Humans and horses have had a special connection for centuries. And while owners and riders will already know what a profound impact these gentle, intelligent animals can have on us, psychologists are now advocating for their help in more alternative forms of therapy. Katie Allen-Clarke, from Horse & Country, tells us more about how horse riding and equine therapy can help us make strides in our mental health.
In the UK, approximately 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem every year, and 1 in 6 report suffering a mental health problem each week (Mind). The past two years have been a challenge for many of us, and this has drawn even more attention to how important our emotional wellbeing is to our day-to-day lives. As we search for ways to get out into the world and bring some happiness and calm to our hectic schedules, here’s how connecting with horses could help.
Horses are intelligent, gentle, and calm animals that can even mirror and respond to human behaviour. This makes them well suited to interacting and working with others in a patient, non-judgemental way, which is why studies have found horse-assisted psychotherapy to benefit children and teenagers with an Autism Spectrum diagnosis (Taylor & Francis).
For many of the same reasons, horse therapy can also benefit those in treatment for addiction. Caring for these animals can teach us valuable lessons about communication, self-control, and problem-solving, as well as improving self-esteem, empathy, and sense of responsibility (The Priory Group).
Increased physical exercise
In recent years we have learnt just how much physical exercise can impact our cognitive health. For instance, studies of elderly people have shown that those in the bottom 10% in terms of the duration of daily physical activity were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease as those in the top 10% (Alzheimer’s Society). Similarly, exercise sessions can actually be received on prescription by your GP as part of a treatment plan for depression and anxiety (NHS). So, while supervised sessions of equine therapy can help those suffering with their mental health, the exercise involved in riding and caring for horses can have a calming, mood-boosting effect on everyone.
You don’t have to own horses to enjoy these benefits, either: signing yourself or your children up for riding lessons is a great place to start. Not only will you learn how to hop into the saddle, but you’ll also learn the basics of how to care for the horses (which burns more calories than you might think!). No matter how old you are, learning new skills brings us out of our comfort zone and heading out on that first ride is sure to give anyone a rush of pride and excitement.
More time spent outdoors
While animal therapy with cats or dogs can be done indoors, one of the major benefits of caring for horses is that it encourages us to get outside more. This means that whether you’re a recipient of horse therapy or a casual, first-time rider, you’ll spend more time in the fresh air and natural daylight which is vital for our physical and mental wellbeing. Studies across this subject have consistently found that experiencing nature and the great outdoors can improve our attention spans, lower stress levels, boost our mood, reduce the risk of psychiatric disorders, and even aid our capacity for empathy and cooperation (APA).
Getting involved with your local riding school is therefore a great way to increase your time spent connecting with the outside world. Not only this, but riding and taking care of horses is a social activity, and so the riding community is an excellent place to meet like-minded people, make new friends, and boost your overall confidence — all while getting active outdoors.
No matter how old you are, trying new things and getting out of your comfort zone helps us to become confident, happy, and well-rounded people. If you’re looking for new ways to care for your mental health we have many things we can offer!