Why Kids Should Ride

Horses may be one of the best tools ever for fos­ter­ing healthy, well-ad­justed chil­dren.

Horse & Rider - - Contents - BY JEN­NIFER FORSBERG MEYER

When my sis­ters and I were small, our mom got us in­volved with horses.

I was a shy, awk­ward young­ster with glasses and braces, un­sure of my­self among my four beau­ti­ful sis­ters. Horses were the great equal­izer. They helped all of us—but es­pe­cially me—nav­i­gate that tricky pas­sage from girl­hood to wom­an­hood. My fa­ther used to joke about it. “Just get ’em horses,” he’d tell other par­ents, es­pe­cially of girls. “Get ’em horses and the horses will do the rest.”

As a mother, I saw to it that my own daugh­ter grew up with horses, and in my role as an equine jour­nal­ist I’ve had count­less op­por­tu­ni­ties to ob­serve the ef­fect horse in­volve­ment has on chil­dren and fam­i­lies.

And how ex­actly do horses ben­e­fit young peo­ple? It’s a sub­stan­tial list. Here are just a few of the most im­por­tant re­wards.

Whole­some Fun, Com­pan­ion­ship

Horses are the per­fect an­ti­dote to to­day’s dig­i­tal ma­nia. Chil­dren are nat­u­rally at­tracted to horses, mak­ing them a wel­come al­ter­na­tive to TV-watch­ing, video-game-play­ing, so­cial-me­dia-ob­sess­ing, or just hang­ing out.

“I re­ceived my own horse at the age of 7,” re­ports Karissa Dis­hon, a mem­ber of the Amer­i­can Youth Horse Coun­cil’s board of di­rec­tors and a pro­fes­sor at Ore­gon State Univer­sity. “From then on, my spare time was spent out­side, at the barn, or ob­ses­sively study­ing horse-knowl­edge re­sources. There sim­ply wasn’t time for sit­ting around. I was in­spired to grow as a horse­man, so I took ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to do just that.”

Horse­back rid­ing does in­deed get kids off the couch and out into na­ture, and it can be en­joyed alone or in groups. And, when the whole fam­ily gets in­volved, the time spent to­gether with horses can en­hance the bond among fam­ily mem­bers.

“Horse­back rid­ing served as a way for our fam­ily to wind down and re­con­nect on the week­ends,” says col­lege stu­dent Made­line McEachin, the AYHC’s 2016 Stu­dent Leader of the Year. She says the equine in­dus­try also in­tro­duced her to what she calls “my horse fam­ily”—peo­ple she was close to grow­ing up.

“We spent each week­end in our horse trailer, shar­ing laughs and mak­ing mem­o­ries I’ll have the rest of my life,” she says.

Her horse-show ex­pe­ri­ence isn’t unique; young­sters who com­pete of­ten make friends with like-minded kids from all over the coun­try.

“My daugh­ter is the fourth gener- ation to be in­volved in horses on my hus­band’s side,” says Holly Spooner, PhD, an AYHC board mem­ber and pro­fes­sor at Mid­dle Ten­nessee State Univer­sity. “At 6 she’s show­ing POAs [Pony of the Amer­i­cas] na­tion­ally, and our POA group is like fam­ily. Grace looks for­ward to com­pet­ing with her friends from Texas, In­di­ana, and ev­ery­where in be­tween.”

The ben­e­fits of horse in­volve­ment are en­dur­ing, too, as a child’s rid­ing habit can evolve into a re­ward­ing life­long hobby—or even a ca­reer.

“The horse in­dus­try is full of jobs across all sec­tors,” notes Spooner, whose own horse-crazy child­hood led to her vo­ca­tion. “I’m cer­tain my par­ents thought I’d out­grow horses. In­stead, I made a ca­reer of teach­ing oth­ers about them. It’s a dream job to do what you love ev­ery day.”

Plus—horses can be part of your weekly work­out.

Great Ex­er­cise

Ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­can Heart As­so­ci­a­tion, about one in three Amer­i­can kids and teens is over­weight or obese. Child­hood obe­sity more than tripled from 1971 to 2011, with too many seden­tary pur­suits (hello, iPhone) a con­tribut­ing cause. Obe­sity now tops drug abuse and smok­ing as the No. 1 health con­cern of par­ents.

Do horses help here? You bet! Rid­ing is ter­rific ex­er­cise.

“Peo­ple who think the horse does all the work have never re­ally rid­den,” ob­serves Katie Phalen, a Cen­tral Mary­land rid­ing coach and for­mer in­struc­tor at Waredaca Farm in Gaithers­burg.

It’s true. A 2011 study of the Bri­tish Horse So­ci­ety re­ported that gen­eral rid­ing—if done for at least 30 min­utes at a time, three times per week—falls within the sci­en­tific lim­its for mod­er­ate-in­ten­sity ex­er­cise ( http://bit.ly/

ridingex­er­cise).

