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Human-Horse Relationship. A Love Letter to Olaf

Text by Juan Li (Freie Universität Berlin)

© Juan Li

„Das Paradies der Erde liegt auf dem Rücken der Pferde, in Gesundheit des Leibes und am Herzen des Weibes.“ (Paradise on earth lies on top of the backs of horses, in a healthy body and next to the heart of a lady.)[1]
Friedrich von Bodenstedt (*1819 †1892) “Die Lieder des Mirza-Schaffy“[2]

This German phrase dates back to the end of the 19th century and is used until today in a slightly modified way. “Das Glück der Erde liegt auf dem Rücken der Pferde.” (The greatest happiness on earth lies on the back of horses)[3]. It is quite interesting that just the first part of the expression is repeated.

I have been confronted with this idiom again and again on my own path with horses. In this essay, I would like to illuminate what it could encompass. First, I will portray my relationship with horses, so an autobiographical and person-centered approach will be the empirical ‎framework. Thereby, I would like to approach the idea of happiness and well-being related to activities with horses.‎ I neither asked the people who confronted me with the expression what he or she meant by this phrase, nor did I have had the chance to conduct research on this topic yet. Therefore, I will begin by outlining my own experiences and emotions. How is happiness framed in the human-horse relationship? Are there emotional and psychological effects connected to it?

When I think about the expression “Das Glück der Erde liegt auf dem Rücken der Pferde“, one event immediately pops up in my mind. I was on vacation on a Tunisian island with my former boyfriend. I just finished high school and it was my first holiday outside Europe without my parents. I was young and naive and totally in love with Arabian stallions. So, I took the chance to book a horse ride on the beach. The first part of the guided horseback ride took us across sand dunes and to the rural outskirts of the city. I was struggling to keep the horse calm and slow as the guide and my boyfriend couldn't keep up with us. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this situation very much. As soon as the horse saw the ocean, it started going faster and faster. I barely heard the voice of our guide screaming already far behind my back: “The horse knows the path and is used to gallop on the beach”. Suddenly it started to gallop. The stallion was unstoppable. Although I could have been scared, I felt like a bird flying in the wind. I let the bridle loose and I spread my arms to the side like wings ready to take off. It was amazing. Until today, I never had this specific strong feeling of joy and liberty being on a horse again. With experience and increasing knowledge my behavior changed as the following story will show.

I, Ideal-Ego and Horses[4]

I cannot remember my first contact with horses, but my mother once told me that she placed me on the back of a horse while visiting a famous fare in Frankfurt am Main. It was one of the typical occasions when parents want to make their kids happy, by falling into the trap of commercial child amusement. Sitting on the swaying back of a giant animal mainly caused uncertainty and discomfort to my 3-year-old self as my mum told me years later.

Within an age of six I started vaulting. It was fun to jump on the giants back as a tiny kid and gaining balance on it. I was quite successful with my peer group on local contests. My self-confidence increased rapidly. My love for horses was triggered. Therefore, I tried to convince my parents to pay for riding lessons, but lately my aunt did.[5] It seemed for a while that my dream came true.

I have never been one of the typical horse-loving girls. I never read magazines like Wendy[6] or did any other girlish horse-related things, like dressing myself and my caretaking-horse in the same color, wearing the name of the horse on a t-shirt in pink or purple letters or knotting glitter beads in its hair and mine too. My parents could never afford an own pony or riding vacation either. Thus, I took care of several horses for free (Pflegepferd) and sometimes I was allowed to ride them occasionally. But mainly, my contact to horses was limited due to a lack of money and access.

In 2017 while looking for a new Pflegepferd I met a woman owning twenty horses. This person needed help. So, I was able to exchange labor to unlimited horse access. Two years later, things changed, and I managed to buy the horse which I mainly took care of. I never expected or planned to own a horse. It used to be an unreachable dream. I was aware of the expenses and longtime responsibility.[7] Nevertheless, herewith the love story with Olaf followed by a tie of constant self-reflection began.

