There’s a sense of peace that comes with standing in a pasture of grazing horses. There’s something that feels incredibly safe about surrounding ourselves with dozens of animals each weighing 10 times our own weight and seeing that they have no intention of hurting us. There’s something compelling about their beauty, gentleness, and unassuming curiosity that pulls us towards them and brings our hands out just to touch them. And there’s even something, almost impossible to explain, that makes us miss them when we’re apart.
And all that, scientists say, is exactly what bonding is all about.
According to a new study, humans create emotional bonds with horses that fit the scientific definitions of attachment theory. And they can do it really quickly—even within half an hour.
“People can create a bond with a horse at first glance, sort of like they can when they meet a new person sometimes and feel that they’d like to get to know that person better and form a deeper connection,” said Erna Törmälehto, PhD candidate at the Faculty of Social Sciences at Tampere University in Pori, Finland.
The four primary elements of attachment bond recognized by psychology researchers are staying physically close (proximity), feeling safe from danger (safe haven), having a sense of stability (secure base), and missing the relationship partner when separated (separation anxiety), according to Törmälehto and her colleague, Riikka Korkiamäki. PhD.
Nine teenagers having no significant history with horses evoked all these feelings after spending 30 minutes in a pasture with six calm, sociable horses, the two scientists said. The teens, aged 16 to 17, discovered the horses during a training program to become camp counselors. Törmälehto observed the three boys and six girls first watch the horses from behind a fence and then gradually go into the paddock to interact with the free-moving horses. Afterwards, she observed a one-hour discussion with the group that elicited feedback on how the experience made them feel.
They spoke of the horses being “beautiful,” “peaceful,” and “calm,” and that they felt “accepted” by the horses, the scientists said. They appreciated that the horses didn’t have prejudices against them and seemed to “approve” them. The teens expressed wanting to approach the horses and touch them, and that they liked feeling like the horses were willing for them to do it.
It’s horses’ nature as a prey animal and their highly developed sense of awareness of body language that makes humans bond to them this way, Törmälehto explained.
Although the teenagers were certainly affected by the peaceful environment of the quiet countryside in general, it was the connection with the horses that gave them a sense of emotional peace, said Törmälehto.
“People need social relationships,” she said. “A peaceful environment by itself doesn’t offer a live connection with others. A horse also provides a chance to a relationship with another being just by being present.”
And the horses stood out among the other animals at the farm as offering a very different kind of relationship with the humans, due in part to their “special sensitivity and cautious curiosity,” she added.
“There also were cats and dogs which were very sociable and kind to new people, but they were very active in making contact, and through that initiative they in a way demanded contact from people,” she said.
“The dogs come greet you swinging their tails and the cats start purring and cuddling, leaning and pushing while waiting to be petted. Through their actions they require activity from a person.
“Meanwhile, a horse approaches people differently, more reserved so that a youngster may take his or her own time and the horse demands no action. Horse can calmly stand farther away and just look at people by focusing their gaze and turning their ears towards a person; it can think for a moment and then come to meet a person or just stand there minding its business and maybe just keep eating.”
Critically, however, the success of the bond requires freedom to choose—for both partners, according to Törmälehto. “I think it is not possible to get a good relationship between horse and human when horses are forced to be with people,” she told Horses and People. “I think the bond is the best if the will of both the human and the horse has been taken account.”
Even so, it’s unlikely these horses felt bonded to the humans they just met in such a short amount of time, she added.
“I’d say that these horses were curious in meeting new people because they have had no previous negative experiences with people,” she said.
“We still know very little about the affection horses have towards people. Still, I don’t think a horse would become attached to a person as easily as a person would to a horse in such a short period of time.”
The study by Erna Törmälehto and Riikka Korkiamäki is published in the open access journal Animals and is titled: The Potential of Human–Horse Attachment in Creating Favorable Settings for Professional Care: A Study of Adolescents’ Visit to a Farm. You can read it here.