Apart from its aer­o­bic ben­e­fits, rid­ing also helps a young­ster de­velop bal­ance, co­or­di­na­tion, and flex­i­bil­ity. More­over, the ac­tiv­i­ties in­volved in car­ing for a horse—groom­ing, heft­ing equip­ment, clean­ing stalls—are great mus­cle builders.

“Horses were my strength-train­ing regime,” laughs Dis­hon. “As I stacked hay bales, pushed wheel­bar­rows, and car­ried wa­ter buck­ets, my strength and co­or­di­na­tion grew right along with my horse­man­ship skills.”

McEachin’s ex­pe­ri­ence was the same. “I had ‘six-pack abs’ through­out high school, and it cer­tainly wasn’t be­cause I was hit­ting the gym,” she teases.

Bot­tom line? When kids and teens come home from school and head out to the barn in­stead of plop­ping in front of a screen, it’s health­ier for them phys­i­cally—and psy­cho­log­i­cally, too.

Men­tal-Health Booster

Kids are un­der a lot of pres­sure these days. The stress of “keep­ing up” on so­cial me­dia, sur­viv­ing school test­ing, and man­ag­ing over­booked lives can strain their men­tal re­sources. Horses pro­vide a wel­come respite from these stres­sors, of­fer­ing the un­con­di­tional friend­ship of a liv­ing, breath­ing crea­ture plus serv­ing as a sta­bi­liz­ing pres­ence in young­sters’ lives.

In fact, re­search from Wash­ing­ton State Univer­sity shows that chil­dren who work with horses have lower lev­els of the stress hor­mone cor­ti­sol, as in­di­cated by saliva sam­ples, than do those in a con­trol group.

“We know from other re­search that healthy stress hor­mone pat­terns may pro­tect against the de­vel­op­ment of phys­i­cal and men­tal health prob­lems,” re­ports Pa­tri­cia Pendry, the WSU psy­chol­o­gist who led the study ( http://bit.ly/hors­esre­duces­tress).

So we’re not imag­in­ing the blissed-out feel­ing we get be­ing around our horses—it’s a real out­come and it can work won­ders for a young per­son’s out­look.

More­over, the right horse for a child can be­come a won­der­ful con­fi­dence booster in all as­pects of life.

“To take con­trol of a 1,000-pound horse or pony, work through chal­leng­ing tasks with that equine part­ner, over­come de­feat in the show pen…all re­quire skills that pro­mote a child’s self-as­sur­ance and sense of com­pe­tence,” notes Spooner.

Sound­ing pretty good? We’re not

done yet. Horses can con­trib­ute to the de­vel­op­ment of many other pos­i­tive traits, as well.

Char­ac­ter Builder

Neg­a­tive in­flu­ences on chil­dren abound these days—in mass me­dia, pop cul­ture, and pol­i­tics, es­pe­cially. Han­dling, rid­ing, and car­ing for a horse can help coun­ter­act these ef­fects, pro­mot­ing such pos­i­tive char­ac­ter traits as re­spon­si­bil­ity, ac­count­abil­ity, pa­tience, self-dis­ci­pline, em­pa­thy, and kind­ness.

Rid­ing fam­i­lies have al­ways known this. And, as Dis­hon points out, even non-horsey par­ents come to ap­pre­ci­ate how horses build bet­ter kids.

“One mother of a horse-crazed young­ster had se­ri­ous doubts about get­ting her daugh­ter in­volved in the be­gin­ning. Then, nine years later, she told me, ‘I fi­nally un­der­stand. It’s not about how pol­ished a rider she’s be­come. It’s about giv­ing her the tools she’ll need to suc­ceed in life, in a way that’s en­gag­ing and fun.’” And that’s the key, says Dis­hon. “Lessons learned on the back of a horse are just more en­gag­ing and pow­er­ful to youth, yet they’re the same fun­da­men­tals we as­pire to teach all young­sters,” she ex­plains. “The dif­fer­ence is that, with horses, the kids are ex­cited to see and learn these lessons—as op­posed to re­ceiv­ing them as a com­mand from par­ents or au­thor­ity fig­ures.”

Re­search now con­firms the ben­e­fi­cial ef­fects of horse in­volve­ment. One study, spon­sored in part by the AYHC, looked at young­sters par­tic­i­pat­ing in 4-H, Pony Club, or Amer­i­can Quar­ter Horse Youth As­so­ci­a­tion or Na­tional High School Rodeo As­so­ci­a­tion ac­tiv­i­ties in one east­ern and one west­ern state. Re­sults found a sig­nif­i­cant pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ship

be­tween horse­man­ship skills and life skills.

“If your child likes an­i­mals and you’re con­cerned about that child’s prob­lem-solv­ing, goal-set­ting, or de­ci­sion-mak­ing skills, def­i­nitely get him or her in­volved with horses,” ad­vises Ann Swinker, PhD, a pro­fes­sor in An­i­mal Sci­ence at Penn State Univer­sity and one of the study’s co-au­thors ( http://bit.ly/lifeskill­sre­search).

