Do familiar handlers make horses braver?

Do familiar handlers make horses braver?
13 Oct 2018

Attachment theory and the safe haven effect

Attachment theory is a psychological theory that describes the bond between a child and a caregiver. Attachment theory has been observed in both humans and mammals. The four signs of a developed attachment bond are:

  1. Proximity seeking: the child seeks to be close to the caregiver.
  2. Secure base: the child is braver and more likely to explore new objects and surroundings in the presence of the caregiver. The child also feels less frightened by potentially scary things.
  3. Safe haven: the child seeks the caregiver out when in distress.
  4. Separation distress: the child shows signs of distress when separated from the caregiver.

Since animal owners care for their animals and often nurture a bond with them, it has been hypothesised that attachment theory may apply to bonds between animals and their caregivers.

Does attachment theory apply to horse-human bonds?

Researchers in the UK set out to see whether the secure base effect existed between horses and their owners. Would a horse complete a scary task more easily when handled by his owner, compared to being handled by a complete stranger?

To undertake this study, the researchers used 46 horses and their owners at an agistment centre, and one experienced control handler with whom the horses were unfamiliar. All horses were familiar with handling and were broken to saddle.

The horses were given 2 scary tasks to complete in-hand. The tasks were: crossing a tarp and walking through a frame of streamers. The order of the tasks and the order of the handlers where randomised. The handlers did not see each other perform the tests.

To measure the amount of stress the horses felt while performing each of these tasks, the researchers recorded: eye temperature, heart rate, time-to-complete-tasks and refusal behaviour.


The results showed that there was no difference in stress levels or time-to-complete-tasks between the owner-handler or the unfamilar handler. This could mean that in situations such as veterinary procedures, an experimenced handler may be just as effective at handling the animals as its owner.

The safe haven effect in human-dog bonds

The safe haven effect has previously been demonstrated in a study between dogs and their owners, where the presence of the owner correlated with lower heart rate variability (less stress) and less anxious behaviour in response to the presence of a threatening stranger. Dogs have also been shown to experience separation anxiety when their owners leave.

This could indicate that horses do not feel the same level of bond with their owners as dogs do.

One of the things that was not controlled for in this study was method of training or the frequency, or nature of interactions that the horses had with their owners.

Another defintion of a relationship comes from zoologist Robert Hinde (1979), which is:

“an emerging bond from a series of interactions. Partners have expectation of the next interaction on the basis of the previous one.”

Dogs tend to spend more time with their owners then horses do and their interactions are more likely to be positive, including: rewards-based training, walking and feeding.

In contrast, horses are more likely to be trained using negative reinforcement training and interactions with humans such as riding may be hard work. Horses also do not spend as much time with their owners.

Horse-human bonds and equine assisted therapy

Researcher Emily Kieson from Oklahoma State University wrote an interesting literature review looking at the role of comparative psychology in equine assisted therapy.

Equine assisted therapy is a growing industry that involves using horses to assist with the psychological or physical treatment of humans.

Using animals in therapy has shown to have benefits, understanding the horse-human bond in the context of therapy can help us better understand these benefits.

The role of horses is becoming more diversified. While once horses were used purely for transport, they are now used for a range of activities from sport, to recreation, to racing, to companionship and therapy animals.

The role of the horse will affect the degree to which interactions with humans will be positive. Of course, not all interactions can be positive, it is inevitable that some husbandry treatments will be carried out during times of stress or pain.

Handlers should be conscious however, that each interaction they have with an equine, whether positive or negative, will contribute to that animal’s expectations of future interactions.

Bonding between animals and their human caregivers is highly desirable as it improves both human and animal well being.




Ijichi, C., Griffin, K., Squibb, K. and Favier, R., 2018. Stranger Danger? An investigation into the influence of human-horse bond on stress and behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

Gácsi, M., Maros, K., Sernkvist, S., Faragó, T. and Miklosi, A., 2013. Human analogue safe haven effect of the owner: behavioural and heart rate response to stressful social stimuli in dogs. PLoS One, 8(3), p.e58475.

Kieson, E., 2018. The Importance of Comparative Psychology in Equine-Assisted Activities and Therapies. International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 31.





  1. Laurie Higgins : October 15, 2018 at 1:41 am

    This definitely needs further study while also looking a training techniques.

    Also, there is a typo in this article: “…handling the animals as it’s owner. …” That should be “its” without an apostrophe.

  2. Thanks Laurie

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