Updated: Mar 20, 2021
I recently became certified as a Trauma-Sensitive HeartMath® Certified Practitioner. What is that and what’s it got to do with Equine Facilitated Learning, you may ask. I was introduced to HeartMath® and the concept of the heart as more than a mechanical pump, but rather an organ of perception, through my Eponaquest training. I learned that we can think of the heart as one of three ‘brains’ in the human body – the head brain, the heart brain and the gut brain. The heart and gut use the same neurotransmitters as the brain does to transmit information, and 80% of the communication between the heart and brain is afferent – the heart sending information up to the brain – with only 20% going from the brain to the heart. The heart takes in the information and the brain processes it, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously. But what is equally cool about the heart is that it generates an electromagnetic field that can be measured (by current technology) up to 3 feet from the body. By contrast, the electromagnetic field generated by the brain can only be measured one inch from the skull. This gives new meaning to the idea of ‘whole hearted’!
And this is where HeartMath® comes in. The HeartMath® Institute is an organization dedicated to research about the heart, its electromagnetic field, how it communicates with the brain, and how heart fields connect or interact between people, or people and animals. As they say on their website,
HeartMath® is a science-based, evidence-based system of techniques and heart rate variability (HRV) technology for self-regulation that helps to build resilience and bring the mind, body and emotions into better alignment.
According to over 400-peer-reviewed journal articles, people who practice with HeartMath’s HRV biofeedback to generate a state of coherence report improved attention and mental clarity, less pain, improved energy levels and better sleep.
Heart rate variability is a way to measure whether someone is in coherence, a “state of optimal function where the heart, mind and emotions are in sync. Physiologically, the immune, hormonal and nervous systems function in a state of energetic coordination.” HeartMath® studies have shown that “when we are able to maintain a coherent state, our electromagnetic field can help to lift others into a more coherent state. At the same time, we are more stable and composed, and less vulnerable to the incoherent field and emotions and behaviors of others.” As Rollin McCraty, HeartMath’s Director of Research, says “Our nervous systems are exquisitely tuned to the frequencies and amplitudes of the magnetic fields of other people. There is energetic communication that goes on between people at an unseen level.”
To put it simply, someone who is in a coherent state can influence the state of someone whose system is incoherent – two nervous systems communicating through their electromagnetic fields. So, how do we become coherent? Unbelievable as it may sound, we can become coherent by how we breathe! This was the bulk of the learning in the trauma-sensitive HeartMath® training that I took. The breathing techniques that HeartMath® has developed have been shown in studies to have a profound ability to calm the nervous system – for example, enabling anxiety-prone test takers to increase their test scores. (HeartMath breathing techniques have also been shown to be very effective as a part of trauma treatment, which was the focus in the training that I took. That is beyond the scope of this blog entry, though!)
Finally, we get to the question – What does this have to do with horses? Well, research has shown that horses spend most of their time in a coherent state, grazing or hanging out in the herd. When needed, they can react to a danger in the environment, but when that is over, they go back to grazing and coherence. By contrast, humans spend most of their time in an incoherent state. HeartMath® techniques can teach us how to achieve a state that horses naturally live in. Importantly, in an equine facilitated learning session, the horse can help the human reach that state of coherence as their two nervous systems interact. I have witnessed repeatedly in sessions with clients and my horses the horse breathing in a very measured and deliberate manner, calming the client and settling the human’s nervous system. The horse is co-regulating the human in those moments.
The horse’s heart is five times bigger than that of a human, so their heart field is huge compared to ours. Is it possible that this is the source of the horse’s uncanny ability to ‘read’ humans? It seems entirely plausible and there is ongoing research into the effects on heart rate variability during horse-human interactions.
I now am able to teach the HeartMath® breathing techniques to clients in sessions with the horses, and the client can experience first-hand how the horse responds as the client’s nervous system calms through Heart-Focused breathing. Of course, everything learned in the round pen with the horse translates into everyday life. I have used heart breathing to settle my baby granddaughter to sleep when she was upset that her mother was away. I have also used heart breathing in the boardroom during difficult conversations, both to calm myself and those around me. Wouldn’t you love to have this super-power available to you?