Horse riding and management generally have a positive effect on an individual’s mental well-being. Physical exercise of riding and horse care is good for your mental health but there are so many other benefits. Seeing some beautiful parts of the world, creating a bond with an animal, and the confidence that comes from mastering a new skill is sometimes overlooked when imagining the positives of riding. Especially during a period of isolation, a socially distant sport like riding is perfect for those wanting to reconnect while staying safe. It is no wonder therapy with horses, known as hippotherapy, has been around for thousands of years. This post will explore the positive effects on the mind horse riding can have.
For many reasons, horsemanship is a great way to help reduce stress. Physical exercise, be it riding or grooming and mucking out stables, is a great mood booster. Also, whilst hacking you can be exposed to some beautiful nature, things you may have never have seen, and places you might never have been if you weren’t riding.
A twelve-week study found that teenagers who took part in looking after horses and riding were less stressed (1). Scientists tested the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in a group of teenagers and found that those who had been working with horses had a significantly less present than the control group. This is exciting news as not only did stress reduce, but lower levels of stress in the long run, especially in young people, can lead to fewer mental health issues later on in life.
Although usually horse riding is a solo sport, horse riding can be an opportunity for people to socialise with likeminded people. Yards are fantastic places to meet people with common interests, with whom you could hack out with and train together, building friendships that wouldn’t exist outside the equine world.
Even if riding is traditionally a solo sport, there are many opportunities to join riding teams. For young people, there are opportunities to join your local pony club, with the opportunity to go to events, join teams, and go to camps with a new group of people.
During such a difficult time, the importance of socialising has never been so prevalent. During the worst of the pandemic, many were kept apart from the people they love the most. Horse riding is the perfect sport to bring people together at a safe distance. At a comfortable two-meter distance, you’re able to meet up with others whilst taking part in a sport you love.
It is proven that looking after animals and riding horses has a positive effect on normal brain development and advancement in young people, but also adults (2).
When riding, you are constantly making decisions on everything from speed and direction to your seat and position. You must make these decisions under stress and with time pressure. The wrong move could land you on the floor after a very ungraceful dismount. These circumstances lead to an improvement in problem-solving skills, alertness, and ability to think quickly.
Learning any new skill can lead to an increase in mood and self-esteem as learning a new skill boosts your self-image. This goes even further when it comes to horse riding, as you are gaining control of a large animal, possibly overcoming fear.
There have been many studies on the effects of horse care and riding on the mental development of children with disabilities. A study into the use of horses as an education tool for children with disabilities found that children with disabilities developed both in the classroom and in their social lives. On the one hand, shy children became more outgoing at home, and in school, they had more pride in themselves and higher self-esteem which encouraged them to try new things. And on the other hand, the remedial maths and literacy and motor skills, sequencing, patterning, and motor planning help students to organise their daily activities and improves hand-eye coordination. They are also introduced to the concept of responsibility, important when looking after an animal.
Since the ancient Greeks, riding as a type of therapy has been an accepted practice. The rhythmic movements of the horse are relaxing, produce a massage sensation, and increase circulation. Equine-assisted therapy, (shelbyEAP), combines traditional psychotherapy techniques with equine-based activities, like horse care, leading a horse, or riding. Afterward, the patient discusses their feelings and behaviours associated with the session. It has been successful in treating a wide range of conditions from depression and anxiety to anger problems and substance abuse. Psychologist Alison Shelby believes that horse-based therapy could benefit an individual’s self-esteem, communication, self-awareness, empowerment, and concentration, as well as overall happiness (3).
(1) The Telegraph, Horses Can Help Beat Stress, 26/04/2014, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/10788931/Horses-can-help-beat-stress.html [accessed 05/10/2020]
(2) Alstone, A. J., Therapeutic Riding: An Education Tool for Children with Disabilities as Viewed by Parents, (2004)
(3) Selby, A., Smith-Osborne, A. (2012). A systematic review of effectiveness of complementary and adjunct therapies and interventions involving equines