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Exploring Human and Horse Interactions during Equine Facilitated Learning Research Project

This Research Project was conducted by Roisin Brennan.


This thesis applied the social psychological theory of Symbolic Interaction (SI) to explore human and horse interactions during Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL) sessions. By studying these interactions we discover among other things, ‘how meaning is socially constructed through interaction; how we organize our social world; and how we see our connection (or lack of it) to other living things’ (Arluke & Sanders, 1996). SI concerns itself with the symbolic meaning that people develop and rely upon in the process of social interaction with an emphasis on language to aid in meaning making. This thesis however removes the emphasis on verbal language and replaces it with body language. The role of the body in this research is of particular importance as body language is an integral part of the interactions during an EFL session as horses use their bodies to convey and communicate their ‘subjective presence’ (Brandt, 2004).


This study explored the interaction between 6 humans and 2 horses during individual EFL sessions using a combination of video analysis, observational methods and semi-structured interviews. These methods were utilised to answer the following research questions:
Do humans and horses engage in a form of symbolic interaction during an EFL Session?
• Do humans attribute a sense of self to the horses?
• Is a shared meaning necessary for a successful interaction?
• What is the role of the body during these interactions?


The results supported previous SI studies (Sanders,1993, Alger & Alger,1997, Brandt,2004, Furst,2007,) which illustrated how participants ‘attributed a sense of self’ to the horse. What becomes most important here is how the participants interacted with the horses as if they had selves and how they treated them according to their assigned ‘personalities’. Other themes also emerged which included overcoming emotions, drawing on past knowledge, language making, role taking and ethical dilemmas.


This research allows us to gain a deeper understanding of the non-verbal subjective interactions between horse and human during EFL and highlights how we must not dismiss the capacity for the horse to influence the participant’s sense of self.


About the Researcher

Roisin Brennan – Festina Lente Course Co-ordinator and Researcher

Roisin Brennan worked at Festina Lente as a course coordinator and researcher for both Therapeutic Riding and EAL from 2011 until late 2015. She also worked part-time on the supported helper programme and on the Equestrian Training Program. Roisin is a recent graduate of UCD and holds a first class Masters in Social Science and presented the findings of her Thesis at the HETI Conference in Taiwan in June 2015.

Roisin has apprenticed in several horse training facilities in British Columbia and California discovering new methods of empathetic horsemanship based on equine learning behaviour and cognition. She is a certified silver level Chris Irwin horsemanship trainer in both ground -work and riding as well as an Equine Assisted Learning Building Blocks facilitator from Cartier Equine, Alberta. Throughout her work with horses and people in Canada and in Ireland Roisin has developed a strong interest in the underlying mechanisms of the horse and human bond as well as uncovering sound research methodologies and theoretical frameworks for equine assisted activities. As a result she aims to highlight what we can gain from exploring these unique and varied human – horse interactions.

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