Study: Some Horses, Riders Have 'Co-Being' Relationship

If you’ve ever considered your horse to be your “better half,” you’re not alone. Norwegian and American researchers recently found that riders and horses can enter into a unique state of interspecies “co-being” with one other.

Co-being refers to a state of relationship in which each partner evolves to “fit” better with each other, both physically and mentally.

“As riders get to know their horses, they attune to them—they learn both mental and somatic (physical) ways of acting versus their partner,” said Anita Maurstad, PhD, professor and researcher in the Department of Cultural Sciences in the Tromsø University Museum at the University of Tromsø in Norway. “Horses, too, attune to their humans; thus, co-being is a good analytical concept for speaking about these aspects of the relationship.”

This is all consistent with what Maurstad calls “nature-culture”—the concept that nature and culture, for some individuals (such as humans and domesticated horses), cannot be viewed individually but as one unique, combined notion. Riders and their mounts exist in a state of co-being within the nature-culture of the equestrian world, Maurstad said.

The co-being theory goes beyond the recently described “mirror” theory that horses are “reflections” of their riders, Maurstad said. In co-being, riders “get to know their horses as personalities through ongoing processes of deep engagement,” she said. “They see horses as different personalities, both in the sense of horses being different personalities individually, and being different personalities from themselves, the humans. Riders do not see their horses as passive reflections of themselves.”

Maurstad worked with American researchers Dona Davis, PhD, and Sarah Cowles both of the University of South Dakota's Department of Anthropology and Sociology. They interviewed 60 male and female riders in North America and Norway of varying disciplines to better understand the effect of riding and their relationship with their horses—why they ride, how this activity influences them as a person, and how it influences their family life. Their responses led the researchers to explore the concept of co-being “as a vital element to understanding the relationship,” she said.

“Their replies focused on actions and intra-actions with real consequences for both parties,” she added.

Specifically, she determined that humans learn to act and communicate in ways that work with their particular horses, and the horses also learn how to act and communicate in ways that work with their riders. Physically, each species learns to adapt to the other in unique ways for the specific riding partnership.

“(Humans) are balancing according to a feel of the other, the horse, attuning their bodies to sensations of the horse bodies,” Maurstad and colleagues stated in their study. “Action and response between the species bring about riding as a collaborative practice, where bodies become in sync. And sync is a product of intra-action in that both are changed through a process of training from the meeting between the two—literally flesh to flesh.”

However, she added, this kind of connection can only develop over time.

While co-being between a human and a horse might seem contrary to the “nature” of a horse, Maurstad said it’s actually very positive for both humans and horses and fits well into their “nature-culture.”

“Riders speak a lot about joy and enjoyment,” she said. “And the horse relationship is explained as good for the body and good for the mind; it has both physical and therapeutic qualities.

“As for the horses, the horses in our study have learned to live with humans,” she continued. “Consistent with their nature-culture, horses lead their lives partly with humans, partly with other horses, learning as individuals how to relate in ways that provide them with good qualities of life. As our study shows, horses are partners in pairs, and their physical and mental well-being is something that riders care for. This, I believe, is good for the horse, good for this particular natural-cultural species, and not in opposition to their nature.”

The study, "Co-being and intra-action in horse–human relationships: a multi-species ethnography of be(com)ing human and be(com)ing horse," was published in August in Social Anthropology

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.

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