Oxytocin is released in all mammals who are in physical contact with one another. It has been linked broadly with our ability to make social connections, as well as with bonding and anxiety and fear reduction. A research project by Dr. Andrea Beetz of Germany, investigating if human-horse interactions have a positive effect on difficult mother-child relationships through measurement of oxytocin levels, stated:
One of the central common principles underlying relational behavior of humans and non-human mammals is the oxytocin system. Oxytocin reduces anxiety, …reduces and buffers stress. Furthermore, it decreases the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which results in a lower blood pressure, and increases activation of the parasympathetic nervous system…. The present evidence suggest that oxytocin has important modulatory effects on social behavior (less aggression, facilitation and stimulation of social interaction and communication), stress coping (stress reduction), emotional states (less depression, increased trust in others), pain (reduces pain, elevates pain threshold), and the autonomous nervous system. (Beetz, Kotrschal, Unvas-Moberg, & Julius, 2011, p.2)
In Kerstin Unvas-Moberg’s The Oxytocin Factor: Tapping the Hormone of Calm, Love and Healing (2011), she states:
Touch and physical contact initiate a reinforcing cycle and produce increased secretion of oxytocin; this makes us more curious and interested in establishing contact, and, this in its turn, releases still more oxytocin, and so on. (Kindle Locations 868-870)
Meg Daley Olmert, author of the book Made for Each Other and producer of several documentaries, explores the neurochemical basis of the brain forging the powerful human-animal bond. Science now recognizes Oxytocin as a factor of social bonding; Olmert’s book goes further to assert our close relationships with other species are organically necessary for our well-being, a mutually-beneficial exchange which promotes trust, reduces fear, and increases empathy, all elements necessary for social bonding. This hypothesis is not unrelated to Edward O. Wilson’s Biophilia: the “innate tendency to focus upon life and other lifelike forms, and in some instances to affiliate with them emotionally” (Wilson, as quoted in Olmert, 2009, p.12).
Further findings on the effects of Oxytocin on humans, related by Olmert (2009), include:
…oxytocin works within the main brain center that control emotions and behavior. In fact, oxytocin is central to a mininervous system that can shut down the body’s most powerful defensive system, fight/flight, and replace it with a chemical state that makes us more curious and gregarious….Oxytocin lowers heart rate and stress hormones. It makes people more trusting and more trustworthy. It can even relieve some of the antisocial tendencies of autistics. (Kindle Locations 94 and 109)
In terms of physiology, oxytocin causes:
…a myriad of physiological reactions such as lower pulse rate, blood pressure, and stress hormone levels. At the same time oxytocin promotes the restorative bodily functions like energy storage and growth. The energy conserved by these reactions produces the final stage of positive social interactions—relaxation. (Olmert, 2009, Kindle Location 695)
Oxytocin is able to calm the paranoid tendencies of the amygdala by activating cells in the center of this nerve cluster that release one of the body’s natural tranquilizers, a neurotransmitter called GABA. Its calming influence prevents the amygdala from automatically perceiving new of ambiguous faces, places, or ideas as threatening. It even improves the amygdala’s ability to recognize the subtle signs we send through posture, voice, and facial expressions that signal friendly intentions. With GABA’s assistance, oxytocin helps the amygdala sharpen our social perceptions and remember those favorable first impressions later. The result is an amygdala chemically tuned to accept social approach. (Olmert, 2009, Kindle Location 730)
Put simply, “oxytocin can quiet the amygdala and allow us to see the world as a less threatening place” (Olmert, 2009, Kindle Location 2400).
The implications for this in the arena and equine-assisted practices is multi-fold. As mentioned earlier, we utilize physical touch in the forms of Sensory Integration (as learned from Rupert Isaacson of Horse Boy fame), and in the form of grooming. However, it is presented, the effect of oxytocin on both client and the horse is therapeutic and helpful for many clients. (Although not scientifically proven, it is in this realm that there appears to be the single best support for the idea that horses actually “get something” out of equine-assisted practices with humans.)
Another idea that is relevant to this discussion, Entrainment, is explained by Daniel Goleman (2006) in Social Intelligence, and occurs “whenever one natural process entrains or oscillates in rhythm with another” (p.34). Some studies regarding horse’s electromagnetic field and the impact on humans within that field indicated that humans more quickly reach a state of coherence when in the presence of horses that when not (Walters & Baldwin, 2011). Coherence here refers to “’the quality of being logically integrated, consistent and intelligible,’ as in a coherent statement. A related meaning is a ‘logical, orderly, and aesthetically consistent relationship of parts.’” (“Coherence,” n.d., para.1) For more on this horse-human interaction, see the “Horse-Human Heart Connection” by Ellen Kaye Gehrke in the spring 2010 issue of PATH Intl. Strides. See also the Hearth Math Institute, www.Heart-Math.org.
As Goleman (2006) says, “When waves are out of synch, they cancel each other; when they synchronize, they amplify” (p.34). Other studies demonstrate that horses also entrain to us as evidenced by increased heart-rate in horses when there is a similar heart-rate increase in the human at the end of the lead rope or on the horse’s back (Zacks, 2009). Yet another study by Katrina Merkies, Ph.D., points to horses being even more relaxed around stressed humans as evidenced by lower heart rates in horses when humans present higher heart rates. This suggests that, “being physically or especially psychologically stressed around horses does not present an increased risk to the humans.” (Leste-Lasserre, para. 8, 2012)
In the arena, I’ve seen both the horse entrain with the human (especially in the case of an Equine Specialist working with a horse who is unregulated), and I’ve also seen clients entrain with horses, coming down from an aroused state to a more coherent one. How the entrainment happens and who drives the entrainment—the horse? The client? The facilitators? — is an opportunity for more study. We simply don’t have enough measurable scientific evidence to state anything for certain in this regard.
No matter the science, our work in equine-assisted practice allows clients to observe these nonverbal dynamics within themselves. Their interaction with horses provides them the opportunity to practice a host of these and other social intelligence attributes as they play out in the arena. Clients learn how to connect with the horse, with the ability to experiment and practice behaviors while learning the value of qualities like empathy and empathetic accuracy.