Laura celebrating her 50th birthday with her BFF Sierra - photo by Abby Brown

Laura Hillary sent us this article. She is an eventer from Ottawa who rides a beautiful 8 year old Friesan/QH named Sierra.

Thank you Laura, for contributing to HJU!

From Laura:

People are seeking a deeper understanding and connection with their horse partners.

There is an entire industry that has sprung to life surrounding the belief system that there is a profound bond shared between equines and humans.

Books, conferences, seminars and workshops abound in the search for relief from pain both physical and emotional and the yearning for greater understanding and depth of knowledge.  The “whispering” is everywhere from the Parelli empire to whisperer wannabes across the globe.

There are many with something to sell or say, but how much of it accurately reflects true communication and emotional connection?  Google natural horsemanship and you get 641,000 results….horse whispering will get you 609,000 but pose the question “do horses feel emotion” and 1,200,000 “answers” pop up…the need to know and understand is strong!

But why are there some instances when a horse/human bond is like no other? What is the attraction that one human can hold for that one horse?

Ruth Allum is head coach and trainer at Oakhurst Farm in Ashton, Ontario.  With over 25 years experience as competitor and coach, she excels at preparing horse and rider both mentally and physically for the sport of Eventing and is a talented learner in the search for deeper equine/human meaning.

When asked to provide an example of a close relationship she has had with a horse she said “I’ve had a few relationships with horses that I would consider far closer than I will ever have with another person, but truly the most touching moment was when [our horse] Dino fell at the FairHill CCI 3* and Mark [Ruth’s husband] was unable to walk him back to the stall because the medics held him up, so I took him.  Bear in mind I had had a baby myself 6 days earlier, so was emotional to begin with.

When we got back to the stall there were three vets ready to patch Dino back together (fairly superficial wounds, but many of them), and they asked me to leave the stall, which I did reluctantly.  Dino, who had been heavily sedated, promptly kicked one of the vets clear across the stall and tore his shirt (still corked from cross country and could have killed the vet).

Oh Chez and Laura, photo by Emily Brown

At that point, they asked me to return to Dino.  I stood with him and stroked his head for three hours while they sewed and cleaned multiple wounds, and Dino never moved a muscle.  However I swear the look in his eyes was sheer disappointment at not being able to finish the course for us and for falling at the water jump.  Anthropomorphizing much????  However, I would do anything for Dino, and I would stake my life on the fact that he feels the same way for me”.

In discussing the concept of reciprocal emotional connection between horse and human, Ruth explained that “In my experience there are horses that will do things for one human that they are not physically supposed to do, and will never do again for another.  ‘Champagne Charlie’* ridden by Suzanne Smith* to a Gold place Team finish at the North American Young Riders Championships in Virginia in 2006 is a perfect example.

Charlie, had the athletic ability of a Training level horse, however with Suzanne (a junior, inexperienced rider) he went to NAYRC and was a star.  He was leased out to other riders after that as Suzanne went away to University, and he simply would not perform.  Suzanne came home from University and took Charlie out to competition again and he was a star.  It was simply, Love”. Anecdotal, certainly, sentiments shared by many, absolutely.

In a survey recently conducted, 90% of respondents believe that they have had a close emotional connection with a horse.  This feeling is reported to be strong, mutual and singularly between them and their horse.  But is it love or something just like it?

Horses express affection through mutual grooming, spending time with preferred others, through play and affectionate touching.  Mares will nuzzle their foals, friends drape their necks across each other and babies will rub up against their mothers.  We experience similar expressions of affection from horses.

Using a high tech approach Ellen Kaye Gehrke, Ph.D. and a team of researchers believe they have made the leap from anecdote to science. They developed a tool to “measure the presence of emotional coherence and incoherence between horses and horse to human.”  Clinically speaking, heart rates are compared and calculated measuring Heart Rate Variability (HRV) using electrocardiogram (EKG, ECG) to measure the electromagnetic signal which the brain uses to send neurological signals to the brain and the rest of the body.

During this research Gehrke and her horse subjects were measured in a variety of settings and situations where she interacted with them by feeding, grooming, riding and relaxing with them.  Dr Gehrke believes that the results clearly indicate that there is a quantifiable and quantitative emotional connection between horse and human.  

According to another study by Dr. Temple Grandin, the difference in which emotions and how they are processed and felt between humans and horses is significant.  “The horse lacks the complexity that makes up the human brain. Emotions come from the cerebral cortex; in humans this area of the brain is very well-developed. Research has shown that the measure of intelligence is based on the number of folds in the brain in addition to the brain-size-to-body ratio of the organism.

Horses have relatively small brains with little folding. The more folds in a brain and the greater the overall size, the more intelligent the animal is. This does not mean that horses are not intelligent, but reflects their intelligence in relation to humans. In fact, there are many studies that show the horse as having a highly effective memory. They can recall past experiences and react to them readily. This alone doesn’t make the horse intelligent or unintelligent, just unique to its species.”  While horses feel and react, we feel, analyze, rationalize and react.

Of key importance in the study and comprehension of how and what horses feel lies in how we utilize this information for training.    It should, in fact, change the way we view and implement our training programs.  According to Dr. Grandin, the fact that horses don’t have complex emotions or the ability to have mixed emotions is reason enough to eliminate the need for punishment or fear training.

“Horses are prey animals — they are the embodiment of the fear response — and since fear is quickly remembered and never forgotten, it doesn’t make sense to invoke this fear response, whether in the round pen or anywhere else.”   What this means to her, in simple terms is that input equals output.  If you give confusing or opposing cues or your horse bucks or bolts, she is merely giving you the most honest and appropriate response in that moment for her safety and comfort.

Best Friends - painted by Laura

“This simple knowledge should change the way we interact with our horses and how we train our horses. It should make us realize that horses can feel pain, they can feel fear and curiosity, and they can feel lonely, confused, sad and possibly happy.

It means that every time we scare our horses with improper training techniques and use improper training equipment, we cause irreparable damage to our horses. This human-induced behavior takes us one more step further from our ultimate goal — to have a connected relationship with our horse.”

For those who believe that humans can have a deep emotional connection with a horse their faith in this concept is unshakable.  For others, the horse remains an interactive and animated piece of sporting equipment.  “For people who believe that horses are virtual machines, of course, this is impossible.  But the promise of emotional engagement between horse and rider…that’s what creates passion & soul….oddly enough, when you have this connection, you’re much more likely to win.”