My family and I have driven past Maplecrest Farm near I-77 in Brecksville at least 3 times a week for the past 4 years. Whenever we do, my daughter Isabella, now 7, and my son Aidan, now 5, never fail to get excited at the sight of horses grazing or capering around at the farm. Ever since they were about two, both of them always wanted to play “horsie” with me — so, I would get down on all fours, like a horse and they would ride me around the family room. My experience with my kids’ love of horses is almost universal. There is something about horses that fascinates children. So, this year I decided to take Isabella and Aidan for horseback riding lessons.
As a prelude, I took them for a tour of Maplecrest Farm. I was greeted by the owner and trainer Meredith, who very graciously taught my kids some tidbits about horses. By the time the tour ended, I was so intrigued by the psychological underpinnings of horseback riding that I decided to take lessons myself! Now for the past 3 months, my kids and I have been taking lessons and thoroughly enjoying them.
So, why do children love horses?
It seems to me that the free and fast movements of a horse may appeal to children and teens. Besides, children love animals in general for a whole variety of reasons, and horses are awesome creatures — gentle, majestic and powerful.
Psychological benefits of horseback riding:
• Overall sense of wellbeing:Horseback riding is a great combination of cardiovascular and muscle-strengthening exercise. As we have discussed in previous articles, regular exercise imparts various psychological benefits.
• Increased self-confidence: The idea of being able to control an animal much larger than ourselves improves our self-confidence. Adding a new skill to our repertoire also increases our sense of self worth.
• Decreased stress: When you engage in horseback riding, you need to focus on the nuances of the entire ritual and process. This helps take your mind off mundane worries, which in turn relieves stress.
• Improved focus: For me, the most eye-opening aspects of horseback riding are the subtle details that are involved in every step of the process, from preparing the horse for the ride all the way to dismounting the horse. All of this not only requires significant focus but also helps cultivate better focus.
• Improved self-discipline: The art of horse care and horseback riding is a great example of inter-species communication. Every nuance of our behavior affects the horse’s behavior. Therefore, in order to be a good rider, you must cultivate the self-discipline to modulate your own behavior e.g.: smooth breathing, overall calmness, etc.
• Improved patience: Horseback riding requires learning a whole new set of skills which takes time. And getting to understand the psychology of horses is a process too. So, by riding horses regularly, we can learn to be more patient which is a desirable quality.
• A sense of freedom and elation:I can tell you from my own experience that being able to ride a horse, a much bigger and powerful creature, gives me a sense of elation and freedom. I know of many people who have had the same experience.
• A sense of teamwork, responsibility and social networking:Working with a group of people (e.g.: trainers, fellow riders, etc.) towards the same goal teaches us the value of teamwork and responsibility.
This is especially important for children. Additionally, children enjoy the opportunity to develop a healthier social network which is less likely to lead them to troubles.
• Development of respect for animals: I believe every human should show respect for our fellow animals. Horseback riding definitely makes us aware of the amazing abilities and sensibilities of horses thus creating a renewed respect for animals.
• Improved risk-taking abilities: Since riding is clearly a risk sport, the process of becoming an accomplished rider teaches us how to manage potential risks judiciously.
• Therapeutic riding: Horseback riding has been used since the 50’s, with much success, in helping physically disabled people to improve their physical and emotional health. This is described as therapeutic riding. Emotionally disabled people are also known to benefit from therapeutic riding. For example, autistic children are known to focus better and even utter their first spoken words while on the back of a horse.
• Safety comes first: Please be careful in choosing a training farm and/or a trainer. Attention to the safety of people and animals is paramount; and wearing a helmet is a must.
*The purpose of this article is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical or psychiatric issue. Dr. Rakesh Ranjan is a practicing psychiatrist and a researcher. He is a recipient of several research awards and has authored several peerreviewed journal articles and book chapters on psychiatric illnesses and their treatments. He is a national speaker for several organizations and serves on the medical advisory board for the NAMI of Greater Cleveland. If you or a loved one is experiencing any symptoms that would lead you to believe that there could be a mental imbalance, please email your questions to Dr. Ranjan at firstname.lastname@example.org. All contact info will be kept confidential.