Have you ever wondered how a hollow, blood-pumping muscular organ could be connected to the emotion called “love”? Every animal that has a circulatory system has a heart. Does this mean all animals as well as humans are capable of love? While the structure of the heart may vary among different species, it’s fundamental job is the same, and that is to pump blood throughout the body’s blood vessels by repeated, rhythmic contractions.
It goes without saying that horses have big hearts. An average of 8.5 pounds in fact. They have similar structures to that of the human heart, with the same four chambers and heart valves. However, our heart electrical conduction systems differ due to the inherent stalking predator (that’s us) versus flight-driven prey (the horse) animal. We stalk, while horses take flight in extraordinary bursts of speed thanks to a heart physiology that allows them to go from resting to almost 300 beats per minute in the blink of an eye. Every human athlete would love to be privy to that kind of heart performance! In fact, the flight response in horses is so ingrained that even after centuries of domestication, the horse is a species that has to keep moving. While humans can be recumbent for days or months when ill or injured, the horse only has 72-96 hours of “being down” before life-threatening complications arise.
So in spite of our anatomical heart similarities, yet functional differences and opposing survival mechanisms, we still seem to be able to note measurable bonding and emotions coherent in both species. Science can reduce love to several chemical responses that work between the heart and the brain. For some reason, the predator can fall in love with the prey and vice versa. What is it about the horse…?
Fundamentally, the “love chemistry” exists for reproduction and evolutionary capabilities of a species. It’s not exactly what we would term “romantic” unless we find horses writing romance novels behind our backs somewhere. The initial physiologic response when two attracted beings meet is an increase in heart rate due to a rush of adrenalin. Yes, just like a sporting event.
In addition to the adrenalin, the brain is sending signals to the adrenal gland which is secreting other hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine. When the heart rate goes up, it’s using more oxygen. Another part of the brain that becomes active in the presence of the loved one is the area that produces dopamine, a neurotransmitter. Norepinephrine and dopamine are closely related and in a performance situation, they provide both the “weak in the knees” feeling and that of focus, euphoria and motivation. Any runner pushing through pain at the most intense part of a race can tell you exactly how it feels to have every performance-related neurohormone affecting various body parts.
In romantic love, there are three brain systems involved and they are often connected, but can also operate separately. They involve sex drive, love and attachment. The primal sex drive is there to encourage the seeking of many partners, while the “love” part focuses on putting mating energy into one specific person at a time, and attachment is allowing you to tolerate the partner long enough to have children with him or her. Even the excitement of a “one night stand” produces a flood of the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, making you feel deeply attached, and possibly even in love with someone. It sounds a little cold, but this is the chemical basis for our emotional responses to others, including horses.
When you’re a small child in love with animals, you learn a lot about the excitement of new relationships, loss, disinterest, grief, and renewal. They hypothesize children as young as 4 practice at love and are able to learn more about themselves before being in love actually becomes important to them.
So when a little girl says she loves horses, she really does.
The release of “love chemicals” in the body are beneficial throughout the lifetime of a human as they are found to contribute to the person’s wellbeing and longevity. Studies on compassion and meditation are conclusive in their positive influence on brain chemistry, the cardiovascular system and subsequent health effects overall.
What’s so fascinating, is that given the primitive, inherent responses to stimuli, is the ability to train ourselves to control the release of emotion-production chemicals that affect our heart rate, and somehow, horses are acutely aware of our various states. Without being able to monitor the horse’s brain during activity, studies have turned to Heart Rate Variable data (the beat-to-beat changes in heart rate) to determine how and why horses bond with humans. Perhaps even exhibiting what we know to be “love” responses in return for us loving them.
It’s been almost a decade since the pilot studies were conducted by the Institute of HeartMath using HRV to measure the emotional bond between humans and horses. It will be extraordinary to see what kind of information will emerge in this field in the coming years.
You can read the full study here:
I was one of those little girls in love with horses. I am also a competitive runner, and a retired professional rider. I know exactly what it feels like to push the heart, brain, and body to the point of implosion, and because I’ve practiced meditation for so long, I also know what intense focus and concentration feels like.
