The horse-human bond: better performance for both

For years humans have reported emotional bonds with animals, horses and dogs in particular. Horses are often used therapeutically with emotionally and mentally ill and handicapped children and adults. Now an American researcher has discovered that a horse’s heart rhythms reflect the animal’s emotional state and can be measured responding to the emotional state of a nearby human.

Professor Ellen Gehrke and the Institute of HeartMath at Alliant International University, California, undertook a pilot study to measure the heart rate variability between horses and humans. Horses have long been known to be sensitive to their environment, and to form close bonds with some humans.
When in contact, a horse’s heart rate may mirror a human’s emotions, signifying a close unspoken form of communication between human and animal. Dr Gehrke suggested the horse as an emotion detector could be the key to eliminating invasive procedures such as those that measure the stress hormone cortisol.

She said her preliminary research project ‘Horses and Humans Energetics: The study of Heart Rate Variability (HRV) between horses and Humans’is the first step to proving horses to be as equally sensitive to the humans within that environment.

The study took place at her San Diego ranch where ECG recorders were placed on her and her horses. The subjects were monitored during a 24-hour period in which the horses experienced normal conditions and activities such as eating, grooming, being alone, and being ridden and accompanied by Dr. Gehrke.

She has 12 horses and one mule on her ranch, aged from 14 to a yearling. Four were initially tested for heart rate variability (HRV) – Shiloh (7), Rusty (14), Tonopah (13) and Storm (9) in 40 minute periods, and then all 12 underwent 24 hour data recording.

Shiloh with Ellen

Seven-year-old Shiloh nuzzles Ellen Gehrke

The ECG recorders projected increased coherent HRV patterns for the horses during times of close, calm contact between them and Dr. Gehrke. Coherent HRV patterns are the result of positive emotions and facilitate brain function.

“Horses receive information from body language and give feedback. They don’t think very much, they feel,” Dr. Gehrke said. “They are very emotional and honest.”

The age of the horses tested didn’t affect the results, but she said some differences were noted related to whether they were temperamentally “hot or cold” horses.  

“For example, Storm is an Andalusian and the others were two mustangs and one quarter horse. In the 24 hour data, it also showed a little difference between breeds.”

A professor at the Business Management division of Alliant’s Marshall Goldsmith School of Management, Dr. Gehrke often takes students to her horse ranch for human development, leadership and team-building.
She explained her rationale for the Horses and Humans Energetics research project. “I am interested in sustaining high performing teams, improving leadership skills, helping people with personal and professional development.  

“I wanted to find an authentic way for people to learn about themselves with the assistance of horses and this proves very sticky for students, business folks, and just about anyone who comes out for sessions that I lead,” she said.

While other researchers have looked at the bond between animals and humans, she believes she and her team are the first to simultaneously hook up horses and humans to the ECG monitor to examine whether there is a psycho-physiological linkage between the animal-human bond.

Both participants – horse and human – benefit from developing a close bond, she said. One of the benefits for humans is “a powerful impact on your sense of self and ability to lead.

“Horses do indeed, respond to the emotional state of humans in a very authentic way.  This is so helpful in coaching, psychotherapy, and other communication, self exploration areas for humans to experientially shift away from thinking about change to actually being able to make changes throughout the total self.”

And the benefit to the horse?
“When humans begin feeling more positive around horses, the horses respond more positively!”

Ellen and Tonopah

Ellen Gehrke caresses Tonopah, one of the participants in the study

Dr. Gehrke will continue to collect more data on the relationship between horses and humans. She plans to conduct similar studies with canines at a later date to better match humans with service dogs. Ҭ

©Sue Cartledge

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