Most of us who are addicted to horses already knew that riding is a mood enhancer. My family will tell you that I (almost) always come back from the barn more patient, happier and easier to be around.
Now the rest of the world is starting to catch on.
In the article “Beyond Mindfulness: How Horse Riding and Eating Greens Can Help with Depression” the author points to recent research on the health benefits of riding.
Equine-assisted therapy can sound like a joke, but it’s not. It only started in 1999 but is now offered in 49 countries by 4,000 practitioners. Earlier this year, a review paper examined the scant research conducted so far and found promising signs that it can relieve negative emotions, with recipients learning to read non-verbal cues, trust, nurture and be assertive, while gaining greater self-esteem, self-control, empathy, self-awareness, emotional awareness and the ability to stay in the present.
Horses are sensitive animals, so to be able to hang out with them and influence their movements, you have to overcome your nerves and be physically assertive. Communing with most animals brings psychological benefits, but there’s a theory that the bigger the animal, the bigger the boost. Certainly, one recent study found that therapy with horses reduced aggression in violent offenders more than working with dogs. Equine assisted therapy sessions don’t usually involve riding, but that can be beneficial – and fun – too. Vietnam veterans in America, with no support for coping with post traumatic stress disorder, turned to horses to sooth their souls, and so now are some Iraq vets.
One thing this article does not mention is the research that’s been done with patients with dementia.
A collaboration between The Ohio State University, an equine therapy center and an adult daycare center found that people with Alzheimer’s were able to safely groom, feed and walk horses under supervision—and the experience buoyed their mood and made them less likely to resist care or become upset later in the day.
The small pilot study, which appears in the journal Anthrozoös, suggests that equine therapy—a treatment used today for children and teens who have emotional and developmental disorders—could work for adults, too.
The researchers saw obvious signs that the clients enjoyed their time on the farm: they smiled, laughed and talked to the horses. Even those who normally acted withdrawn became fully engaged in the experience.
There was a clear improvement in dementia-related behavior among the clients who visited the farm. To track behavior, the researchers used a scoring system called the Modified Nursing Home Behavior Problem Scale, in which staff at the center rated the frequency with which the participants fidgeted, resisted care, became upset or lost their temper on days they went to the farm or stayed at the center.
On a scale of zero to four—zero meaning the client never engaged in the problem behavior, and four meaning that they always engaged in it—scores for the participants who went to the farm were an average of one point lower than the scores for their peers who stayed at the center. So clients who visited the farm were, on average, better behaved throughout that day.
Through mouth swabs, the researchers also measured the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the patients’ saliva. For participants with less severe dementia, the researchers saw a rise in cortisol levels, possibly due to the “good stress” of being in a new situation.
There was one unexpected benefit, though: the therapy boosted physical activity. The clients all had physical limitations, but when presented with the horses, they were inspired to push the boundaries of those limitations.
As far as I’m concerned, that gives me a good reason to keep on riding, or at least grooming, my horses well into my dotage.
There’s a famous quote, often erroneously attributed to Winston Churchill, “There is something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man.” While this was not said by Churchill — it was reportedly first said by 19th century British Statesman Lord Palmerston and later by Ronald Reagan — there is a lot more truth to this statement than they had ever imagined.