When people think of teachers they rarely think of horses when, in fact, horses are first-rate educators who can teach young children and teens a variety of useful skills that promote lifelong learning, success, and fulfillment. In 2017, a study conducted by the Tokyo University of Agriculture reported that children had positive physical and mental effects from horseback riding. The report stated that “the act of horse-riding could improve cognitive abilities in children. These are brain-based skills of which an improvement can lead to enhanced learning, memory, and problem-solving.”
Many studies of children involved in horse programs show that they generally get better grades because riding increases their ability to focus and ignore distractions. This directly translates to learning, studying, and concentrating on a task. By interacting with horses, children can learn and subsequently apply these important skills to a variety of situations throughout their lives.
Although Chris Brown’s son started riding a pony at 6 years old, he didn’t show much interest in horses.He rarely rode until his late teen years when he appeared to have an amazing “natural” ability to train horses. When Chris started receiving cancer treatments, his son took over, riding the horses on their ranch. Chris thinks his son’s riding helped him develop responsibility, independence, and confidence. His son is now in his 20’s and manages a cattle and horse ranch in Nevada of over one thousand acres.
One of the first lessons youths learn when working with horses is the importance of safety for themselves, horses, and others. This is critical because horses typically outweigh young riders by a factor of ten. Being conscious of safety procedures around horses teaches youths awareness of their actions and reactions, horses' behaviors, consideration of others, and awareness of the surrounding environment.
Since one of the skills required to be safe is self-control, kids learn to stay calm and patient when working with horses by properly riding and working with them. They also learn to control their reactions as their behavior immediately impacts the behavior of their horse.
Studies have shown that horses are sensitive to their handler's moods, riding, facial expressions, and mirror their rider’s feelings.
Through horses, youths can obtain the ability to calmly respond to a situation instead of reacting emotionally. They learn how to interpret their horse's reactions and stay calm in order to co-operate with a large animal. These skills are not only useful when they work with horses but are also important when interacting with people. Another trait kids learn from horses is the importance of consistency.
Horses often dislike changes in their daily routines and their environment. They like to be fed at the same time and immediately notice and can be startled when something such as a movement from an unexpected source occurs in their visual range. Horses not fed on time may become so anxious that they do not attend to their rider's commands resulting in an unruly animal and unsafe ride. Horses thus require those who are responsible for them to have good time-management and discipline.
Both youths and horses benefit when tasks are completed in a timely and efficient manner;their moods remain consistent and kids gain important preparation skills. Staying organized with time and personal belongings improves efficiency and effectiveness in the horse’s environment, whether it be a barn or pasture.
As kids work with horses, they learn the importance of consistency in their routines, habits, and interactions with these sensitive animals. Lori Dapelo signed her eight-year-old son up for riding lessons to help him overcome various fears. He took lessons on week-ends for a year, overcame his fears and learned to trust his coach and horses. He utilized the consistent, repetitive behaviors he acquired during riding to become an excellent student in the following years.
Interpreting the feelings of a horse teaches kids empathy which enables understanding the feelings and situations of others. Much of modern interaction between kids is with hi-tech media such as cell phones, tablets, and computers. As a result, their exposure to the appearance of others has significantly decreased in recent years, reducing their ability to be empathic. Through horses, children become caretakers attending to the needs of their animals often before their own needs, enhancing their ability to empathize. Recent studies have shown that regular exposure to a horse farm regulates the immune system, lowers stress levels and improves well-being.
Spending time with horses minimizes hours on hi-tech devices and increases time spent outside- another activity that has significantly diminished during the digital age. The direct exposure to others and outside activities associated with involvement with horses improves the balance of a kid’s daily life. When children begin riding, they quickly learn that it is more than just "sitting in the saddle.” Proper riding techniques and habits require balance, coordination, flexibility, and control. Riders not balanced become uncomfortable, may cause the horse to misstep, and increases their risk of falling off the horse and being injured. By maintaining proper riding form, children develop strength in their backs, legs, core, and upper-arms, as well as improve balance and elasticity by allowing their bodies to move with that of their horse.
