Thursday, February 20, 2014

THE SCIENCE OF BONDING: Heart to Heart With a Horse

Originally published in Horse Directory,                                March 2014

By Tom Gumbrecht

We as horsepeople are drawn to horses; that seems obvious enough.  When relating our stories about a particular episode that illustrates the horse-human connection, other horsepeople nod in agreement and sometimes finish our sentences, while those who have not been so afflicted might feign interest while stealing glances at their smartphones.  That’s just how it is. Those that understand already know; those that do not, conventional wisdom dictated, likely never will.
Lola makes the author smile:
Science, emotion..or both?

Tales of the horse-human bond, and the feelings of well-being we get from being in the company of horses, are the stuff of novels, poems, plays, movies and countless hours of stories in the barn aisles and tackrooms throughout the world.  They are just that: stories, anecdotal evidence.  We all know this, and most of us appreciate it.  Even if not convinced, non- horsepeople often think our views to be harmless at worst, a little quaint perhaps and maybe even a little charming.  They are our experiences, we enjoy relating them, and they can’t be proven or disproven.  Or can they?

We recently became aware of the work being done at the Institute of HeartMath (IHM) in Colorado which studies the heart as more than just a pump to keep our blood flowing.  Scientists there believe the heart to be the center of not only physical, but emotional and spiritual well- being also, and have undertaken extensive research to support their theories.  It seems that electromagnetic fields surrounding our hearts have the ability to affect other species as well.  Dr. Rollin McCraty, Research Director at the Institute of HeartMath put it this way:

“It appears that there is a type of communication occurring between people above and beyond body language and verbal communication.  I believe we’ll see in future research studies that we are affecting each others’ moods and attitudes, both positively and negatively, by the electromagnetic fields we radiate.  In our work with pets and their owners, we’ve seen that a pet owner can create what we call a heart filled environment when practicing heart- focused techniques.  The pets respond by becoming more affectionate, more animated, and more connected with the pet owner.”

After becoming aware of the work of the IHM in studying heart rate variability as an indicator of feelings of well- being in humans and small animals, Dr. Ellen Kaye Gehrke, who is involved with Equine Assisted Activities and Therapy at her Rolling Horse Ranch in California, began exploring the phenomenon with horses.  In experiments conducted by Dr. Gehrke, following a protocol designed by IHM, studies showed that during exercises that promoted emotional bonding between human and horse, the beat- to- beat fluctuations in the human and horse hearts began to
The author with Circus..
the horse that started it all..
synchronize, and ultimately matched one another. Heart Rate Variability (HRV) reflects heart- brain interactions and is sensitive to changes in emotional states.  It is possible to accurately measure HRV rhythms in both humans and horses and relate those values to those known to reflect a positive emotional state (called a “coherent pattern” by the researchers). That coherent pattern and the positive emotional state it represents, are present when the heart rhythms are synchronized.  Interestingly, that synchronization does not occur with a human subject who is indifferent toward the horse, but quite noticeably appears when subject has interest in the horse. The feeling of well being in certain humans when in proximity of horses is thus recordable and measurable.

For many, these experiments, the content of which I have only just brushed the surface of in these pages, are telling us what we already know.  I have experienced the phenomenon of a changed emotional state by simply being in the proximity of horses in many instances.  Some years ago, we made the decision to purchase horse property.  The house we were selling was comfortable for us physically and financially and we had invested a lot of time and money into making it our own. Sometime during the agonizing summer of buying, selling and moving into a much larger property than I ever expected to live in, fear crept in.. followed by guilt. What was I doing? How could I jeopardize my family’s well being to follow a crazy dream? The frenzied activity of that season left little time for horses and riding.  But one day the stress got so intense that I just shut down and drove to a local riding stable.  I took a horse that I was acquainted with and headed out on trail for a few hours. In five minutes it all became clear; once I was in the physical presence of a horse, it all made sense once again.  Everything will be all right. In fact, everything IS all right!

As a man of words more than a man of science,  I was amused but not totally convinced of the value of technology finding a way to validate our experiences which showed that being in the aura of a horse produced feelings of a positive emotional state and general well- being.  But then I began to see the importance of having what we knew to be true anecdotally, to now be quantifiable, repeatable and recordable by using scientific methods:

Horses help many who have not been able to be helped by more conventional means.  We have all seen or heard stories, or perhaps witnessed or even personally experienced major emotional breakthroughs facilitated by horses.  We marvel at the ability of our equines to provide a safe venue in which to process our most fragile feelings.  Does it matter that researchers have now
The author shares a quiet moment with Lola...
identified that the large magnetic fields surrounding the massive equine heart might be responsible for creating that environment?

It may.  We live in a world where much of the cost of therapeutic treatment is paid for by health care insurance.  Alternative therapies have a much better chance of being funded if there is clinical rather than anecdotal evidence that they work. The current research may open the door for increased funding for programs that produce results for those who need it most… or at least provide these programs with legitimacy to those who may raise a skeptical eyebrow to unconventional therapies.

As one who works with words, I have in the past penned the phrase “the heart of the horse and the heart of the rider beat as one” or something similar, more than once.  It’s fascinating to think that now science supports my beliefs!

To learn more about the science of HeartMath as it relates to horses, follow this link:

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  1. Valuable information. Will share. Thank you.

  2. Valuable information. Will share. Thank you.