When your child starts begging for riding lessons — or wants a horse of his or her own — it can be easy to dwell on the negatives. Horses are so big! They can be dangerous! And they cost how much?!
Yes, there are plenty of challenges when it comes to kids and horses, but none of those challenges are so big that they overshadow the many positives. Here are 10 reasons all kids should learn to ride a horse.
1. Riding is great exercise!
There is a lot of debate these days about kids spending so much of their free time in front of television and iPad screens. Such activity — or rather, lack of it — has led to some frightening statistics. The American Heart Association now reports that one third of all American kids and teens are overweight or obese. One way to help a child stay healthy is to get them in the saddle! A study conducted in 2011 by the British Horse Society found that when done for 30 minutes at a time, three times a week, horseback riding counts as a moderate-intensity workout. Not only is riding beneficial for things like weight management, muscle tone, and joint health, but it also improves balance and sharpens reflexes. Kids who routinely spend time around horses also report fewer allergies and cases of asthma.
2. Horses train good leaders and reliable teammates.
Leadership is a character trait valued by teachers, colleges, and potential employers. Of course, the exact same thing can be said for the ability to work on a team. Horseback riding is one sport that fosters both skills, making it an excellent pastime for young people. Young equestrians are naturally required to take on a leadership role whenever they work with their horse on the ground, whether they are leading it or lunging it. This paradigm shifts, however, when a child is riding and/or learning a new skill. It’s at that point that riders quickly realize that working as a team with their horse is what will yield the best results.
Even more opportunities for learning how to be a good leader or a good teammate exist if the child is active in a group such as 4-H, Pony Club, or breed association. These organizations often require young riders to hold an office in the club, put together a project, or teach younger children new skills.
3. Riding improves posture and balance.
“Keep your heels down!” “Shoulders back!” “Don’t tug on your horse’s mouth!” Sound familiar? All of those commands a trainer shouts to his or her student are meant to teach proper riding skills. By building these skills, riding becomes more natural and comfortable, which builds up certain muscles. The building up of these muscles is hugely beneficial for young people, and leads to improved posture and balance both on and off a horse.
4. Spending time with horses reduces stress.
Between school, homework, social media, and everything else that children must worry about these days, kids are becoming more stressed. Fortunately, there’s a pretty simple antidote to that mental stress: horses. A study done by Washington State University found that children who spend time around horses produce lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. According to professor and study leader Patricia Pendry, “We know from other research that healthy stress hormone patterns may protect against the development of physical and mental health problems.”
5. Riding establishes confidence.
Horses are big and powerful. They have a mind of their own, and quite frankly, can prove to be rather dangerous. So consider how empowering it is for a child to care for, train, and learn to ride a horse. Victories big and small are the results of every single minute spent working hard on their skills and relationship with their horse. Consistently working with an equine teammate establishes confidence in a child the way nothing else can. This confidence extends into every aspect of their lives.
6. Horseback riding builds problem solving and critical thinking skills.
If you’ve ever tried to put together a bridle, then have some idea of the ways in which horseback riding can improve a child’s problem solving and critical thinking skills. All those straps and buckles are not easy! Countless other necessary horse-related tasks also help build these skills. Measuring grain. Memorizing anatomy to differentiate between the fetlock and the gaskin. Counting strides to calculate the most competitive route around a jump course. Measuring the proper fit of a saddle. The list goes on and on. A study done by The Tokyo University of Agriculture found that horseback riding activates various parts of our sympathetic nervous system. This section of the brain contributes to our problem solving abilities.
7. Horses teach patience, discipline, and character development.
Every parent wants their child to develop certain character traits such as patience, discipline, empathy, and kindness. But between mass media, social media, and politics (among countless other things!), instilling admirable traits in kids isn’t an easy task. And yet, research has shown that riding and caring for horses can counteract even the worst negative influence to have a positive effect on our children. One such study was conducted by the American Youth Horse Council. It analyzed young riders across the country who participated in Pony Club, 4-H, the National High School Rodeo Association, and the American Quarter Horse Youth Association. The Council found a direct correlation between horsemanship skills and vital life skills.
Of course, this all makes perfect sense. Having a horse requires a child to care for something other than him- or herself, counteracting the inherent self-centeredness exhibited by young children. Spending time around horses requires certain safety measures, such as wearing boots and a helmet while riding. Following these safety rules instills in a child a sense of discipline. It’s hard to be anything but humble when you scoop poop, take the inevitable fall, and return from a day at the barn covered in dirt and slobber. Finally, horses are huge, and children quickly learn that disrespect can lead to serious injury.
8. Riding provides experience with teamwork and competition.
Competing is not a requirement for owning or loving a horse. Still, for those with the means and interest, competitive horseback riding also yields myriad benefits. Young riders must work hard between shows to improve their skills, but this hard work doesn’t necessarily result in the desired ribbon. Such a process teaches children that victory doesn’t come automatically. Success must be earned, and the inevitable loss must be handled with grace. Through these lessons, young riders learn to work closely with their equine teammate. They will quickly realize that victories and losses are experienced together.
9. Horseback riding is a healthy outlet for fun!
Ask any young equestrian why they like to ride horses and they’ll likely tell you, “Because it’s fun!” Horses and horseback riding are a healthy alternative to watching television, playing video games, and obsessing over social media. Children who ride get plenty of exercise, and often spend time with other kids and young adults with the same interests.
10. Kids who ride horses do better in school.
Horseback riding is not easy. However, studies have shown that the perseverance, resilience, and responsibility it takes to care for a horse often leads to better academic performance. While it’s easy to assume that this correlation is simply the result of positive habits being formed, it turns out that there might be a more scientific explanation. The study conducted by the The Tokyo University of Agriculture found that riding a horse activates certain vibrations in the human brain’s sympathetic nervous system. This suggests that horseback riding may improve memory and enhance problem solving. Carol Dal Porto, a California trainer who routinely works with young children, has a simpler explanation: “Riding increases a child’s focus and intensity. You can’t let your mind wander when you’re riding a 1,200-pound animal.”