For once, I will not be writing a thorough treatise on the topic in question, as I’m facing other deadlines at the moment. However, I did want to say this:
There are a LOT of pseudoscience claims floating around the internet about heart rate variability, co-regulation, and the vagus nerve, in general and in particular in equine-assisted interventions. Videos and photographs abound showing horses that are shut down or stressed out and being controlled or placated by handlers, while the explanation of the video or photo claims the horse and the human are co-regulating or that somehow the horse is healing the human, or that vagal tone is somehow improving, or that the horse must be ok with it because if it wasn’t it would move away, etc.
How can such claims be true if the horse is showing signs of activation (head above withers and defensive orienting, distracted, quick breaths, needing to be held on a short lead) or shutdown (vacant stare, braced or collapsed posture, ears back, unresponsive, learned helplessness)? These photos and videos are shared with fanciful, science-y sounding explanations that are taken as gospel by people who long to know that what they feel to be true in their hearts and intuition has some scientific validity. People comment “Wow! How beautiful!” “Horses are amazing” “You’re doing such important work” etc. when all I see is a stressed or tuned out horse being forced into an experience that is being misinterpreted because the human is somehow benefitting. And to what degree can a human truly benefit and co-regulate if the horse is dysregulated, disconnected, dissociated, or coerced into an experience that is not of its choosing? There is some major incongruence there. But it’s “healing with horses” and “animals are therapeutic”, so it all must be good stuff, right? Sadly, no.
This is not to say that the benefits of horse-human interactions are bogus — I’m the first person to defend and extol the power of relationships with horses, and I’m one of Steve Porges’ biggest fans (#polyvagalnerd). What I am concerned about, however, are the well-intended but misguided attempts at justifying certain practices by trying to apply what sound like scientific explanations that are actually unfounded and unprovable. Add the word “vagus” to anything these days and people take notice and go “ooh! Must be legit!” No, not always folks. And just because something was published in a journal (or even a magazine) does not mean that the science is sound. One person’s interpretation of what felt like a transformational experience on one specific occasion does not have scientific validity – I’m not questioning the value of the experience itself, but rather the explanation of it. Replicate that experience with formal measurements over multiple different scenarios and in multiple contexts, and rule out other confounding variables that might actually be explaining or affecting what is going on, and really only then can one make a claim that is solid about what is happening. Otherwise, to say “oh, I did this, and the horse did that, and that healed my XYZ” is at best a professional-sounding fairy tale. It sounds nice, but so do lullabies.
On the harmless end of the spectrum, unfounded claims about a service are at best simply inaccurate embellishments but everyone (and hopefully the horse) has a positive experience. On the more dangerous end of the spectrum, these claims can be misleading, implying that a service will heal or cure something when this is not in fact true (or implying that the horse is providing something that it is not, in fact, providing, that could be obtained through other ways that might be less harmful to the horse). Pseudoscience and objectification in the form of “magic unicorn syndrome”, as I like to call it, no matter how well-intended, are an ethical and welfare issue. Plus, in many scopes of practice or professions, making false claims, using gimmicky language, or making misleading statements in client-focused marketing can be considered malpractice or misconduct. People lose their right to practice for this sort of thing.
Do healing with horses programs have merit? Sure. Again, I am not questioning the value of horse-human relationships. The issue is the need for critical thinking. Just because it is on the internet doesn’t mean it is true. Just because someone says “the research shows that…” doesn’t mean it was actually research or that – if it was – the study is without errors. Dig deeper. Find the citation and read the article. Consult with subject matter experts – many. Question them as well, as they too are capable of errors, bias, and do not have all the answers. Recognize there are many ways of knowing and paths to knowledge, and that it is important to hold a wide view. Be willing to revise your position and beliefs as new information becomes available. Be accurate in your claims. Consider the experience of the horse through an unbiased lens, from the horse’s perspective. Use tentative language if you’re not sure or, better yet, avoid saying anything that might create an unrealistic expectation about what you and the horse(s) are offering. As so aptly put by Henry David Thoreau, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” But make sure those foundations are solid.
Sorry to burst everyone’s bubble today, but it’s a major issue that does a disservice to the horses, the clients, and the industry as a whole that is trying to gain legitimacy.
Keep up the good work and make sure the words are good, too.