Children and Horses: Equine Activities Improve Lives
My research is in the field of addiction, but a lot of the therapies and activities that bring health and healing to those who suffer from addiction also have applications to many other groups. Equine programs, from horseback riding to equine assisted therapy, have long been known to help improve human mental health. Winston Churchill was famously quoted as saying, “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.” Indeed, all sorts of people, from little girls to old men, have been captivated by horses. As it turns out, horses are particularly good for children, and have exceptional benefits for children with emotional or behavioral issues.
Children with special needs can be challenging. Most do not readily trust adults; some even have difficulty trusting their own parents or caregivers. Children who have a background that includes abuse may be prone to angry or hostile outbursts. Cognitive therapies can help regulate behavior, but horses have their own, special charm.
Horses are prey animals. As such, they look for a leader to lead them to safety. They are sensitive to nonverbal communication, mirroring the people (or other animals) around them. If a child acts aggressively or with anger, the horse will startle and retreat from perceived danger. This is a teachable moment, in which children can see how their behavior affects others. Similarly, children who are very shy or timid will not influence the horse. They can be taught to use their voices and bodies to greater effect, to stand up for themselves. These are important lessons in non-verbal communication that are as good for children as for addicts.
Another important skill for children to learn is mindful attention to the present and diversion from thoughts of self. When a child is intently grooming, feeding, or handling a horse, s/he isn’t thinking about him/herself. Caring for an animal like a horse allows children to learn how to appropriately care for others and at the same time can be a release from the stresses of home. Even when vigorously engaged with barn activities, instead of feeling spent (and acting cranky) at the end of the day, kids generally feel emotionally refreshed. This is especially important for children going through stress at home, such as divorce, illness or death of a close family member, or a move.
Care for horses also requires skill development. Children who lack self-confidence learn to be leaders and to recognize tasks completed well. Kids who are impatient slow down and anxious children find a sense of calm in the repetitive activities of cleaning stalls or tack, grooming, and preparing animals for exercise or riding. The horse barn is a relatively safe place to make mistakes. If you tip over a wheelbarrow of manure or spill water from the water bucket, these are mistakes easily remedied. If you spill some grain in the barn’s breezeway, your horse will even thank you! The horse will not be critical or annoyed by mistakes, but will patiently stand by and wait for its tickle on the chin or maybe a piece of carrot.
Horse programming has many benefits for both children and adults. It can be an outlet for pent up stress or an opportunity to become more compassionate toward others. Horses readily give their hearts to their human partners and will take you for a ride that will change your life for the better. If you have a child, or if you’re a child at heart, find a horse program near you and start riding!