You may have seen one of these articles doing the social media rounds:
If you are a horse owner, chances are you reacted very strongly to these claims. We all have stories about our horses that don’t seem to align with this.
So what’s going on? Does this study really say this?
Let’s have a look at what the published paper actually says!
The researchers set out to compare how horses would behave when separated (a stressful event) and then reunited with humans. The experiment was intended to reveal evidence of an ‘attachment bond’, a concept in psychology that describes a special type of relationship between individuals.
There are specifically four things the researchers were looking for in order to conclude that horses form attachment bonds with people:
…namely proximity seeking (i.e. preferring to be near the attachment figure in times of stress), safe haven (i.e. relief from stress due to the comfort and support provided from the attachment figure), secure base (i.e. increased exploration due to feeling safe), and separation distress (i.e. feeling distressed in the absence of the attachment figure).
They were also interested in training style and horse personality.
So what were the results?
All the horses showed signs of stress when left alone and all the horses calmed down when in the presence of a human. They interpreted this as suggesting that the horses viewed humans as a ‘safe haven’, one of the characteristics of an attachment bond.
Finally, they observed that It didn’t make much difference whether the human was their owner or a stranger.
What does all this actually mean?
Well, not that much! The main conclusion the scientists themselves draw from all this is that horses do show some signs of forming attachment bonds with humans. However, they say that further research is needed. In particular they point to various methodological flaws and the small sample size of 26 horses.
…this study revealed attachment-related behaviours of horses towards humans even though the results cannot resolve whether these fulfil all criteria for an attachment-bond.
But Horses show attachment-related behaviours towards people in this particular context but we can’t really conclude anything further from this particular study – we need to do more experiments doesn’t quite have the same ring to it!