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At the heart of it

by Isabel Jimenez

MOST people aren't as aware of heartbeats as I am. When the heart stops, of course, now THAT will get your full attention. Heart attack: no beat. But my research isn't about hearts stopping; it's about hearts beating. Steady. Wild. Jumpy.

Isabel kisses a horse

Have you had 'your heart in your throat' or a 'heartbreak' from your 'heart throb'? So you're aware of heart rate variability and how fear, love, and other base emotions have a say - so in the beats.

What if we go deeper? What do we find at the bottom of the beats? What do the variations mean? Where do they come from?

Photo credit: David Garrido-Roldan

For answers I had to make a fool of myself

It was very cold, but between the thermals and my excitement I was sure I wouldn't feel it. The secret of heart rate variability was in the stables. A horse's heart signature is much like a human's, only in the opposite direction and twice as strong. The matter of running a 24-hour experiment monitoring horses' heart rates is one more of determination than planning. There's plenty of monitoring gear for humans and interpreting human heart beats, but what if subject's size, weight and heart beat is literally 'off the chart'?

The soldiers thought I was off my rocker. I was nervous on arrival at the King's Troops barracks. It was my first experiment. I had never stuck an electrode on a horse before. I had never handled the equipment before. There was no swagger as I unpacked the instruments. It seemed simple: six horses, taking 15-minute ECG samples from each every two hours. I figured five minutes between each horse to stop the recording, pull the equipment off, go to the next horse (not necessarily in the same stabling block), then reconnect the equipment and start recording. A tight squeeze, but it worked... on paper.

Those soldiers didn't notice my hands trembling while I fumbled with the horses' rugs. I explained that the horse's heart rate variability is a biological variable that reflects internal emotional states, showing us the functioning of the autonomic nervous system and its response to changing environmental demands. It is a sort of outside window giving us a glimpse into the internal state of affairs.

"But why would anyone want to look into a horse's mind?" they probed, overlooking my naïveté with the equipment.

"It's not their minds I want to look into," I answered. "It's their temperaments." Assessing their temperaments avoids mismatching horses to owners, vocations or environments; avoids wasting money and training on poor selection; and avoids abnormal behaviour among horses inappropriately placed. "Listening to their heartbeats for temperament - coded responses to the environment can improve the horse - human relationship, one of the oldest we have."

"Oh," they concluded, "horse whispering". "No," I corrected, "equine behaviourism."

The small talk calmed my nerves and helped pass the hours until 10pm - the horses' bedtime - when the soldiers said goodnight and switched off the lights. Alone - and cold - I made a list of things I hadn't prepared for: the electrodes kept falling off and when the extras I kept in my jacket pocket ran thin, a friend was dispatched to bring the stash I kept hidden at home. I had to strap a borrowed torch around my neck to use my hands and see my watch in the dark, and the cold activated my kidneys. The dashes to the loo weren't figured into my calculations.

And then the epiphany. In the long hours of early morning, my thermals seemed somewhat thin and I stood close to each horse, for company as well as warmth.

It was whilst I lay my head next to their necks I realised that by measuring and studying heartbeats I could construct a clearer picture of how horses behave, and perhaps a glimpse into my own future.

You see, heart rate variability is a big deal in my family. Because of an inherited heart condition, a monitor/defibrillator/pacemaker is implanted in my chest. If I can play my part, perhaps others can prevent my daughters from being as aware of their heartbeats as I am.

For more details contact http://www.c-r-y.org.uk/

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