Sunshine Behavioral Health
Humans have been bonding with horses for centuries. While the earliest horseback riders likely used horses primarily for transportation and food-gathering purposes, the concept of horses providing people with health benefits is nothing new. As far back as Classical Greece, physician and Father of Medicine Hippocrates (460–370 BC) touted the physical benefits of horseback riding.
Now, the world’s understanding of the benefits of the human-horse relationship has expanded to include how this unique pairing impacts our mental and emotional health. One 2003 study showed that adults with psychiatric illnesses who participated in a 10-week equine-assisted therapy program reported an enhanced sense of self-efficacy and self-esteem.
Whether you’re interested in participating in formal therapy sessions or just want to hop on a horse and ride for a few hours, here are some of the potential mental health benefits of equine therapy.
Gain Greater Control Over Your Emotions
One of the first things that you’ll learn about spending time with horses is that it’s important to stay calm and project confidence around them. Horses are emotional creatures that use visual and audio cues to pick up on the emotions of humans and other animals around them.
Research and the personal experiences of avid equestrians show that horses who are exposed to loud, angry voices demonstrate signs of stress such as an elevated heart rate and stiff posture. Those same horses returned to a relaxed state after experiencing humans’ happy emotions.
Although you might occasionally get frustrated while learning to ride horses, the thought that you could upset your horse helps you to keep your emotions in check. This regulation of your emotions translates to other non-riding experiences, such as projecting confidence during public speaking.
Step Away From Your Daily Stress
Although stress affects some people more than others, everyone experiences daily stressors. Horseback riding is fun, exciting, and a welcome break from your daily drudgery, but it also puts you in a more relaxed frame of mind.
There is physical evidence of these mental benefits. In one study of children with autism, participants had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva after they rode a horse. Their bodies weren’t stuck in the fight-or-flight mode that’s a common reaction to stress.
While no one is exactly sure why this happens, it could be linked to several factors that accompany horseback riding, such as being outdoors in the sunshine and bonding with the horse.
Get Out of Your Head
Horseback riding involves far more than hopping on the back of your favorite horse. You’ll also spend time grooming the animal and making sure that it has clean living quarters. As you care for your horse, your attention shifts away from yourself and to their needs.
Breaking the cycle of rumination with the distractions that come with caring for a horse can ease the symptoms of depression and anxiety by distracting you so you don’t unhealthily obsess (a process called rumination) about your depressive symptoms and their possible consequences.
Practice grounding techniques to increase these benefits and get away from your stressful thoughts for a while, such as focusing on:
- The different sensations you experience as you brush and pet your horse.
- Your horse’s responses to your cues.
- The natural beauty of your surroundings.
- These positive experiences give you a respite from depressing thoughts or worries.
Develop a Trusting Relationship
Horses are non-judgmental and inquisitive creatures that can help you to strengthen your ability to bond with another living being. In addition to feeling a deep friendship with your horse, you can also use the emotional depth that you achieve during your bonding sessions to help you in other ways that boost your mental health.
Combining horseback riding with professional counseling could help you to further strengthen your relationships with other humans. A 2020 study showed that when horses are added to therapy sessions, participants may form a stronger attachment to their therapist.
The trusted bond with your horse may make you more comfortable talking with your spouse or best friend about challenging topics.
Reduce the Symptoms of Mental Health Disorders
Poor mental health often involves much more than being in a temporary bad mood. Finding strategies that can improve your mental health symptoms can help you to avoid more serious conditions such as an alcohol use disorder.
Horseback riding already helps to elevate your mood when you are depressed, but it can also play an even more beneficial role for people with severe mental health conditions. A horse can be a safe companion for working through emotional trauma.
Veterans and other people who are exposed to trauma may find it hard to trust other people or situations that trigger their symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as:
- Life-disrupting flashbacks.
While PTSD is difficult to treat, veterans who participated in equine therapy were shown to have an 87.5% likelihood of reduced symptoms after six weeks.
Riding a horse for the first time is a thrilling adventure that may leave you feeling amazed at how good you feel afterward. When you love horses, your riding time becomes a sacred place where you can improve your mental health while enjoying your favorite hobby. As you gain practice with horseback riding, you’ll also begin to feel a greater sense of self-confidence along with a deeper, life-enhancing bond.
academic.oup.com – The Life-Changing Power of the Horse: Equine-assisted activities and therapies in the U.S.
thehorse.com – Researcher: Horses Are Emotional Sponges
sru.edu – SRU study shows therapeutic riding reduces stress levels of adolescents with autism
ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – The influence of rumination and distraction on depressed and anxious mood: A prospective examination of the Response Styles Theory in children and adolescents
scholarworks.waldenu.edu – The Relationship Between Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy and Client-Therapist Attachment on Symptom Reduction
sunshinebehavioralhealth.com – Alcohol Rehab in Colorado Springs, CO
mmrjournal.biomedcentral.com – Effects of therapeutic horseback riding on post-traumatic stress disorder in military veterans