I went through a classical horse training, in which children are taught to control and dominate the animal. Nobody told me about the horse’s natural behavior as a prey. This might be useful to prevent kids from being harmed, but it doesn’t teach how to communicate based on a partnership or interact on a fair and equal basis with these creatures. Lately motivated by Olaf, I have started training myself in horsemanship and tried my best to understand and communicate with him. My knowledge is still in its early stages, but I have learned more in recent years than in the past twenty-six.

When I look back, I never used the term “Alles Glück der Erde liegt auf dem Rücken der Pferde”, but adults and other mostly horse-unrelated people mentioned the phrase. What could they have meant by it? Maybe they just used it as a common saying with no deeper significance. I can just imagine the meaning of this phrase by reflecting on my own experiences and feelings. But I never understood why happiness shall be limited to sitting on the back of a horse.[8] Horses have always been more than riding animals to me.[9]

Happiness Related to Horse Interaction

When I am with my horse, Olaf[10], then I feel happy, relaxed, aware, challenged, focused, free and accepted, even though we sometimes have some dispute about when to eat or what to do. He is very tolerant, attentive and still a bit playful. He likes it when I do the crawl and give him a massage or show my passion and praise him. Through our interaction, I have to face difficulties which come up in many situations. He challenges me mentally and psychically.[11]

I would consider myself as happy, balanced and mainly satisfied when I am with him. For Elizabeth Colson, an American social anthropologist and activist who lived and researched in Zambia, happiness is a hard-to-grasp emotion, which is related to “lucky, fortunate, content, glad, apt, or felicitous […] pleasure, a sense of comfort, joy, elation, satisfaction, ease, and contentment” (Colson 2012, 8). I consider happiness as an umbrella term for many positive feelings. Sometimes you just feel it but cannot relate it to a distinct emotion. Looking at my personal biography, the term has different connotations and associations.

Dean Falk is an American Neuro-Anthropologist specialized in the development of the brain by focusing on the evolutionary cognition in higher primates. She describes happiness as silence in human heads by describing the moment when a person focuses on one thing and dwells in the here and now. Falk focuses on the evolutionarily increased complexity of the human brain. She argues that a mind which thinks and worries “about the future, [is] planning, and carrying out intentional behaviors” (Falk 2012, 8), and thus cannot be a happy mind. I agree with her assumption that focusing on one thing requires oblivion of sorrows and other thoughts of everyday life. While playing or training with Olaf, I need to perceive his reactions and to some extent anticipate them. [12] It is important to focus on him and his body language while he mirrors mine. This enables me to relinquish everything else and stay in the present moment.

As mentioned earlier, Olaf is not an object or status symbol for me. He is more like a friend, a partner or a child I am responsible to raise. Neither do I consider owning him. According to the British anthropologist Harry Walker and Iza Kavedžija, “[…] studying happiness requires attention to the social and cultural as well as moral and political ‎dimensions of human experience” (Walker and Kavedžija 2015, 6). Due to other human-horse relationships, I am aware that my point of view cannot be declared as common although the amount of people with a similar philosophy increase. In general, these relationships are cultural and use specific. I follow the tradition of the American horseman Pat Parelli as well as the German-French baroque art of riding which experienced a revival in the academic art of riding by the Danish horseman Bent Branderup. The main focus of these people is the long-lasting wellbeing of the horse and maintaining its psychological and physical health. Instead of a commercial use, athletic achievements or just amusement. These mostly capitalistic and consumerist pursuits wouldn’t give the same pleasure to me as unconditional care and confronting myself with my unconscious self.

As Walker and Kavedžija write, happiness is more like a side effect and related to individual virtue (Walker and Kavedžija 2015, 13). During my time with Olaf in a small rural town in Brandenburg not too far from Berlin, I am surrounded by nature, silence and deceleration of daily life. The open stable, where he lives, is surrounded by a nature reserve and water protection areas. This environment potentiates the feeling of liberation from social stress, an urban materialistic world, external judgments and high expectations by the outer world.

