Straight from the heart…what do horses tell us?

Valentine’s Day is a great opportunity to talk about what we think of “love” between ourselves and our horses. We don’t really need studies to tell us what we feel about our horses and probably we have a good sense of how our horses feel about us. So much of what we feel would be considered “anecdotal evidence,” yet it is powerful and real. But there have been pilot studies done on the relationships between people and their horses, with some surprising, validating results.


One such study was conducted by Ellen Kaye Gehrke, Ph. D, a consultant of international business and management, who added to her resume the adoption and rehabilitation of wild mustangs so they could live useful lives. This experience led her to pay attention to the complex relationships formed between horses and humans. She began to study and quantify the emotional congruency and incongruency between horses and humans and horses and horses. She also delved into the field of equine facilitated learning and joined the North American Handicapped Riders Association (NAHRA), the Equine Facilitated Mental Health Association (EFMA), and the Equine Guided Education Association (EGEA). Gehrke began to include horses in her work with business clients.


With all this, Gehrke found there is very little research on the psychological and physiological connections between horses and humans. Using Heart Rate Variability (HRV) – the beat to beat changes in the heartrate – employed by the Institute of HeartMath in Boulder Creek, California, she could use tools based on the analysis of heart rhythm patterns that track what are referred to as “coherent and incoherent heart rate variability patterns,” that can measure the psychological and physiological aspects of the human.

What was also discovered was that horses tend to live in more coherent states and people in incoherent states more of the time. But what is more interesting than that, is that studies done with horses and people together – those who knew each other and those who didn’t, showed no marked difference in the horse’s heart rate. What the horse responded to in the human, whether she knew the human or not – was the coherence or incoherence of that person. And the horse would reflect the heart rate variability (HRV) of that human!

This all sheds light on what we do in our relationships with horses – that how we are around our horses, what up until now I’ve called congruent or incongruent – but is really synonymous with coherence and incoherence – makes a significant difference to our horses. Our heart rate tells it all, and bonds us together – horse to horse, horse to human.

Jacque with Gracie on a rainy day
Jacque with Gracie on a rainy day

It answered some questions for me on how some people can go in and work with a horse they don’t know and the horse will be easy, quiet and connected with them. Some people’s incongruent energy is very visible, and with others the horse can often tell what we can’t.

Overall, this confirms for me what I have been teaching: that we need to work on the energy of the human in order to help form successful relationships with horses. That our incongruence or incoherence can drive a wedge between us and horses, and that we need to come clear and be honest in our communications.

IMG_3216One thing this study doesn’t show that I have questions about is the fact that horses seem to understand our sadness, our weakness, our “incoherence” emotionally at times. I don’t believe we can depend on horses to fix it but I believe many have a greater capacity for understanding as it is a part of their lexicon of emotions as well. If you have ever seen a horse grieving over the loss of his lifelong stablemate, you know he knows how you feel when you experience deep sadness. He asks that a space be carved out for his sadness as well.

These concluding thoughts have no scientific basis, they are only my thoughts and feelings, perhaps “anecdotal evidence” once again, that the bond between horses/horses and horses/humans is still uncharted, yet very real, and definitely comes straight from the heart.


(copyright: Susan Smith, OrthoHorse)

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March 1-2 Horses at Liberty Foundation Training Weekend Clinic, DeLand, Florida. Still spots available– book today! Space is limited. Contact Anne Daimler, (386-822-4564) or myself for registration and information. Space is limited. Private bodywork sessions and lessons are being scheduled now.

April 5-6 Spirit Horse Ranch Liberty Foundations Clinic, Jones Oklahoma, Presented by coaches Ruella Yates and Susan Smith. Contact Ruella Yates, (405-771-4274) or myself for registration and information. Space is limited. Private bodywork sessions and lessons are being scheduled now.DeLand_Liberty_March_2014_3




3 thoughts on “Straight from the heart…what do horses tell us?

  1. An outstanding blog post, citing heart-rate evidence in horses and humans, revealing some surprising insight into congruency/incongruency with horses! So interesting that the study uses the terms coherence/incoherence, as I’ve always thought of coherent as meaning clear and easy to understand. Thinking about it in this context opens up some unique ideas. Thank you, Susan!
    Ruella Yates
    Spirit Horse Ranch Liberty Foundations

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