Horseback riding as a sport has a variety of benefits for the rider. To the casual observer, riding a horse may appear easy, even effortless! Accomplished riders, however, know the years of hard work that go into that “effortless” ride. Starting to ride as a child can positively influence a young riders physical, emotional, and cognitive development. Best of all, riding and being around horses creates an environment where learning is fun!
A great deal of balance is required to correctly steer a horse through various patterns and obstacles. Specifically, a rider must have the physical coordination, flexibility, symmetry, and suppleness to maintain correct position on a horse without interfering with that horses rhythm and movement. Riding requires body awareness-if the rider is not centered and balanced; the horse will not be balanced. Lack of balance makes it much more difficult for the horse and rider team to work as one. Horseback riding also builds muscle tone and strength. Different rider positions work different muscles. Two-point position, full seat position, and posting trot all work for different muscle groups.
The horse and rider relationship is a complex one, requiring both partners to understand and trust one another. Horses are creatures with their own ideas and desires, a horse may often not want to submit to the wishes of the rider! Riding requires a huge range of emotions; compassion, courage, empathy, and much more. Aggressive riders often have to learn to soften their approach to gain the trust of the horse. Less assertive riders often have to learn how to get a horse’s attention and obedience in order to accomplish a specific task.
Learning how to work with a large and powerful animal such as a horse has a very positive impact on rider self-confidence and self-image. It can sometimes take a lot of courage to ride a new horse or learn a new riding skill. Considering the horse’s point of view and evaluating how the horse feels when presented with a new and possibly confusing situation develops empathy and compassion. A true horseperson learns to put the horse’s needs before their own. Riding develops a sense of responsibility that can later be carried over into other areas of life.
Horses also give a sense of self-discipline to young riders. Horsemanship skills can not be learned through just one weekly hour lesson but require dedication to one’s own riding development on a daily basis.
A great thing about horses (and all animals) is that they are non-judgmental. A rider might not fit in so well among school peers, but horses don’t care about that! Horseback riding teaches communication skills advanced riding takes advanced communication skills. Riding can also give a sense of emotional balance to one’s life. To ride well you must really be in tune with your horse. That requires letting go of all the stress a rider may have building up from daily life.
Horseback riding and lessons expand and test cognitive skills and memory. For young equestrians, vocabulary skills are developed when learning how to ride “transitions”, “half-halts”, or “diagonals”. Increasing and sustaining the attention span is a necessity on the horse, and certainly something to be carried over into classroom learning outside riding lessons. Comprehending and following a complex set of directions (from learning the correct way to mount or maneuvering a horse around a jump course) are skills that can be transferred into life outside the riding stable as well. Learning and processing new information, such as how certain bits work, or why it is so important to properly cool a horse after a ride, is also a critical part of learning to ride.
Horses are unique in their ability to contribute to a child’s overall learning experience in such a fun, exciting way. Madelyn, 9 years old and from Mansfield Center, has been riding for over 3 years. She says, ” I like horses because of the way they look and the way they act. They are my friends. They make me happy. I think horses have made me more confident”. Jessica, age 12, from Manchester, agrees; ” Horses are fun to ride and great companions. Riding has made me more confident”. When asked how they feel when riding, Jessica says, “I think about being balanced and doing my best”. Madelyn “feels proud when riding. I feel relaxed because the horse and I trust each other. I feel happy”. Sophie, 4 years old and from Coventry, likes riding “because my horse Sweetie begs and lot and makes me laugh”. Sophie thinks about horses outside of lessons too; “When somebody calls me Sweetie, I think about riding horses. At night I think about how much I love riding Sweetie”. Rachael, age 8, from Coventry takes weekly riding lessons as well. She has chosen to enter a writing contest at school and write a mystery story about a horse. Rachael’s mom, Leslie, says her daughter “requests her own horse at least once a day. Rachael is always talking about horses, bringing horse things into school for show and tell”. Leslie agrees that riding has certainly made Rachael more confident.
Good riding goes way beyond just looking pretty in the saddle. Riding allows one’s to learn a tremendous amount about ones own self. A good rider must be physically fit enough to work in harmony with the horse. A rider must also be in charge of their own emotions, knowing when to be more assertive and when to back off. Good riding requires a humble attitude, and the ability to deal with personal imbalances and work through learning difficulties. Riding and lessons contribute positively to youth development, and later personal growth as an adult. Horses are amazing animals, and the lessons learned at the stable are carried with us through a lifetime. . In the words of Madelyn, “I am always thinking about horses! Why wouldn’t I?”
By Mary Jo Zanolli