Additionally, I consider myself responsible for Olaf’s health, nutrition and life circumstances. Therefore, I am connected to him and he is dependent on me.[13] The bond between human and animal can gain a meaning of life. Consistency and reliability have lost much value in a fast-moving‎ and detached world. Nevertheless, many people long for it. For example, Martina Bodenmüller conducted research on homeless people and their relationship to their dogs (see Bodenmüller 2012). The dogs become family, a friend, and a partner for this marginalized people. To care for their dogs encourages the homeless to have a routine, stability, positive emotions and gives meaning to the people’s lives. Horses can have a similar effect on their owners. Suffering and caring for a beloved living being can have a comprehensive effect on your own well-being and happiness (see Throop 2015). Once my neighbor answered upon my question, why he lately got a dog, that he helps him by soothing the feeling of loneliness in a metropole like Berlin. Also, some member in the stable used to go almost every day to their horse after work, because they had no reason to go home. They like the feeling of being needed and to have a task which is meaningful to them (see Spies 2012) as I got to know in some informal conversation.

Apart from those personal motivations, meaningful tasks and positive feelings related to pet activities, animals like dogs, horses, dolphins, lamas and so forth, have a tremendous effect on human well-being, for this stands their use in therapy.

Short Excurse “Psychological Benefits of Horse Activities”

In Germany, four different forms of horse-related therapy are offered: hippotherapy (Hippotherapie), horse-riding for people with disabilities (Reiten als Sport für Menschen mit Behinderungen), ergo-therapeutic treatment (ergotherapeutische Behandlung mit dem Pferd) and therapeutic horse activities (heilpädagogische Reiten, Voltigieren und Fahren) (see Kupper-Heilmann 2012). The first three types of therapy focus on treating humans physically. Only therapeutic riding, vaulting or driving a carriage focus additionally on the human psyche. In the article “A systematic review of the efficacy of equine assisted ‎interventions on psychological ‎outcomes‎" by Kendall et al. (2015)[14] describe in detail the psychological benefits of horse activities. Through their natural behavior of communicating with body language and their gentle invitation of physical and haptic interaction, horses can trigger a hidden mental status of the patient and uncover it as a medium to the therapist. Horses build bridges between the patient and the therapist, where the latter might not have gained access to the former without the animal. Susanne Kupper-Heilmann is a pedagogue who focuses on therapeutic riding for disabled persons and puts an emphasis on psychoanalysis. She describes that strongly withdrawn and depressive people succumb quickly to the attraction of the majestic animals (Kupper-Heilmann 2012, 365). Furthermore, being carried is a multi-faceted event and triggers a variety of sensations and feelings. Most clients gain self-awareness and self-esteem.[15] Girls diagnosed with Borderline personality disorder (BPD) told me in informal conversations, that their horse helps them to balance and stabilize their emotions. I do comprehend from my own experience. Additionally, spending time with Olaf just feeling him, smelling his perfume or watching him eating while listening the sound of munching grass calms me down. I can let all thoughts, doubts and sorrows go.

But as Kendall et al. ‎point out, there is a huge lack of research on the psychological effects on humans. “Although there is generally enthusiasm that equine-assisted interventions have psychological benefits [...], this remains an under-researched area with a heavy reliance on anecdotal data” (Kendall 2015, 64). The therapeutic pedagogue Kupper-Heilmann warns of a lack of disciplinary connectedness, which can lead to charlatanry. It seems like working with horses in psychotherapy is still a marginalized and undeveloped way of therapy. The scientific interest is not very high yet, thus mainly horse lovers and amateur therapists shed light on it.


By pointing out my relationship with Olaf, I showed the different facets of being “happy” as a sum of positive feelings and emotions related to horse interaction. With regard to the phrase “The greatest happiness on earth lies on the back of horses”, I showed the multiple factettes of human-horse relationship. These occur as the horse is an integral part of a person’s life and not only a back to ride on. Happiness is individually and socio-culturally determined, as Walker and Kavedžija write: “The idea of happiness […] makes a claim about what is most desirable and worthwhile in a person’s life” (Walker & Kavedžija 2015, 1). In this view, my emotional attachment to Olaf is a specific and personal one. Since childhood I have been longing for this kind of partnership. In his presence I feel emotionally balanced and mentally relaxed. When I am in the stable, I can escape from daily life and my routine in an urban, performance-oriented society. I even consider cleaning the paddocks from horse dung as a kind of meditation while my restless mind becomes silent. Raising and training Olaf as well as offering him the best possible species-appropriate living environment is a life-long and meaningful task which I love as it greatly influences my own well-being and happiness.

