The Empathetic Horse Owner

How horse owners can use empathy to predict and interpret horses’ behaviors and respond appropriately

Valentine Millecamps doesn’t consider herself a hero. In rescuing a 37-year-old pony from a life of malnourishment and multiple untreated health conditions, the Belgian psychology grad student believes she only did what she had to.

“I’d spend hours with him in his field when I was growing up, feeling the peace he’d give me just by being there,” Millecamps recalls. “As he got old and sick, his owners couldn’t care for him anymore. It seems natural to me to take him on and invest in his well-being. It was the least I could do for someone who had given me so much.” 

Now 40, Tonnerre—whose name means “Thunder” in French—thunders across his pasture at a sound, energetic gallop. For Millecamps, this wasn’t about pity for the former pony ride mount who worked for decades in fairs across Belgium. She didn’t feel sorry for him, she says. She saw him, as a fellow sentient being whose ethological (behavioral) needs could be met but weren’t.

“It’s impossible to imagine what it’s like to be a horse, but I have as much empathy for him as I can,” she says.

Empathy, say our sources, is complex to explain and understand. One thing we do know, however, is a healthy level of empathy toward horses can benefit both them and the horse-human relationship.

The Challenge of Defining Empathy

Basically, empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes—or, in the case of equids, their hooves, says Paolo Baragli, DVM, PhD, researcher and professor specializing in the horse-human connection at the University of Pisa Department of Veterinary Sciences, in Italy.

But delving into the depths of philosophy, psychology, and moral thinking, we would struggle to define empathy within the limits of this magazine’s front and back covers, he says. “Empathy is a serious topic that’s not fully clear in humans and has not yet been demonstrated scientifically between horse and human,” Baragli says.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, though. Martin Hoffman, PhD, professor emeritus of clinical and developmental psychology at New York University and leading expert on empathy in humans, says people can put themselves in their horses’ hooves.

“Yes, it’s entirely possible to empathize with a horse,” Hoffman says. “Putting oneself in the other’s place is a major mode of empathic arousal, so it’s certainly possible to identify with a horse.”

But what does identifying with a horse mean?

“I think it means trying to imagine what the world might be like for them, putting our own world view aside,” says Kirrilly Thompson, PhD, qualitative research consultant in Adelaide, South Australia. “It’s about recognizing what we do and don’t share and holding a space for the sameness at the same time as a space for the difference.”

What our sources say empathy isn’t—and what we must distinguish it from—is sympathy, pity, or compassion. Sympathy suggests an “outsider” feel, and pity and compassion can give room for judgment, they say. “Empathy is judgment-free,” Thompson says.

“Empathy … includes a cognitive and an emotional component,” says Tamara Tadich, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Chile Faculty of Veterinary Sciences, in Santiago, who has studied empathy toward horses. “It allows us to predict and interpret the behaviors and intentions of the other and respond appropriately to them.

“Empathy allows us to provide pain relief or medical assistance to a horse or even do simple things such as recognizing when a noseband is too tight and adjust it adequately so that the horse can cope with the equestrian activity,” she adds.

Less Empathy, More Welfare Issues

The Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) disqualified and suspended an endurance rider in March 2019 for abuse after he struck his horse twice with a water bottle. Essential to the federation’s decision was that Ali Mohd Ali Al Hosani “seemed to show no remorse for his actions” toward LCE Corleone during the Sheikh Mohammed Cup CEI 160 km in Dubai, said the FEI Tribunal.

Lack of remorse suggests a lack of empathy, says Tadich, which “has been scientifically linked to aggressive behaviors, including animal cruelty.”

Extreme lack of empathy can even be pathological, says Nicolas de Brauwere, MRCVS, senior welfare veterinarian at Redwings Horse Sanctuary, in Hapton, Norfolk, England. “In many of our multi-animal cases, neglect or deliberate cruelty to horses is committed by people who, in our layperson’s view, suffer from some degree of mental health compromise,” he says, adding that it doesn’t dismiss their responsibility. “They’re still held accountable, as they had the means and capacity to act differently despite this lack of empathy.”

Reduced levels of empathy can also lead to welfare issues such as questionable training and management practices, says Thompson. “There are always people who are afraid to critique their own practices, who are too invested, committed, or proud to change,” she says.

The Empathetic Horse Owner

Misguided Empathy: Anthropomorphism & Speciesism

Empathy often leads to anthropomorphism, which has its pros and cons, our sources say. People imagine themselves in an animal’s place, with human needs, thoughts, and emotions, instead of with the ethological characteristics for the animal’s unique species. Take this classic example of anthropomorphism in horse-keeping: “I’m cold, so my horse must be cold. I’ll cover him in blankets,” even though many studies have shown that horses are more comfortable in lower temperatures than humans.