An­other study, con­ducted by the Univer­sity of Ne­braska at Lin­coln, found that 4-H horse shows were more than just an en­joy­able ac­tiv­ity for chil­dren ( http://bit.ly/4-hlifeskills). Sub­jects ranked dis­cov­er­ing how to do their best and de­vel­op­ing self-re­spect as among the great­est ben­e­fits of their in­volve­ment.

“I’ve learned that hard work and be­liev­ing in your­self can get you any­where,” wrote one 17-year-old study par­tic­i­pant.

As to de­vel­op­ing kind­ness and em­pa­thy, Dis­hon notes that hav­ing a horse coun­ter­acts a child’s nat­u­ral self-cen­tered­ness.

“When youth are re­spon­si­ble for the care of a horse, they learn how to put oth­ers’ needs be­fore their own and grasp the big­ger pic­ture of life,” she says.

Spooner, who teaches col­lege stu­dents to make ed­u­cated de­ci­sions about equine wel­fare, says she’s al­ready see­ing her own young daugh­ter make pos­i­tive choices that re­flect gen­uine car­ing.

“She’ll give her pony a break be­tween

classes, and make sure he’s wa­tered be­fore get­ting a drink her­self. I truly be­lieve kind­ness to our equine part­ner trans­lates to kind­ness in all as­pects of our lives,” Spooner adds.

Horses also help young­sters learn to lead—in all senses of the word.

Lead­er­ship Guide

To­day’s col­leges and em­ploy­ers are look­ing for young re­cruits with lead­er­ship skills, of course. But they also want young peo­ple to pos­sess the abil­ity to work as part of a team. Horse in­volve­ment fos­ters both com­pe­ten­cies.

“Just work­ing with a horse re­quires the rider to take on a lead­er­ship role ev­ery time they work to­gether,” ob­serves McEachin, re­fer­ring to the need for a rider or han­dler to “be the leader” in or­der to earn a horse’s re­spect. Chil­dren also learn that re­lat­ing to their horse as a part­ner—rather than treat­ing him as a ser­vant— brings the best re­sults.

“There’s some­thing about your sport’s in­volv­ing liv­ing be­ings with brains of their own that forces you to an­a­lyze your­self when work­ing with them, and brings out your best traits,” re­flects McEachin, not­ing that equine or­ga­ni­za­tions give young­sters ad­di­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties to hone lead­er­ship skills.

“As an 8-year-old, I was barely will­ing to share my name and age with my 4-H group,” she re­calls. “Later on, I was lead­ing meet­ings and par­tic­i­pat­ing on the statewide coun­cil. 4-H en­abled me not only to learn lead­er­ship skills, but to prac­tice us­ing them on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

“I spent the past year at Penn State,” con­tin­ues the ac­count­ing ma­jor, “and as soon as I stepped on cam­pus, I could see a dif­fer­ence be­tween me and my peers. Of all of the valu­able things I gained from 4-H and horse in­volve­ment, lead­er­ship train­ing is what I’ve used most in the real world.”

Dis­hon found her eques­trian back­ground aided her in the aca­demic set­ting, as well.

“With horses, the key at­tributes needed for suc­cess—con­sis­tency, pa­tience, ded­i­ca­tion— are also es­sen­tial in school (and in life in gen­eral). When col­lege is tough and you’re be­ing pulled in a thou­sand dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions,” she adds, “the lessons you learned about pri­or­i­tiz­ing your time at the barn will sud­denly take on new mean­ing and great ben­e­fits.”

And what about the ear­lier grades? Horse in­volve­ment is a boon there, as well. Spooner says she sees pos­i­tive ef­fects in her young daugh­ter. “Grace is al­ready be­com­ing a leader in the class­room and in other ac­tiv­i­ties such as dance, and I’m cer­tain it’s the re­sult of the skills she gains with her pony.”

From ev­ery an­gle, horses ben­e­fit the young­sters in­volved with them. Horses can be ex­pen­sive, true, but they needn’t be pro­hib­i­tively so (see “Parsing—and Min­i­miz­ing—the Cost,” page 68). Plus there are many or­ga­ni­za­tions out there ea­ger to help con­nect kids to horses (see “Groups to Get You Started,” at right).

So, get your kid into the sad­dle, and en­cour­age other par­ents to do the same with their young­sters. The world will be a bet­ter place for it.  Go to Horse­andRider.com to read how unique horse­man­ship pro­grams are ben­e­fit­ing kids and draw­ing new fam­i­lies into the horse world.

I can do it! Kids learn re­spon­si­bil­ity car­ing for a horse, and the ac­tiv­i­ties in­volved—in­clud­ing heft­ing sad­dles—build mus­cles and boost bal­ance, co­or­di­na­tion, and flex­i­bil­ity. Horse­back rid­ing it­self of­fers proven aer­o­bic-ex­er­cise ben­e­fits, get­ting kids off the couch and away from screens.

Horse in­volve­ment can be ex­pen­sive, but there are ways to min­i­mize costs de­pend­ing on the ac­tiv­i­ties you choose for your child. Plus, you can even “do the horse thing” with­out own­ing one.

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