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Heart to Heart, the Horse Connection


By Leigh Ballard

In the field of Equine Assisted Therapy, there are many anecdotal accounts of horses calming their patients. Many Natural Horsemanship clinicians will tell students that a horse mirrors the person. And there’s the Winston Churchill quote: “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” The beneficial effect horses have on humans and the healing power of horses has been intuitively known for ages.  Ever wonder what the connection is, why we humans can have such a connection with horses? And why is it so often a soothing connection? Why does it often seem to be emotional? There is some intriguing new research about the horse/human connection that might shed some light on this phenomenon.

First, we need to understand some vocabulary. The research studies collect data about heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is an involuntary physiological response, a nervous system response between the heart and the brain that is not under conscious control. HRV is scientifically measurable, and therefore, not open to guesswork. Ellen Kaye Gehrke, PhD, one of the researchers leading studies on horse/human connections, describes HRV: “These heart rhythm patterns, the intervals between consecutive heart beats, are independent of heart rate and known as heart rate variability (HRV). A non-invasive measure, HRV reflects heart-brain interactions and is particularly sensitive to changes in emotional states. Positive and negative emotions can readily be distinguished by changes in these heart rhythm patterns.” A negative emotion such as fear or frustration will cause heart rhythms to become imbalanced or erratic; these type rhythms are termed “incoherent.” Positive emotions like appreciation or joy cause ordered and balanced heart rhythm patterns, called “coherent” patterns. The HRV patterns can be recorded and analyzed to determine whether a human or animal is stressed or relaxed.

Advances in modern technology make it possible to scientifically examine relationships and energy between horses and humans. Using special monitors, heart rhythm patterns can be recorded and analyzed for coherence and incoherence. And even more interesting, these patterns can also be analyzed for congruence between the horse and human. The heart rates can be measured simultaneously and analyzed for patterns of heart rate synchronicity. In other words, the horse’s and the human’s heart rates become synchronized; they can adapt to each other and reflect the same emotion, and this can be clearly seen in the recorded data.

Several studies on horse/human connections were conducted beginning in 2005 at The Institute of HeartMath in Boulder Creek, CA. First, some relatively simple experiments were conducted on horses only to establish their baseline HRV rhythms and to determine causes for changing HRV patterns. These studies established that horses’ HRV patterns were similar to those of humans and that the same equipment could be used to measure both. The studies established that horse HRV patterns reflected both positive and negative emotional states. Horse’s HRV patterns showed a level of synchronicity if they were friends, and if horses were separated from their herd, their HRV readings were highly incoherent – indicating stress.

Follow-up studies explored horse-human relationships. When interacting with the owner or with an unknown person, it was discovered that “The rhythm of the person’s HRV was more important than whether they had a relationship with the horse. That meant that when a horse interacted with an unknown human, the horse’s stress level was entirely dependent on the stress level of the human” (Gerhke).  Another study using seven horse-human pairs, with the humans projecting positive emotional states, was interesting. “It appeared that each person synchronized his or her particular HRV frequency cycle to match the horse’s specific frequency style. This result was reproducible and was observed in six out of the seven pairs. This synchronicity was sometimes seen if the person was just sitting calmly in the arena with the horse and not consciously projecting positive feelings towards the horse. In the one pair in which the person did not match the horse’s specific frequencies, the person stated that she as distracted with other responsibilities during the recording. Her HRV also did not display the characteristic frequency spike associated with feeling positive emotions” (Gerhke).

In other studies by Linda Keeling, PhD at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, horses and riders were assessed by HRV data to determine if riders were communicating anxiety to the horses. People were asked to either lead or ride a horse from point A to point B. The people were told that an umbrella would open on the fourth pass. The umbrella never opened, but the HRV frequencies changed in both the horses and the humans during the fourth pass when the human expected the umbrella to open. While Keeling’s research shows that human heart rhythms influence those of the horse, Dr. Ann Baldwin of the University of Arizona conducted experiments which showed other interesting results. Her findings suggested that the horse’s heart rhythms more often influenced the rhythms of the human.

Jacqueline Marinoff at The University of New Hampshire explored heart rate as it applied to rider level and school (lesson) horses. Her study notes that riders most often think about their intentional aids and cues to their horse to influence his behavior. However, there are many unintentional signals communicated to a horse, one of which is nervousness. Her study used horses that were selected as suitable for beginner lessons and which were considered to have tolerant temperaments. These opinions about the horses were tested with physiological data. Riders were often unbalanced, nervous, or giving conflicting signals to the horses. It was hypothesized that horses ridden by less skilled and more nervous riders would show a higher heart rate.  The heart rate results showed that some horses were more susceptible to the effect of riders than others, indicating that a tolerant temperament was also a key factor. The intuitive choices for lesson horses for beginners and other horses for intermediate riders were validated by the heart rate data.

Since it is an involuntary heart-brain response, it is intriguing to contemplate the implications of horse-human connection. For performance horses, the harmony between horse and rider can make all the difference between simple talent and stellar performance. For equine assisted therapy, the horse-human relationship can create a sense of well-being and a state of calmness for patients. As herd and prey animals, it stands to reason that the ability to perceive and respond to invisible signals of well-being or danger is key to a horse’s instinctual feeling of safety. Therefore, a human’s state of well-being affects a horse’s state. But as Dr. Baldwin’s research shows, very often it is the horse’s rhythm that influences and leads the human rhythm. The ability to involuntarily become synchronized in HRV rhythms offers a fascinating explanation of relationships with humans – for purposes of therapy, competition or pure pleasure. Continuing research is sure to be quite interesting.
Ellen Kaye Gehrke, PhD, “The Horse-Human Heart Connection”
Jacquelyn Marinoff, “The Effect of Rider Level on Equine Mean Heart Rate at the Trot”
Lisa Walters and Dr. Ann Baldwin, “Horses, Humans, and the Frequencies of Connection”
Nancy Zacks, “Horses React to Human Heart Rates, Study Finds”

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