Interview with Judith L. Gibbons, Ph.D.

Judith Gibbons with Tinny Slew and Kat.

Judith Gibbons with Tinny Slew and Kat.

October, 2017

Judith Gibbons is Professor Emerita of Psychology at Saint Louis University. She is the founding editor of the American Psychological Association Division 52 Journal International Perspectives in Psychology: Research, Practice, Consultation, an associate editor of the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, a former president of the Interamerican Society of Psychology and the Society for Cross-Cultural Research, and a former Fulbright scholar at the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala. Her research interests include adolescent development in the majority world, especially in Guatemala, intercountry adoption, human-equine interaction, and gender roles. She has published over 100 journal articles and chapters and three books, The Thoughts of YouthIntercountry Adoption: Policies, Practices, and Outcomes and Women’s Evolving Lives: Global and Psychosocial Perspectives. She currently lives in Antigua, Guatemala with her husband, two Greater Swiss Mountain dogs, and two equine friends. 

HHRF: Tell us about your international EAA/T experience, and what you have learned from that and the related research.

JG: As a research psychologist I have always been interested in discovering and sharing ways to improve people’s lives. As an animal lover, I am aware of how important they can be in our lives. As my husband and I retired and spent more time in Guatemala, I had the opportunity to take up riding again (after a 40 year hiatus). At the stable where my horses live, the owner was interested in implementing an EAA/T program. I offered to design a study to evaluate the effectiveness of the program. In the first community, our goal was simply to improve horse welfare, but when we held a “tea” for wives and mothers of the participating men, they surprisingly told us that their husbands and sons had become less violent toward people after learning nonviolent horse handling. We designed a second study in a different community and in that study we found evidence for reduced endorsement of violence by the participants as well as decreased reactivity of their horses after the intervention. That study was published in 2015 (Gibbons et al., 2015). But community interventions have many challenges, from washed out roads, to powerful community members suspicious of consent forms. We decided to work with at-risk adolescents from a local school designed for children with few economic resources. After EAA/T the participants reported better leadership skills and their mentors said they were less aggressive in their daily interactions. Interviews with family members reported better emotional regulation (Gibbons et al. 2016). 

For me, the lessons learned are (1) we need to continue to share knowledge in many ways, through scientific reports, newsletters, talks to the general public, school and university courses, etc. Knowledge is useless unless shared. (2) Community interventions, although extremely difficult, have the most likelihood of effecting long-term change. (3) Choose collaborators who share your values, are good communicators and team players, and whose skills complement yours.

My personal goals, now that I am retired, are to use my knowledge and writing to improve the wellbeing of people and animals. There are many ways to do that, but one is by working with young and emerging scholars so that they are able to do good studies and advance knowledge in areas that are important to them. That is crucial in countries such as Guatemala where psychological research is scarce. 

I think that major advances will be made with respect to EAA/T in the coming years, especially with the support of HHRF. Funders and professional organizations are recognizing the importance of human – animal interactions for the wellbeing of all. At its 2017 annual convention the American Psychological Association sponsored an Animal Summit, with researchers from six countries participating. They hope to hold another one next year at the San Francisco convention.

EAA/T research does need to advance in some very specific ways. Despite the difficulty we need research consisting of randomized control trials (RCT). The measurements should come from multiple sources, for example, from the participants themselves, teachers or therapists, family members, and horses, too. We need to know the mechanism of the change. What about the interactions with horses can change people’s lives? Is it the sensitive feedback provided by the horse? The joy of interacting with another species? The sense of empowerment from leadership of a huge animal? We know that even a few minutes outdoors in nature can lift a mood, so we need to know whether incidental factors make a difference. Next we need to know exactly what psychological or physical disorders or behaviors are amenable to EAA/T. It has been applied to such a wide range of conditions, from PTSD to autism, that are unlikely to all benefit from the same intervention. Finally, we need to know more about the nature of the horse itself. There is a widely publicized study (Smith, Proops, Ground, Wathan, & McComb, 2016) that purported to demonstrate that horses recognize expressions of anger or happiness in photographs of human faces. However, the study had many flaws and needs to be redone using operant conditioning procedures in which the horses are trained to select either happy or angry faces. Using those procedures we could extend the research to find out if they recognize sadness, baby or youthful faces, faces of known people, etc. Understanding the world from the horses’ perspective will greatly facilitate our interactions with them.