This previous explanation is one of many. In the world of horse owners, a value pluralism as well as many different forms of horse-cultures[16] can be found. Additionally, all categories of therapeutic horse interaction aim for the improvement of human well-being. The scholars who deal with this topic are aware of the beneficial and positive effects of animal-human interaction, especially on human physis. As shown, there is still a lack of distinctive interdisciplinary research when it comes to the positive effect on humans’ psyche. The benefits and well-being of animal-related interaction could be interesting for certain disciplines like psychology, medicine, veterinary, biology, sociology, anthropology, and ethology. Furthermore, multispecies ethnographies on human-horse relationships with a focus on emotions would be beneficial for these disciplines, too.

This essay aimed for opening up innovative research areas. It provided a glimpse into some facets of gaining satisfaction, positive emotions and happiness related to an interspecies relationship, in particular between human and horses.


Bodenmüller, Martina. 2012. „Hunde auf der Straße – Gefährten für wohnungslose Menschen.“ ‎In Tierische Sozialarbeit. Ein Lesebuch für die Profession zum Leben und Arbeiten mit ‎Tieren, edited by Jutta Buchner-Fuhs and Lotte Rose, 201-214.‎Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

Colson, Elizabeth. 2012. “Happiness”. In Vital Topics Forum- On Happiness, edit by Barbara Rose Johnston, American Anthropologist, Vol. 114, No. 1, 7–8.

Falk, Dean. 2012. Happiness: An evolutionary Perspective. In: Vital Topics Forum- On Happiness, edited by Barbara Rose Johnston, American Anthropologist, Vol. 114, No. 1, 8–9.

Hall, Carol; Hayley Randle; Gemma Pearson; Liane Preshaw; Natalie Waran. 2018. “Assessing equine emotional state.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science (2018) 205:183-193. DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2018.03.006.

Hintze, Sara; Emma Roth; Iris Bachmann; Hanno Würbel. 2017. “Toward a Choice-Based Judgment Bias Task for Horses.” Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 20:2, 123-136, DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2016.1276834.

Kendall, Elizabeth, Annick Maujean, Christopher A. Pepping, Martin Downes, Ali Lakhani, Jason ‎Byrne and Kym ‎Macfarlane 2015. “A systematic review of the efficacy of equine assisted ‎interventions on psychological outcomes.” ‎European Journal of Psychotherapy & Counselling, ‎No. 17, Vol. 1, 57-79. DOI: ‎‎10.1080/13642537.2014.996169.‎

Kupper-Heilmann, Susanne. 2012. „Pferde als Diagnose- und Fördermedium. Konzept und Praxis ‎des Heilpädagogischen Reitens.“ In Tierische Sozialarbeit. Ein Lesebuch für die Profession zum ‎Leben und Arbeiten mit Tieren, edited by Jutta Buchner-Fuhs and Lotte Rose, 201-214. Wiesbaden: Springer ‎VS.‎

Schrimpf, Anne; Single, Marie-Sophio; Nawroth, Christian. 2020. “Social Referencing in the Domestic Horse.” Animals 2020, 10(1), 164. DOI:10.3390/ani10010164.

Spies, Anke. 2012. “Faszination und Emotion – Tiere als Gegenstand von Abschlussarbeiten in ‎pädagogischen Studiengängen.“ In Tierische Sozialarbeit. Ein Lesebuch für die Profession zum ‎Leben und Arbeiten mit Tieren‎, edited by Jutta Buchner-Fuhs and Lotte Rose.115-128. Wiesbaden: Springer ‎VS.‎

Throop, Jason. 2015. “Ambivalent happiness and virtuous suffering.” HAU: Journal of ‎Ethnographic Theory, No.5 Vol.3, 45–68. DOI: 10.14318/hau5.3.004‎.

