Messages from the Horses, by Lori Burns
Why choose a horse over other the many other available animals with which to work in the field of Animal -Assisted Therapies? Horses have the unique ability to help us heal both emotionally and physically.
Equines have evolved over the past 50 million years to the large majestic animals of today. They have been working with people for 4,ooo years. For millennia, horses have been with humans for sport, work, warfare, leisure activities, and for therapeutic purposes. Ancient Greek writing from 600 B.C. documents the benefits of therapeutic riding. Since that time, the field of equine-assisted activities and therapies (EAAT) has evolved to include alternative modalities where horses assist humans in dealing with and overcoming life’s many challenges.
Anecdotally, there is no shortage on articles of how horses help people develop leadership and life skills, overcome anxiety depression, trauma, abuse, occupational stress injuries, grief, addictions, and substance misuse. There is also a multitude of stories of how people faced with developmental challenges become more verbal after participating in a program with horses. And how people with physical challenges develop improved mobility, coordination, and increased self-confidence after taking therapeutic riding lessons. There are equine programs in prisons where the results show improved behaviour of the inmates and a reduced rate of the person reoffending when they leave. The documentation is endless.
Have you ever noticed how you feel more relaxed, calmer, and generally in an improved mood when interacting with a horse? And have you noticed that this improved feeling often remains with you for days afterward?
Scientifically, research by the HeartMath Institute and other organizations around the globe, explain the bidirectional “healing” that happens when we are near horses. This research indicates that horses have an electromagnetic field that is five times larger than that of a human. Studies also show that horses likely have a “coherent” heart rhythm (heart rate pattern/variability and also known as HRV). This plays an important role in aiding with higher cognitive functions, creating a positive state of being, emotional stability, helps us recover quickly and adjust to stressful situations.
Since a horse’s electromagnetic field is stronger than a human’s, it can directly influence a person’s heart rhythm, helping that person create a new inner baseline from being trapped in familiar, yet possibly unhealthy, repetitive, emotions to move towards regulating the neurochemistry in the brain so that the person experiences more productive feelings, perceptions, leading to improved behaviours and feelings of well-being, states of calmness.
Research shows that interacting with horses can also increase a person’s beneficial oxytocin levels. Oxytocin is a hormone and a neurotransmitter that is naturally produced in our bodies, also known as the “cuddle hormone”. It has newly discovered physical and psychological effects, playing a key role in balancing learning from social interactions, bonding, emotion, including food intake regulation. It helps us make social connections, quiets our fight/flight reflex in our brains, and is also associated with empathy, trust, and relationship-building. Other research suggests that oxytocin may play a prominent role in helping to manage challenges such as autism spectrum disorder, conditions that involve atypical social behaviour, and individuals with posttraumatic stress injuries, anxiety disorders, borderline personality disorder, including schizophrenia.
How does this relate to horses? In studies, researchers have measured the natural oxytocin levels of participants in EAAT programs both before and after their interactions with a horse. The studies have shown a statistically significant increase in the human’s oxytocin levels after inter-acting with the horse. In one such study, the conclusion showed that EAAT leads to an improvement in the social attitudes in people diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum.
All of the anecdotal stories and scientific research aside, horses are truly amazing, natural teachers! We can learn many life lessons from these large, majestic animals.
Being herd animals, their boundaries are clear and easy to understand. Horses look for strong leadership and are willing to follow after they find respect and trust. When we interact with a horse, we become a member of its herd. If we provide contradictory behaviour they start to question and challenge our authority to lead, taking over the leadership position, which can be interesting, if not dangerous. We learn very quickly to stand tall and strong so that our 1,500-pound teammate will walk calmly alongside. This can be a metaphor for overcoming intimidating life circum-stances, leading to increased feelings of self-confidence and self-esteem.
Horses have developed intricate methods of communicating through their vocalizations and their ears, eyes, tails, head positioning, legs, and entire bodies. Horses can make 17 facial movements and researchers have identified each of these 17 discrete facial movements, known as “action units,” in horses. There are 27 action units in humans and 13 in chimps. Horses watch a person’s face and body language to determine how we’re feeling.
Being prey animals, horses are hyper-attentive and have a very high survival instinct. They react instantly to any stimulus and are considered “living bio-feedback” machines. They under-stand the difference between a calm non-threatening approach and anxious, nervous energy. Horses can hear a person’s heartbeat from 1.2 metres (four feet) away and research on heart-rate variability indicates that horses have a profound ability to synchronize their heartbeat with that of human beings. Participants must adjust their feelings and behaviours to work successfully with the horses and an experienced EAAT facilitator can gauge a person’s emotional state by observing the horse.
Horses approach each person in a non-judgmental manner; their reactions are honest and consistent. Each horse has its personality, like humans, and has an extensive range of emotions. Interacting with a horse can fill a person with a sense of well-being, make us healthier, happier, more socially competent, increase our trust towards others, enhances empathy, bringing more fulfillment and joy to all of our relationships.
Once a person learns to listen to their horse partner, profound individual change can take place, it is a powerful experience.
Watch for Lori’s new book, “Messages from the Horses,” due to be published this summer!