Many years ago while riding very green and off-track horses, I learned the importance of focus and breathing correctly to maintain a calm state. It gave me the ability to take a very excited, fresh horse and bring it into the state I, or the client, needed it to be in for training or showing. Biochemically, the horses were in fact so sensitive to my respiratory rate and mind-set that they “got it” very quickly and would come into sync.
Working in a busy show barn presented huge challenges due to the broad range of personalities and emotions exhibited by horse owners and their horses, obviously “feeding” off each other. While I can talk up a storm any other time, people eventually learned not to interrupt me or try to talk while I was riding a horse until I indicated we were “off” work and ready to re-engage with the outside world. I learned over the years to shut out everything but the bond I was creating with the horse I was on.
Was this “love” between two species? Hard to say. It was certainly a synchronous relationship of some sort. Perhaps it was a classic “heart to heart” discussion using an unspoken language (heart-to-heart – openly straightforward and direct without reserve or secretiveness – FreeDictionary).
There was one particular bay gelding that I had a more unusual connection with than all the other horses though.
He was an off-track thoroughbred that we’d named Kevin. The trainer I worked for purchased Kevin from a broker as a 5-year-old that didn’t run too well on the track. I was assigned to re-school him on the flat and the trainer started him over fences. He was a klutz over jumps in the beginning too. It wasn’t until he learned balance and some degree of gracefulness through many months of dressage and gymnastics that he began winning in the show ring.
I enjoyed riding Kevin as he was a willing student albeit one who would have the occasional mini-explosion while he leapt about and kicked the kinks out of his body. He also had a habit of digging in his stall and subsequently developed allergies to dust, in particular dusty hay. I started watering down his hay and if I forgot, I’d find him standing forlornly over the automatic waterer as a subtle hint.
For all the dozens of horses I’d ridden, none was a “hugger” like Kevin. Occasionally when I’d enter his stall to toss a can of water on his hay or fill in the hole he’d been digging, I’d wrap my arms around his neck and he would respond in kind by wrapping his head and neck around my body and pulling me closer to his chest. I felt a genuine emotion, call it “love” if you will, flooding my body when we would embrace this way.
I don’t think anybody saw me doing this. After all, this was a serious FEI dressage show barn and trainers weren’t going around hugging their horses in public displays. Lots of praise and petting, yes, but this hugging thing was different. Really different in Kevin’s case. I had been riding professionally for more than 16 years at this point and while I could develop a relationship with all the horses, this was a deeper-than-usual bond. Unfortunately he wasn’t my horse and I had to maintain the typical level of detachment I’d also learned while being in the horse business. The horses provided rather masterful lessons in compassion themselves and Kevin was one of the best. I loved them but I couldn’t keep them or control their lives.
I can’t tell you what kind of emotion Kevin was feeling since no researchers were there to monitor his heart rate or pull blood to see what chemicals were present at the time.
However, those hugs from the lovely bay gelding felt so genuine they always comforted me on a really tough day. The neurohormones triggered in my body were real, and perhaps Kevin felt better too. In any case, I would guess that when a little girl, or a grown woman says they love a horse, it really is “love” and the benefits we receive from that inter-species love is just as authentic as that with our fellow human beings.
…and from Dr. Schoen:
This video shares the images of the wish of Happy Valentines Day to All Kindred Spirits:
Wishing all Kindred Spirits a Happy Valentine’s Day! May all beings feel the deepest, profound love that permeates all of life, all dimensions! This love is within each and every one of us. It is not getting love from food, treats, distractions, etc. It is giving and receiving love from the deepest truth of who we really are. This love radiates from our hearts in every moment. Love is the bridge between all of us, between the form and the formless, between all hearts. Love is a key to my Trans-species Field Theory© and global coherence. It is our old programmings, thoughts, belief systems etc. that prevent us from realizing this. From this deep love, I wish you all the love that the Kindred Spirits Project and The Compassionate Equestrian wishes to radiate out to all our wonderful followers!
Blessings and Happy Valentine’s Day to you all!