It all started trotting around in my brain while I was reading a book on relationships. It is a book on human relationships written by a marriage counselor. The resounding theme throughout the book is that humans need to bond, it is "wired" into us; we cannot ignore or defeat the need for each other because the wiring evolved over millions of years of trial and error with life and death. We experience stress when those bonds are, or appear to be, in jeopardy.
They have been so eloquently showing us this for so long with their herd-bound, barn-sour ways. Are herds and horse bonds that different from the bonds of human mates, families, and villages as seen by the amygdala? It depends on your species, I suppose, how the amygdala views things.
The what? The amygdala. When a horse is separated from its herd, it is the amygdala screaming “Get back to the herd or you might die!”
Its that part of the brain that screams ALARM, and even when your cortex tries to override it (yes, you have an amygdala too), it all registers on your face, in your heart rate, in your blood pressure, and various other physiological ways in your body. When a bond is at risk, the signals sent are loud and clear that your survival is in jeopardy.
Humans Don’t Get Labeled Herd-Bound, But There are Plenty of Other Labels
Your body’s survival mechanisms have very physical consequences even though they start in your head, in your brain, and are thus labeled mental. According to the Report Of The Surgeon General On Mental Health, about 20% of the population has mental illness, and about 50% of that is due to anxiety disorders, e.g., post traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, general anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. So we don’t get a label like “herd-bound”, but we have plenty of other labels for anxiety.
Joseph LeDoux is a pioneer in this area at The Center for Neural Science at New York University. There are studies on rats as well as some on mammals (including some recent studies involving humans with damage to the amygdala) that imply evolution developed a brain where recognizing and reacting to alarm signals produced responses that likely would keep an animal alive in the face of danger.
Horses are mammals, and humans are mammals. When I read the above information from the Center for Neural Science, I realized that my light-bulb moment while reading a relationship book had real meaning. It was not just a desperate attempt from a horse fanatic to find a metaphorical horse in everything.
Instead, it was me finally seeing what my horse, and the horses before her, have known and have been expressing to me and other humans for years – safe bonds are very important, to both humans and horses.
It was all right there in black and white on a website about gray matter.
Why Do Horses And People Connect So Well?
People are predators, and horses are prey, but both species have a wired-in need to feel physically and emotionally safe. Having bonds is one way of helping ensure survival. There is safety in numbers. Natural horsemanship trainers and followers understand the horse’s need to bond and feel secure; this is what enables horses to have that bond with a human. That is why even wild horses can bond with a human and learn to trust them.
Why do people gravitate to horses? Can you experience love with a horse that bridges the gap, the great divide, of love or lack of it that you have had with members of your own species? Horses have a similar need to bond and feel secure, and maybe as humans we recognize the opportunity that presents itself with these creatures. Horses are very good at bonding. They can feel emotionally safe with another living creature if they see them as their leader.
This may be especially important when parental or significant other bonds are threatened, non-existent, or anxiety-promoting. Maybe the human brain just feels better knowing that there is some safe bond. Interspecies bonding is probably a good thing; why not get your burst of oxytocin, the hormone that promotes bonding, where and when you can get it, even if it is just from a horse?
See Your Horse As A Mirror, Not As Expendable
You may call your horse stupid or a mental case when it panics, and derogatorily call it labels like “barn sour”, but next time stop and remember that this behavior has its roots in evolutionary wiring that is probably going back millions of years to his earliest ancestors.
When you stand around cursing out your horses for refusing to leave their pasture mates, balking at loading into a trailer, or fleeing from a flapping blue tarp, remember that you, too, have fears, anxieties, and survival triggers. It goes along with being human as much as being equine.
Your horse runs from its fear; we humans are just better at masking or medicating ours. Some people will curse their horse for being flighty, herd-bound, or barn-sour. These same people will then go home and light cigarettes, pop some pills, or have a drink or two, possibly oblivious to the fact that they are trying to calm their own anxieties. To denigrate the horse for reacting and acting the way his brain is telling him to ensure his survival, based on evolutionary processes that go back millions of years, does not make much sense and is not going to get these people very far.
The horse they yelled at, meanwhile, will crib and weave in his stall that night in his own desperate effort to self-soothe and be cursed again for damaging his stall. He will do those “vices” as we negatively call them because he is isolated in that stall. He is unable to touch another horse and is alone in a 12×12 cave with a door across the opening.
Horses are sentient creatures that are so much more in tune with their need to bond than we are, but how do we thank them for so gracefully showing us? We isolate them, round them up, destroy their bonds, send them for slaughter, run them into the ground, intentionally scar and blister them, and more. I am not an animal behavior expert, nor am I a psychologist, but perhaps if we started to look at our horses as more like ourselves in some ways than different, we might treat them better.
girl on horse
Then again, there are lots of folks who are not very kind to themselves, or to their spouses or children. But maybe, just maybe, they will let their horse show them how to do just that.
Eleanor Van Natta is a wife, a mother of two little girls, and a caretaker to one dog, one cat, and one horse. She has a Zoology degree from the University of CA, Davis, and prior to becoming a stay at home mom she had a career in environmental and pharmaceutical sales. You can find more of her writing on her blog Sage By Nature.