Walker, Harry and Kavedžija, Iza. 2015. “Values of happiness.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, No. 5 Vol.3, 1-23. DOI: 10.14318/hau5.3.002.

[1] Translation by the autor. [2] Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache e. V. - Herkunft von Glück auf dem Rücken der Pferde ‎ (latest review 13.06.2019)‎ [3] English version commonly used in adaption to the German phrase. [4] The title refers to Sigmund Freuds Text „Das Ich und das Es“(1923), in which he describes the complex relationship of the Ego, the Super-Ego and the Id. I chose this title because it reflects the multidimensionality of my attitude to horses and at the same time my personal development with an constantly self-reflexive momentum. [5] She paid for two years of riding lessons, starting at the age of nine. ‎ [6] This is a weekly published magazine mainly for girls, which reproduces clichés about horse-girl relationship within a commercial and gender stereotype setup. The comic stories deal with love, friendship and adventure read mostly by children from seven to eleven. [7] It is quite challenging to offer a species like a horse appropriate living circumstance. This huge and demanding creature will never get a natural living environment in human care, because first of all, it has been domesticated(I don’t understand this point: if a horse is a domesticated animal it already is “cultivated” for living with humans – the rest makes sense, but this part I would change); second, there is generally barely enough space to let them live on their own behalf; ‎and third, humans want to own and use them for their individual purpose. The horse is always ‎dependent on the good will of its owner, like living in an open stall or in a small box with none or ‎barely any access to meadow. The human decides if the horse gets the possibility to socialize and ‎play with its companions as well as who those companions will be.‎ [8] As I assume, it is meant to ride on the back of a horse or to transport something valuable on its back. For a long time, it was assumed that this idiom was of Arab origin. However, the collection‎ “Die Lieder des Mirza-Schaffy” (The songs of Mirza-Schaffy) is not related to ‎any Arabic context, it is rather based on a contemporary orientalist phantasy of its author. ‎ [9] Even though I had a classical education in English horse back riding, I enjoyed caring for the horse most. There has been a time when I was afraid of riding these giants, although I still did. [10] He is a four-year old tobiano Irish Cob gelding. Humans created a third sex of horses namely gelding or in German Wallach. Naturally this kind is a sterilized stallion, which will barely appear in nature. The ratio of gelding to stallion varies according to the country, use and tradition. I decided to let him grow fully before I’ll teach him how to carry a human on his back with an age of 6 years. [11] I would like to abstain from mentioning what I mean by that at this point. It would dig too deep into my personal psychoanalysis. [12] I am aware that all horse owners have different attitudes and aims with and for their horses. They can be financially or athletically motivated, an individual status symbol, short-term or long-life partners. From my point of view, Olaf is more like a child. I feel huge responsibility and tasked by reducing failures to a minimum while rearing him. We are in a long-term partnership, since I will care for him until he dies. [13] This essay shows a human-centered perspective. Another ethnological research pays attention on animal emotions and understanding of the relationship from a horse perspective (see Hintze et al. 2017; Hall et al. 2018; Schripf et al. 2020). [14] The authors are members of the Griffith Health Institute while researching at the Centre for National Research on Disability Rehabilitation Medicine (School of Human Services and Social Work) and at the Centre for Applied Health Economics (School of Medicine) as well as include researchers from Griffith School of Environment. [15] The positive effect of horse interaction on human psyche is also used in other forms of activities, like leadership workshops and self-confidence trainings. [16] By horse-cultures I mean the different purposes people are keeping horses. Horses are part of human culture and vise versa they do influence the social life. Within the common disciplines like western riding, dressage, show jumping, circus, leisure ‎horse activities and so forth, horses are trained with different styles, attitudes, and virtue. ‎Due to my experience with various disciplines the horse-people do see themself as part of a society, which do have the classical including and excluding moments.

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