Anthropomorphism can lead empathetic people to misunderstand what horses like and dislike, says Lisa Ashton, MSc, equitation science consultant in Stafford, U.K. “As equestrians we’re good at displacing our own emotions onto our horses,” she says. “We’re at risk of overstating their cognitive abilities and assuming what they can and can’t know and feel, without relying on science to confirm that.”

Jealousy and fidelity are good examples, says Australian science-based trainer Andy Booth, who is based in southwestern France. “Sometimes a rider will tell me her horse didn’t work well for her because he was upset about seeing her riding another horse,” he says. “Or I’ll hear that the horse performs well because he loves pleasing her so much, and then one day he doesn’t perform well and she takes it as a sign that he’s angry or vengeful or less faithful or doesn’t love her anymore. But horses just don’t function that way.”

Nonhorsey people can also anthropomorphize, which can affect how the public views equestrian activities, because people imagine themselves not in the horse’s skin, but as a human stepping in for the horse, Ashton says. While this could make equestrians more aware of welfare concerns, the anthropomorphism could warp the public image of what horses are experiencing.

The concept of anthropomorphism surfaced on a world stage at the 2019 FEI European Championships in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Two shirtless Dutch animal rights activists ran onto the show jumping course as Marc Houtzager and Sterrehof’s Calimero approached the third fence. Painted on their skin were the words: “Stop horse slavery.”

They’re not the first to present this idea. When empathy leads to full-on anthropomorphism, it equalizes horse and human rights, says Lucius Caviola, a PhD candidate specializing in the psychology of effective altruism at the University of Oxford, in the U.K. In cases like the Rotterdam championships, people accuse the horse industry of what they call “­speciesism”—essentially, showing prejudice against nonhuman species, he says. They view the use and detainment of horses as cruel, and they describe it with emotionally charged words.

Taking a “Horse-Centered” Approach

Empathy becomes a healthy part of the horse-human relationship when it guides people toward a “horse-centered” approach, rather than an anthropomorphic or speciesism one, says Ashton.

“Excessive empathy and anthropomorphic language might not help our horses, but if you come from the horse’s perspective, every decision becomes the right decision, rather than a projection of ourselves,” she says. “It’s not about our emotional needs being met or not met by our horse, but about our horses’ needs being met by us.”

A horse-centered approach uses scientific evidence to reveal a horse’s needs—as opposed to what excess empathy makes us think he needs, Ashton says. “A horse’s sense of security is based on the concept of predictability. Can he control the pressures he experiences? Can he have his ethological needs for feeding, movement, and social company met? True empathy for the horse would mean our decisions are driven by these objectives rather than by our own.”

For Thompson, healthy empathy involves considering the horse’s needs through time spent listening and observing. These efforts, she says, will encourage empathy, while peeling back the bias of our own projections and assumptions.

“We need to be developing a form of communication where we’re ‘asking’ horses and ‘listening’ to their responses,” Thompson says. “We don’t always have to follow their response, but we should at least be consulting them and interacting with compassion.”

These “conversations” can occur through very brief moments of mindfulness, says Thompson. “We can go into the paddock and put a halter on a horse and lead them off to ‘work.’ Or we can go into the paddock, check in with the horse, and just spend 30 seconds being mindful and wondering how they’re doing. It’s like meeting and greeting the way we try to do with other humans but also often fail to because we’re so busy.”

Such dialogue also means avoiding pressuring the horse to perform at higher levels than he’s capable of or ready for, or pushing him to make faster progress to fit our own schedules, says Thompson. “I hope I am having conversations with my horse where I am listening, not inventing what I would like to hear,” she says.

Realistic Expectations

Empathy doesn’t mean we should cater to everything the horse wants, our sources say. “You might feel like the horse doesn’t want to work today, but I have days where I’d rather be hanging out watching movies than working, too,” says Ashton. “If we’re empathetic, we can help motivate them and make the work more enjoyable.”

Thompson agrees. “For most people, to justify the expenses related to ownership, the horse has to have a ‘job,’ ” she says. “For example, I purchased a horse to do dressage with. My horse had no say in it, and I feel conflicted about that. But I am a realist, so I try to improve how I interact with my horse, how I train, how long I train for, what methods I use, and what kind of life she has in general.”

Ashton says she views the relationship like a jar of coins, with every coin ­representing an interaction. We can’t “create a world where we take the sun out of the sky,” Ashton says. “There will always be aversives—dull coins, so to speak. And that’s just part of life, whether human or equine. What we can do is minimize the aversives, help horses cope with those aversives, and maximize the things that make life ­attractive—the shiny coins—for them.”

Take-Home Message

When you have empathy for a horse, you’re trying to see his world from his view, projecting as little human emotion and experience on him as possible. It requires fine-line discernment between the extremes of too little empathy and too much. With a healthy level of empathy, though, our sources say we can make a positive difference in our horses’ lives.

“In many ways, your horse is like you. Humans and horses are mammals,” says Thompson. “But in many other ways, we are profoundly different. It is your responsibility to learn about your horse’s world, so that you know the similarities and the differences.”