The bond between horses and human beings has extended throughout history. While working horses still play a role in the world, most of us no longer depend on them for transportation. Today, though, many people have horses as pets and companions, and they also serve in the field of equine therapy.
Equine therapy is the use of horses in treating patients with a variety of physical, emotional and mental ills. Therapists who work with horses know the power of the relationship between horses and people, but until recently, there was little research in that area. Now a new study helps us understand more about that emotional bond.
Ellen Kaye Gehrke, Ph.D., is active in the Equine-Assisted Activities (EAA) industry, and is a member of the North American Handicapped Riders Association (NAHRA), the Equine Facilitated Mental Health Association (EFMA), and the Equine Guided Education Association (EGEA). At her Rolling Horse Ranch in Ramona, California, Dr. Gehrke includes her own horses as co-facilitators in her leadership training work with corporate clients. She decided to begin researching the relationship between horses and human beings because, she says:
The EAA field has long asserted that horses tend to mirror or reflect the human emotional experience, and claim that horses are effective partners for facilitating human healing, and achieving higher levels of personal growth and leadership development. However, there has been relatively little quantitative research demonstrating the psycho-physiological linkages that occur between the human and the animal—particularly with equines. We have all heard the statement “horses can sense when you are afraid.” With this research we are beginning to understand how they can know.
Dr. Gehrke and her team undertook research that actually measured the presence of emotional coherence and incoherence between horses and horses, and horses and humans. The study measured Heart Rate Variability (HRV), the beat-to-beat pattern changes in heart rate, using a portable tool based on an electrocardiogram. Dr. Gehrke explains:
HRV dynamics are particularly sensitive to changes in emotional states, and positive and negative emotions can readily be distinguished by changes in heart rhythm patterns, which are independent of heart rate. During the experience of negative emotions such as anger, frustration, anxiety, sadness or depression, heart rhythms become more erratic or disordered (or incoherent). Conversely, sustained positive emotions such as appreciation, love, or compassion are associated with a highly ordered, or coherent, pattern in the heart rhythms, and can be regarded as an indication of physical and mental health states.
The research first measured HRV synchronization between pairs of horses. It found that horses who had a close relationship easily synchronized their heart rates, while pairs of horses that had no relationship to each other had completely different and unsynchronized heart rates. Gehrke says this proves what people who love horses have always known: Horses are sentient beings who reflect emotional states when stressed or happy.
Another phase of the research measured the entrainment, or synchronization of heart rates, of horses with human beings. The researchers learned horses have heart rate patterns similar to those of humans when they are in both coherent and incoherent states. However, horses function in a coherent state most of the time, while human beings live in more incoherent states. When a person and horse spend time together, whether or not they have a pre-existing relationship, the horse soons adopts the heart rate of its human companion.
The researchers believe the results explain the way in which people feel a sense of emotional resonance with horses. They plan further studies in conjunction with the Institute of HeartMath in Boulder, Colorado.