New Meaning to “Horse Sense”
One of my first interactions with a dear friend and my “Nourishing the Heart” co-columnist Deborah Rozman was riding horses together. We both grew up with a love of horses. In fact, horses were all that mattered to me for a great deal of my childhood. I sensed their intelligence and had a special bond with them. My family owned two horses, and whenever I called their names, they would run to me from the pasture.
Debbie lived in the city and couldn’t wait until the weekend when she could go riding. She loved the beauty, strength and sensitivity of horses as well as riding with the wind in her hair and feeling a warm connection with her horse as they tuned into each other’s thoughts and feelings.
How perceptive and sensitive are horses?
“Horse sense” means “plain common sense,” which, for researchers at the Institute of HeartMath (IHM), means “the sense to respond to heart intelligence.”
It is well known that horses are very sensitive to and aware of their surroundings. They sense a storm coming long before it arrives and sense a predator long before humans can see or hear one. Many people feel that certain horses mirror the emotions of those with whom they interact. These horses are often used in programs with alcoholics and developmentally disabled children to help them with their personal growth.
We have all heard the saying “horses can smell fear,” but it may be more accurate to say that they can feel fear. IHM research has found that people’s nervous systems are tuned to the electromagnetic fields produced by the hearts of other people and that a person’s brainwaves can synchronize to another person’s heart up to three feet away. Is it possible that horses are also energetically sensitive to the fields produced by the human heart — and that humans are sensitive to the fields produced by a horse’s heart?
To find out, the IHM research team partnered with Dr. Ellen Gehrke, a qualified HeartMath instructor, to do a preliminary research project with horses. Dr. Gehrke has combined her 20 years of teaching leadership and management experience with her passion for training wild horses.
In this pilot study with four horses, we hoped to see if there was evidence that a horse’s inner state was reflected in its heart rhythm patterns, similar to what we have found in humans and dogs. Additionally, we wanted to determine if there were any indications that her horses were responding to a change in Ellen’s emotional states.
We placed 24-hour ambulatory ECG recorders on Ellen and on each of her four horses to measure their heart rate variability (HRV) during a series of different conditions and interactions. There were periods when each horse was alone eating in the corral while Ellen was sending them loving energy using a HeartMath technique called a Heart Lock-In®. There were also periods when they were being groomed and ridden. This protocol was followed separately with each of the four horses.
The results were very encouraging. It appears that HRV patterns do indeed reflect a change in a horse’s inner state, although further research will have to be done to confirm this in a more scientifically rigorous manner. There were also clear indications that the horses responded differently to Ellen’s changing states. The most interesting example of this was during the Heart Lock-In periods. Three of the four horses spontaneously walked over to Ellen and nudged or licked her after she started the Lock-In. One of the horses, Shiloh, even placed his nose in Ellen’s lap and stayed beside her for the majority of the Heart Lock-In period. More importantly, these three horses’ HRV patterns became more ordered. On seeing this data, our researchers exclaimed, “We may have just recorded the first example of horse heart coherence!”
The graph above, an example of the state shift that one of the horses, Rusty, was made while Ellen was riding him. In this example, after she pets and hugs Rusty, his HRV pattern shifts to a more coherent pattern.
We cannot draw any definitive conclusions without first doing more rigorous research, but this initial pilot study does indicate that a horse’s HRV pattern reflects its inner state and that horses are sensitive to changes in human emotions, reflected as a change in the horse’s HRV patterns. It is likely that this emotional connection is mediated by an energetic form of communication. We hope to address this question and several others in future studies with Dr. Gehrke and her horses.
Monica’s heart coherence story with her horse
This story begins appropriately with Story, a Hanoverian horse — named after the Hannover region in Germany — on which a young Canadian equestrian with big dreams was honing her dressage skills in the summer of 2006. Monica Houweling was 13 years old that summer in British Columbia, when she was introduced to Dirk Stroda’s PeakPerformance Mental Coaching, featuring some of HeartMath’s techniques. Like all riders, Monica knew her success depended on building a bond with her horse and she discovered a powerful technique to achieve that.
Monica related the story of her moment of breakthrough: “One day after I had spent some time in the Heart Lock-In, I decided to go out to Story’s field and see how he would react to my balance and coherence. As I neared his field, I could see that the horses sensed something different about me. All of a sudden, they all came over toward me and wanted to be around me. I guess the horses liked my balance and could feel content around me. This was a very touching moment for me because I realized how much we can affect our horses’ behavior and attitude by just staying coherent. This was one of those necessary situations that confirmed that locking-in and staying coherent does indeed make a difference.”
So, to bring the story of this exuberant young girl who couldn’t wait to get on a horse to a close — on Feb. 9, 2008, a national awards banquet was held. Among others honored by Equine Canada was the Canadian Federation Equestre International’s National Children’s Champion of 2007 Monica Houweling. Read the full story, as told by Monica in “HeartMath Technique Helps Canadian Rider Become Champion.”
Read more about energy exchange in IHM’s free paper, “The Electricity of Touch: Detection and Measurement of Cardiac Energy Exchange Between People.”
I’m sure there are many of you who ride horses or love horses, as Debbie and I do. We’d love to hear about your heartfelt experiences with horses.