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The Biology of the Horse Boy: The Hormone Oxytocin and Touch

The Biology of the Horse Boy: The Hormone Oxytocin and Touch

Exploring how people and animals bond–and why it makes you healthier and happier by Meg Daley Olmert on PsychologyToday.com. Read the entire article here.

This is a really interesting article on what makes the human-animal bond tick, from the biological perspective. Socially and emotionally speaking, I have a few bones to pick with Olmert about the nature of horses, however. I don’t think that horses’ acceptance of Rowan was remarkable. I think it was standard operating procedure. That is what is so remarkable about animals, but their acceptance in and of itself is not remarkable. Horses did not help make Rowan human. Rowan was already human, for heaven’s sake. What a dreadful thing to say. Perhaps Olmert was trying to echo Temple Grandin’s statement, “Animals Make us Human,” but this is not an acceptable trope. Horses may have triggered the growth that made Rowan a more socially acceptable, communicative, content and functional human. I think that’s what she means, anyway, as she leads up to a description of the wonder hormone, oxytocin, and its role as the foundation of social bonding, touch.


What is it about animals that inspires the mute to speak, make wild children mild, protects our hearts from the ravages of stress, and our fills our minds with a sense of wellbeing? These dramatic therapeutic effects are built on physiological changes such as lowered heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormone levels. I wanted to know what biological mechanisms are triggered by animals that can make us healthier, happier, and more socially competent.

Emerging research has shown that there is a distinct biology behind social bonding (both human-human and human-animal). Brain chemicals previously thought to control such narrowly defined functions as lactation and labor have been found to contribute to a wide variety of human social bonding functions. The neurohormone oxytocin, also known as the touch hormone, has been found to be responsible for triggering the cascade of biological events that govern behaviors from monogamous bonding to breeding, maternal care, and satisfaction in close contact with a loved one, male or female. Olmert reports, “Even unsociable male rats will act friendly when treated with oxytocin and it also helps these rodents remember their new friends.”

For the purposes of both Rowan and his beloved horse Betsy, as well as humans and horses in general, it is fascinating to learn that high levels of oxytocin are linked to increased calm and nurturing behaviors. Oxytocin treatments for men have a host of benefits: they look longer into another’s eyes and are able to detect more subtle meaning in them. As with rodents, our social memory can be improved with oxytocin treatments.

I’m not advocating oxytocin supplements here. Just introducing the very basic qualities of this neurohormone that governs bonding and touch.

Oxytocin helps us make social connections in much the same way it does in other animals. It quiets the fear circuitry in our brains so that we don’t automatically see everyone and everything as a threat. With our fight/flight reflex in check we are able to detect even the faintest glimmer of benign or friendly intention. And such positive social signals trigger a further release of oxytocin that encourages us to approach and interact with each other in cooperative and nurturing ways.

…fortunately, horses are even more social and visual than us, which may explain why the lead mare was able to see in this writhing boy’s eager eyes a deep desire to attach. She did not fight this strange boy or flee from him, but instead accepted him. And when Rowan began to ride her, the rhythmic, repetitive motion stimulated his pelvic nerves in ways that are known to release oxytocin. Certainly, Rowan’s behavioral transformation signaled a rise in oxytocin. His repetitive gestures stopped and he began to communicate. Oxytocin treatment has been shown to reduce hand-flapping and verbal tics in autistic patients and improve their ability to comprehend non verbal communication, like the emotional meaning in a tone of voice.

The other wonderful thing about oxytocin is that the positive social encounters it encourages also causes it to be released in both parties-whether they are human or animal. This means oxytocin can create and sustain a social feedback system that knows no species boundaries. This is why we are not imagining the mental and physical sense of wellbeing we feel when we connect with animals. It’s also why a horse can see the good in a boy and help him see the good in himself and others. As I explained in an earlier post, this shared neurobiological heritage is what created the human/horse partnership that proved to an evolutionary win/win. Apparently there are still some journeys only horses can take us on.

I’m looking forward to talking more about this hormone, oxytocin and its profound implications for touch and horses. Look for more soon.

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