Something as simple as looking down at the horse's neck while riding can shift up to 30 pounds to the front of the horse making it more difficult for the horse to perform frontal gaits and movements. Horses require propulsion from their hind quarters, so it is essential that riders use balance and core strength to allow their horses to move properly. When kids learn to control a horse with gentle hand signals and a relaxed seat, it allows the horse to attend to its natural rhythm.
Proper riding enables youths to communicate their expectations to horses through their body language. Horses teach kids how to set up expectations of themselves and for their equine partner. Riders must be able to communicate with horses quietly, yet assertively, in order to be effective. Kids thus learn to be assertive without being overbearing. These skills are especially helpful for children who are not confident or are introverted.
Being able to control an animal the size of a horse, allows youths to develop confidence and problem-solving while maintaining composure. This type of learning is rare in other activities.
Julie and Tony purchased a horse for their 11-year-old daughter with a learning disability known as dyslexia. Her love of horses provided a sense of strength and mastery as she struggled with traditional schooling. “The responsibility of ownership coupled with regular riding and competing provided a remarkable relationship between a magnificent animal and a thoroughly engaged and talented child. This relationship allowed our daughter’s self-esteem to grow which supported her in tackling challenging school work. Now 29 years of age, with a Masters from Cambridge University in England and successful career in New York City, we are grateful for her amazing relationship with her horse – it was just what was needed at a time of stress and confusion.”
Since horses have a mind of their own, problems can occur, even when a rider might be doing their best to communicate clearly and calmly. Falling off a horse is scary; it takes a lot of courage to get back on and perseverance to keep riding. This results in children learning to pursue their goals in spite of adversity. Andrea Bocelli learned to overcome challenges by riding horses starting when he was seven. “I used to fall off the horse quite often, but I was not afraid and mounted again and again. After each fall, I would get back on the horse more determined than ever, my only objective being: I must learn.”
This skill helped Andrea persevere when he was blinded by a soccer ball at 12 years old. He has become one of the most famous opera singers in the world and excels at many sports, including riding.
Team sports require the ability to act together as well as focus on individual behavior to be successful. Many sports involve moving an inanimate object like a football, tennis racket, or rowing oars requiring significant coordinated effort and communication between teammates. However, most sports do not require constant interaction with a live subject, like a horse. For example, the sport of polo requires interaction with many objects including the horse being ridden, a mallet, and puck as well as other riders and horses. Although horses are herd animals, some resent being crowded by other horses or dislike riding in unison, a must when playing polo. Training a horse to be comfortable and focused in these conditions requires skill from a rider who may experience similar feelings.
It is critical that riders overcome their personal fears in order to help their horse feel confident to be able to succeed together. This team-building process supports children as they become adults, in personal and business relationships, increasing their comfort as well as the comfort of others with whom they interact. These skills are vital throughout life, whether it be in a marriage, raising children, working, or socializing.
Cynthia Crane’s granddaughter started riding horses when she was eight years old in 4H. Riding and learning how to properly control horses helped her granddaughter overcome shyness and gave her confidence. She became sufficiently comfortable riding with others that at 12 years old, she became a member of the Petaluma Junior Drill Team and often participates in public demonstrations. In summary, horses are incredible teachers and enable kids who work with them to develop important life-skills. Many studies have shown how horses enhance the health of young riders through strengthening core muscles, improving posture, increasing cognitive function, and encouraging clear communication.
Additionally, youths who are regularly exposed to the external environment, sunshine, and clean air are more likely to be healthier than those staying inside. Working with an equine partner requires dedication, determination and diligence. Horses are thus unique educators because of the abundance and diversity of skills they teach.
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Wanda Smith is the Executive Director of CEPEC (www.cepec.us), author of Horses of the Wine Country, and a substitute teacher in East Santa Rosa, Bennett Valley and Sonoma Valley schools. Katherine Roederer is a Math teacher at the French American Charter School in Santa Rosa. Both have been successful competitive equestrians.