Evaluating the reactivity of community horses to approach by a stranger and their owner (Gibbons et al., 2015). Photo credit: Santiago Albert.

Evaluating the reactivity of community horses to approach by a stranger and their owner (Gibbons et al., 2015). Photo credit: Santiago Albert.

HHRF: How do Guatemalan and other similar communities perceive EAA/T? 

JG: This is a very difficult question because Guatemala is so diverse. The equestrians involved in international competition in equestrian sports are aware of and supportive of EAA/T. There is an EAGALA program in Guatemala City and a Lead-Up International program in Jocotenango. There is an organization, Equinos Sanos Para el Pueblo (ESAP), partially funded by Brooke that works to improve equine welfare. World Horse Welfare is also active in some areas of Guatemala. However, in the countryside there are many campesinos who use brutal methods of horse training and see horses primarily in terms of their labor.

HHRF: Can you speak to nuances or needs related to research on the international front?

JG: I answered most of this above. However, a further point is that programs cannot be simply applied around the world, without attention to local culture, local needs. For example, rural communities were attracted to our workshops, in part, because they wanted cooperative working horses. 

HHRF: What do you feel should be the next steps to advance EAA/T research?? 

JG: EAA/T research does need to advance in some very specific ways. Despite the difficulty we need research consisting of randomized control trials (RCT). The measurements should come from multiple sources, for example, from the participants themselves, teachers or therapists, family members, and horses, too. We need to know the mechanism of the change. What about the interactions with horses can change people’s lives? Is it the sensitive feedback provided by the horse? The joy of interacting with another species? The sense of empowerment from leadership of a huge animal? We know that even a few minutes outdoors in nature can lift mood, so we need to know whether incidental factors make a difference. Next we need to know exactly what psychological or physical disorders or behaviors are amenable to EAA/T. It has been applied to such a wide range of conditions, from PTSD to autism, that are unlikely to all benefit from the same intervention. Finally, we need to know more about the nature of the horse itself. There is a widely publicized study (Smith, Proops, Ground, Wathan, & McComb, 2016) that purported to demonstrate that horses recognize expressions of anger or happiness in photographs of human faces. However, the study had many flaws and needs to be redone using operant conditioning procedures in which the horses are trained to select either happy or angry faces. Using those procedures we could extend the research to find out if they recognize sadness, baby or youthful faces, faces of known people, etc. Understanding the world from the horses’ perspective will greatly facilitate our interactions with them.

Photo 3. One of the pleasures of community research is spending time with the local kids. 

Photo 3. One of the pleasures of community research is spending time with the local kids. 

HHRF: What are you working on right now? 

JG: Unfortunately, I am not doing any new research on EAA/T at the moment. I will help to facilitate the Animal Summit at APA 2018.

HHRF: What is the most exciting EAA/T research initiatives or potential initiatives on the horizon?  Why?

JG: See above.

HHRF: Can you identify a specific area that would most benefit from HHRF research investment?  A focus area, that when developed with research would critically advance the needs of the EAA/T field?

JG: See above. My primary suggestion is not to fund research that is not well-controlled, and however you can, insist that funded projects are published in peer-reviewed journals. My personal interest would be in understanding more about how EAA/T can help veterans with PTSD, but I think you already had such an initiative.

References:

Gibbons, J. L., Cunningham, C. A., Paiz, L., Poelker, K. E., & Montufar Cardenas, M. A. (2015). “Before, he fought every day with the horse and with me”: Reducing violence in a Guatemalan community through a horse-handling program. Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, 3(2), 37-55.

Gibbons, J. L., Cunningham, C. A., Paiz, L., Poelker, K. E., & Chajón, A. (2016, online first). ‘Now, he will be the leader of the house’: An equine intervention with at-risk Guatemalan youth. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth. doi:10.1080/02673843.2016.1202844 

Smith,  A. V., Proops, L., Grounds, K., Wathan, J., McComb, K. (2016). Functionally relevant responses to human facial expressions of emotion in the domestic horse (Equus caballus). Biology Letters, 12, 1-4.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2015.0907