development and well being, and to understanding the component parts of healing and well-being in our relationships.

We aim to support our community in their research and program evaluation endeavors. Please leave a comment below and let us know what you need.