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Fulfilling the Fundamentals of Life: A Grounded Theory of the Process of Human-Horse Relationship Development

By Darlene Joy Chalmers, Constance Barlow (adviser), Cindy Adams (adviser)

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This thesis explores how relationships develop between humans and their equine companions, and how such relationships may be mutually beneficial. Specifically, the research question asks: What are the processes that occur in the interaction between humans and horses? The research employs a qualitative grounded theory method, which includes semi-structured interviews and observation with twenty-four adult recreational horse enthusiasts in and around the city of Calgary, in Alberta, Canada. This research makes a significant contribution as it proposes a framework for understanding how the human-horse interaction unfolds as a relational act and as a transformative process of mutual wellbeing that is, of human wellbeing and perceived equine welfare. The holistic model of human-horse interaction proposed here suggests that through complex and highly contextual processes, study participants moved in, out, and through interactions with their horses. These processes were fundamental to furthering each participant’s self-understanding, understanding of their relationships with their horses as significant others, and fulfillment through self-discovery. The multidimensionality of the interactions was constructed through both structural influences and interactional processes comprised within and across five categories: (1) pathways to horses; (2) the space of/as interaction; (3) believing in relational mutuality; (4) committing to ethical communication; and (5) affirming an authentic self. Participants in this study reaped benefits from their interaction with horses, but their horses were also perceived to have benefitted from these relationships. For many this was guided by a fundamental belief in their horses as individuals—as agents with voice. However, this belief did not precede their relationships with their horses but was instead cultivated in-relationship and enacted through fulfilling the fundamentals of a good life for their equine companions. Fulfilling the needs of their horses was driven by participants’ commitment to ensuring their overall wellness, in turn creating a dynamic exchange and threshold for participant experiences of their own wellbeing. Thus by fulfilling important life-sustaining physical, psychological, social, and spiritual dimensions that paralleled fulfilling those of their horses, participants ignited and revitalized their own core life dimensions.


Marcy Wilhelm-South

Purdue University

Date 2014
Pages 343
Department Social Work
Degree Doctor of Philosophy
Language English
University University of Calgary
  1. Animal roles
  2. Animal welfare
  3. Health
  4. Horses
  5. Human-animal interactions
  6. Human-animal relationships
  7. Mammals
  8. Theories