In our new pandemic life, I have been searching high and low for safe ways to get my kids outside and off screens, and horse riding lessons felt like a viable option. I recounted the many positive ways that working with horses impacted my life as a youth.
I was one of those horse-crazy girls. I suppose I could blame it on my grandmother, an avid horsewoman, who shared her little equine herd with us from an early age. Instead of losing interest, my passion grew as the years went on, eventually resulting in me earning my very own horse in high school. I sold him when I left for college, but I continued lessons as long as I could. When my children were born, riding was one of those things that had to get trimmed from the family budget to make room for other priorities, although I squeeze a ride in whenever I can.
Over the years, I shared my love of horses with my kids, but to my surprise, my animal-loving daughter was pretty ambivalent. I decided it wasn’t worth the money if that was her attitude, heck, if funds were limited I’d rather spend the money on a lesson for myself. Also a surprise, it was my little boy who expressed the most interest, genuinely asking to go riding. It’s funny how as a society we have decided that “horses are for girls.”
Last month, I decided to offer riding lessons one more time, signing my son up first and eventually convincing my daughter to try. The experience has been positive for everyone. A few examples of the many benefits of working with horses for people of all ages are:
- Riding a horse provides full-body aerobic exercise. To anyone who has said “The horse does all the work,” I’d say, “Have you ever ridden?” Sure, if you are plodding around on an old nag at a walk, you will get less exercise than if you are schooling a top-level hunter. But, either way, riding a horse provides full-body exercise that (among other benefits) increases heart rate, strengthens muscles, improves coordination, and improves posture.
2. Working with a horse provides emotional benefits that improve mood and reduce stress. Everyone knows that teens can struggle with mood swings, but kids of all ages are under more stress than ever with the uncertainties of the pandemic, challenges keeping up with virtual school, too much screen time, and social isolation from their peers. When my reluctant teen finally agreed to her horse riding lesson, I watched her visibly relax, just from being outdoors brushing a horse. One study by Washington State University, noted in a Horse&Rider article, shows that: “Children who work with horses have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as indicated by saliva samples than do those in a control group.”
3. Working with a horse builds confidence and communication skills. While working with a horse, your child can develop important leadership skills, because under the herd mentality you must be the leader. My daughter can be too passive around horses, and my son can goof off and not be tuned in to what is going on. In both cases, they had to improve their leadership and communication skills, to be in command of a giant (+/- 1,000 pound animal).
4. Working with a horse builds important life skills. Life skill #1: “Getting back on that horse.” You know that saying: “Get back on the horse?” In the horse world, unless something is broken or severely damaged, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again. This is perhaps one of the most important life lessons you learn from a horse.
5. Working with a horse builds important life skills. Life skill #2: Facing fears and remaining calm. Horses aren’t the brightest animals, I mean, their instinctual impulse is to take off running if they are afraid. They are trying to escape whatever is terrifying them, real or imagined. Returning to #3, building confidence and communication skills, horses are very tuned in to the emotions of riders and it is important that the rider remain calm and in control to convey the sense that “it’s all good” to the horse. There have been times, as a rider, that I have been nervous or scared about something. I needed to face my fears.
6. Working with a horse builds important life skills. Life skill #3: Learning compromise, that things won’t always go your way, and learning from your mistakes. Working with a large animal can be unpredictable. They don’t always behave the way we’d like or react the way we’d like, and we need to adjust and compromise in turn.
7. Working with a horse builds responsibility. If you own your own horse, you have more responsibility than if you ride a school horse occasionally, but even if you are working with someone else’s horse you will have to follow protocols about caring for the horse and the equipment. Examples include grooming the horse before the lesson, cleaning and putting away tack and equipment, and cooling down and grooming the horse after the lesson. All of these tasks build responsibility.
8. Working with a horse allows for an important tech break and getting outdoors and into nature. This benefit has been especially important for my teen, who is on screens way more than I’d like, sometimes up to a four-hour block in the afternoon. Just being able to take a drive out into the country, listen to the birds sing, pet a barn cat or barn dog, and spend time outside has been so important for her health and well-being.
9. Working with a horse instructor helps develop listening skills. Having to follow instructions from another adult has been an important benefit for both kids. Our current instructor expects 100% focus from her students, and she is not afraid to call out a child when they are not focusing. Since we are unable to be in an in-person classroom setting, due to COVID-19, this is an important supplement to their education.
10. Working with a horse helps develop fine motor skills. Fine motor skills have been an area of improvement for my son. Working with a horse provides practice in this area, too, whether it is running a girth through a buckle, holding reins appropriately, or picking out a horse’s hooves with a hoof brush.
11. Working with a horse allows one to develop compassion, kindness, and gentleness. This benefit of working with horses might apply to many other pets, as well, but allowing a child the opportunity to develop a relationship with a horse or another animal will help them build important skills in compassion, kindness, and gentleness to other living beings.
12. Working with a horse may lead to social benefits such as meeting new friends. This one is a little trickier to benefit from during COVID-19, but even the process of going out to the barn has led to some safe interactions with other children, adults, and other animals.
COVID-19 safety at the barn. Each barn has different protocols in terms of social distancing and COVID-19 safety. If the barn you visit is not following specific protocols, I’d encourage you to follow your own judgment, such as making sure your child wears a mask when close to the instructor or perhaps even sanitizing the equipment yourself.
Budgeting for riding lessons. Riding lessons can be very expensive and cost-prohibitive for many families. If it is a priority for your child, look into opportunities for him or her to help, and earn part of the experience. Growing up, we were not a wealthy family, but the support of relatives and other horse moms made riding a possibility in my life. I also worked to earn and save money towards my riding interest, and I sought out volunteer opportunities to work with horses (such as at a therapeutic riding program). All of these experiences helped develop lasting life skills.
So, there you have it, the benefits of allowing your child to work with a horse are numerous. Head on out to a barn and give it a try. You won’t regret it.
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