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NMSU professor studies complex relationship between horses and humans

Horses and humans have had an interesting and complex bond for centuries, but a New Mexico State University professor wants to explore that bond by researching whether a horse’s heartbeat synchronizes with the heartbeat of its rider.

NMSU associate professor Marcel Montañez spends time with Winchester at the NMSU stables near “A” Mountain. Montañez is researching the bond between horses and humans, specifically if a horse’s heartbeat synchronizes with the heartbeat of its rider. (NMSU photo by Adriana M. Chavez)

NMSU associate professor Marcel Montañez is researching the bond between horses and humans, specifically if a horse’s heartbeat synchronizes with the heartbeat of its rider. (NMSU photo by Adriana M. Chavez)

Marcel Montañez, an associate professor and associate department head in NMSU’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences’ Family and Consumer Sciences Department, doesn’t conduct his research in a lab, and although he provides marriage and family therapy through NMSU’s Family Resource Center, he doesn’t host therapy sessions in an office.

Montañez does most of his work at a trailer and horse pen near “A” Mountain. He uses two older horses, Sailor and Winchester, for both his research and therapy sessions. The horses, Montañez said, are gentle and used to people, but their age and health don’t allow people to ride them anymore. For horses to maintain their status in the human world, Montañez said, people must find creative ways to employ horses in jobs outside of the traditional areas of racing and agriculture.

In their role as research and therapeutic partners, Winchester and Sailor have found a new job.

Montañez has been using equine-assisted psychotherapy at the Family Resource Center since 2011. He began researching the topic in 2013, and has been focusing on heartbeat studies and looking into why humans project emotions onto animate objects, such as pets and vehicles.

“We do it to horses, we do it to our dogs, we do it to our cars sometimes,” Montañez said. “We’ll do that to almost anything with a face. We’ll project onto them and we’ll assume that what we’re feeling is what they’re feeling, or we’ll suspect that’s what they’re feeling. If we can flesh out that process and see how it works and what the mechanics of it are, it could be very useful for therapists.”

Montañez’s heartbeat research explores hypotheses that claim horses synchronize their heartbeats with other horses in the herd, and that when among a group of people, they synchronize their heartbeats with the person who’s in charge.

“Some of the research that we’re starting to look at out here is trying to investigate that and see when it’s true and when it’s not true,” Montañez said. “If we put several people out here, whose heartbeat is the horse going to synchronize with? We start to learn about herd dynamics and how they work.”

Esther Devall, head of the Family and Consumer Sciences Department, said Montañez’s research will benefit people throughout New Mexico who are in need of behavioral health services.

“The results of this research by Dr. Montañez will inform behavioral health practitioners who work with families and children,” Devall said. “It is just one example of the creative ways the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences and the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences serves New Mexico’s citizens.”

Montañez is conducting his research with the help of two NMSU graduate research assistants, Alyssa Whetten and Haley Nohl.

“I grew up on a ranch and I’ve had a lot of interaction with horses,” Whetten said. “One of the big things that drew me to this program was the opportunity to uses horses in therapy sessions, since I’m so attached to them because of my background. I find it super interesting to prove that (equine-assisted psychotherapy) works not just on an emotional level but on a physical level. That (the research) seems pretty exciting to me.”

Montañez said that unlike dogs and cats, which are considered predatory animals, horses are usually food for other predators.

“If we act like predators around them, the relationship is not going to be good,” Montañez said. “The one thing that distinguishes our relationship with horses is the fact that they will allow us to get on them and ride them, and this is an animal that spends most of its time fleeing predatory situations. That really is a predator kind of move to put on a horse: to climb up on it, put a saddle on it, put a bit in its mouth and put reigns on it. When we develop that level of trust with a horse, they’ll let us do it and they’ll actually learn to enjoy it.”

Also, unlike dogs and cats, which mimic a human’s emotions, horses constantly monitor their relationship with a human. That reaction makes horses useful tools in relationship therapy.

“Horses have no need to pretend that they’re anything other than what they are,” Montañez said. “At some level, in order to develop completely as a human being, you need to be aware that there’s no need to be anything other than what you are. When you develop a certain level of comfort and confidence about who you are internally, then you’re free to be part of herds. You’re free to have relationships with people.”