Having worked with horses for many years and taught a lot of people to ride I’ve always been struck by the impression horses can leave on a person. No matter how depressed somebody is, or how anxious they’re feeling, horse riding will, 9 times out of 10, actively help to lift their mood, lower their stress and reduce their anxiety levels. This is something that has always intrigued me so I decided to research why this happens and was surprised by what I found.
Horses are extremely good at sensing a person’s pain, anxiety, or fear and will act with sympathy towards the person which is one of the reasons why horse riding can be so beneficial to people suffering from any kind of mental illness.
On average 1 in every 5 American adults live with some sort of mental illness (source: NIMH) and while this can range from mild anxiety to severe PTSD, horse riding can reduce the negative effects of this by 30% on average. As well as the act of riding, simply interacting with horses in any way can also help to promote positive psychological emotions.
How horse riding helps improve your mental health
A recent study carried out by the British Horse Society (in conjunction with the University of Brighton) questioned over a thousand horse riders who rode for at least 90 minutes a week to find out how beneficial horse riding was, not just to their physical health but also their mental health. 80% of the riders questioned reported that horse riding made them feel either ‘quite a lot’ or ‘extremely’ cheerful, relaxed or happy and that riding played an active role in helping them to manage any negative feelings they have. While it’s by no means conclusive the study found that there was no correlation to how frequently they rode which indicates that this feeling of wellbeing can be strong and long-lasting.
The real question though is how do they do it? One of the main reasons why horses are better at doing this than other animals is because they are often able to reflect a person’s emotional state which can help to force people to leave their comfort zone, and inadvertently improving their confidence. Horses are also unbiased and non-judgemental, they’ll respond to your intent or behavior and are extremely patient if you’re kind to them.
Another ability that horses have is to be in tune with nature and other living creatures, including humans. You might not think this makes a difference but it’s an ability that means they’re more sensitive to a person’s emotional state, often reading how that person is feeling and reacting accordingly.
Then there is, of course, the social aspect of horse riding as well as being outdoors and immersed in nature, both of which will also have a positive effect on a person’s mental health. Many horse riders say that being in contact with nature is a big motivation, while socializing with friends at the same time can help to lift or boost their mood.
Can horse riding help with post-traumatic stress disorder?
Being prey animals, horses live in a perpetual state of hyper-vigilance and can feel threatened by everyday events which is no different from how people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often feel which is why horses can be so beneficial in not only helping people deal with their PTSD but also to overcome it completely.
While still in its infancy, equine-assisted therapy is being used to help many veterans who have suffered PTSD as a direct result of tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and has been found to be extremely advantageous. People often see their own emotional state mirrored in a horse’s reaction which can be a great way to help them regain their confidence and learn about themselves while also coming to terms with their PTSD.
Many veterans find that, without even trying, they’re in sync with a horse which makes the healing process much quicker and far more successful.
Can horse riding help with dementia?
As well as memory loss, people suffering from dementia will often experience depression and while horse riding may not be able to help with the condition itself it certainly can help with some of the consequences of it. Just as is the case with any form of mental health, simply being around horses can help to improve a dementia patient’s mood and help to calm their stress levels.
Not only can horse riding help to reduce some of the effects of dementia but riding can also help to reduce the chance of dementia in later life. That said, it’s not known for sure if it’s specifically horse riding or just physical activity in general.
How equine-assisted therapy can help with mental health
Equine-assisted therapy (EAT) is an experimental therapy that uses horses to help treat psychological issues as well as behavioral issues and while it’s still a new therapy when it comes to mental health problems it’s proven to have a great deal of success. The main reason for this is a horse’s uncanny ability to be in tune with a person’s mood and emotional state. This means that the horse will work in harmony with the person, and at their pace.
Each session involves a trained therapist who will set goals that need to be completed, these can be as simple as feeding or grooming a horse or as complex as riding a set course. This can be particularly valuable to people suffering from anxiety or PTSD because it can help them to focus on the now rather than the past.
For more information now EAT visit the PATH International website.
Can horse riding negatively affect your mental health?
While researching this article I came across another article that talked about why horse riding can have a detrimental effect and thought it would be a good idea to talk about it here. Rather than riding for pleasure the article focused on competition which I personally feel is a separate aspect of horse riding.
With this in mind, I think it’s safe that horse riding for pleasure as a hobby can have immense benefits on your mental wellbeing but when you add competition to the mix it’s a whole different ball game. Competition adds a level of stress and pressure that recreation riding just doesn’t.
What are the psychological benefits of horse riding?
As well as being great fun horse riding can also help to relieve stress, improve your problem-solving skills and concentration. It can also help to boost your confidence and give you a real sense of responsibility. Horse riding is also incredibly good at helping people overcome their fears, after all, horses are big animals and you need to be confident and fearless around them.
Can horse riding have an advantage on my physical fitness?
We’re all looking for the next big thing that can help get us into shape or keep us fit but we need to look no further than horse riding. There’s nothing that says being fit can’t be fun so while you may burn a lot of calories at the gym I bet it’s not as much fun as horse riding! On top of that, you can burn around 300 calories in an hour-long lesson, then of course there are all of the other tasks you carry out at the stables.
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