Extensive evidence exists indicating human companionship has a profound effect on health and longevity. Along with social support, this companionship isn't limited to a human-to-human relationship. Human-animal interactions are just as profound when it comes to connection and support. Human-animal relationships aid in health and sustain human emotional balance.
Besides health, the most important role horses play for humans is unconditional love. No one is too old, ugly, poor, or disabled to win the love of a horse. When it comes to the horse, there is no criticism or reservation. This love has physical benefits to humans in that many illnesses exacerbate loneliness. Illnesses like heart disease and cancer are moderated by the love of an animal. Research has revealed the mortality rate of heart patients with pets is one-third that of patients without pets. Many admit their pets are part of the most intimate areas of their life. This intimacy is parallel with that of a mother and newborn infant. Paradoxically, our society often does not permit us to acknowledge this intimacy. Often, it is criticized as ‘horse crazy,’ anthropomorphic, or just plain ridiculous and stupid.
Touch is important in the process of living. More and more is discovered how touch can help people heal from illness, grief, and loneliness. When people respond to their need for touch, it lifts their spirits immediately. Touch is necessary for survival. Without touch a baby’s growth is stunted, animals become more aggressive and violent, and humans experience more anxiety. Touch acknowledges both shared humanness and a person’s worth. It amplifies a sense of safety and security. Touch heals not only physically but also psychologically. Touch affirms the need for belonging and acceptance. It is normal to seek life-giving touch. This touch is accomplished through hugs, snuggling, holding hands, massages, haircuts, manicures, and of course petting, grooming, and hugging your horse which in turn often reciprocates a nuzzle. As the saying goes, “When you give a hug, you receive a hug.”
Touch triggers the release of brain endorphins. Endorphins are an endogenous analgesic stronger than heroin or morphine. However, touch is more than just a scientific confluence of brain chemicals. Touch can tame a wild animal and makes the body adverse to stress. Touch is documented as a healing therapy for more than 5,000 years. Since the days of ancient Greece and Rome, massage has provided relaxation and healthful benefits. Ancient Egyptian tombs have images of people receiving touch therapy. The Bible refers to the ‘laying on of hands’ to describe touch therapy. This original healing art has endured years of healthcare advancement and is becoming more and more popular.
We know when newborns are given nurturing touch they grow faster and have more improved mental and motor skill development. Children raised with more physical interaction tend to be less aggressive and violent. Partners who cuddle have been shown to have lower stress levels and blood pressure and improved immune function. Elderly people who receive soothing, affirming touch handle the process of aging and passing with dignity. From the moment we are born to the final days of our lives, touch acts as a central aspect of the human experience—impacting our physical, mental, and emotional health and quite literally shaping the way we go through our lives.
Touch is a crucial sense for all babies—human and nonhuman. Studies of animals reveal that when mothers stroke and cuddle their babies or lick them with long tongue strokes, the skin releases chemicals that promote the infant's physical development. Research with premature babies has shown that when nurses provide gentle massages several times a day, those babies gain weight faster and are released from the hospital several days earlier than premature babies that had not been massaged. Further research shows that loving touch massage permits young children to fall asleep faster and more easily.
Horse people know that touch isn’t just limited to humans. Human-animal interactions are just as powerful and therapeutic. Companion animals increase our quality of life. Animals provide warmth, comfort, and show empathy and care—sometimes better than humans. The connection between humans and horses is powerful. It is an unexplainable phenomenon. For example, when an autistic child speaks for the first time in the presence of a horse.
So what exactly makes this human-horse relationship last? I believe it's having the courage to look into your horse’s eyes without blinking while allowing yourself to reflect your image. You must remain faithful and committed even when the world tempts you. It's not about avoiding conflict but about finding a way to balance—giving grace when requested and forgiveness when needed. You must have the ability to see faults as a reminder that your human-horse partnership mirrors you. The horse mirrors ALL of you—the good and the bad. One must invest heartfelt emotion during the most intimate moments and take advantage of opportunities to express your mutual love. Cherish the small things. Celebrate even the smallest of successes and be willing to give it your all because anything worth having takes effort, courage, faith.
Like most things in life, anything worth having takes a little time and energy, commitment, and a dose of faith. I have learned that what makes a good, connected relationship with your horse isn’t shrouded in a secret; it is intentional, deliberate, and requires practice. I have learned that this comes from a place of not just want but a deep, embedded need and desire. I call it my horse medicine. And when I don’t get my medicine, my world is a little off-kilter. Without it, I am not grounded or steady. I feel off-kilter and not quite right. I have learned that this relationship is not about obligation. It is about giving and receiving equally and freely—an ebb and flow, yin and yang or two halves that complete wholeness.
Critics judge my lifestyle with horses, however, I don’t apologize for my life dedicated to the horse. I have been deemed horse crazy and have lost friends who do not understand it. My life with horses is rooted in a simple human truth: horses comfort me. They extend me the grace and space to be myself that I rarely experience from people. I consider my life with horses such a blessing because horses complement the rest of my life—they make me a better person. Even though research supports the power of touch and the human-horse relationship, far more anecdotal stories and experiences support what we as horse lovers have always known—horses are good for the soul.
Pamela L. Maynard, PhD is the "The Passion-Driven Equinologist." I have dedicated my life to the horse by teaching horse owners how to care for themselves and their horse! I wholeheartedly believe that our health is interconnected with the health of our horses. This is my personal invitation for you to join me in my private arena—let's go for a ride down an embodied path of soul-centered horsemanship practices and more at www.conscioushoofbeat.com Listen to the Conscious Hoofbeat Podcast on: https://anchor.fm/conscioushoofbeat Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.
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