Equine therapy has become increasingly well-known. People who struggle in office based therapy, including children with autism, troubled teens, and traumatized adults, find being out in the open with horses a welcome alternative.
Often the lessons learned from their therapeutic work with horses are those not found in spoken words. Advocates of equine therapy claim many benefits from working with horses: confidence, a sense of self-efficacy, assertive communication skills, and developing awareness of emotional communication as horses are very sensitive to emotional and verbal cues.
My own experience of horsemanship resonates with the claims made by equine therapists. I grew up as a horse riding girl and still like to get out on the trail. The confidence and positive emotions I gained from contact with horses are the reasons I involve my children in the same way. I was curious about what current science had to say about the benefits children can enjoy from being with horses.
In a 2013 study of the benefits of a horse-education program on children’s social competence, 64 children in the grades five through eight were randomly allocated to take part in either an 11-week horse activity program or remain on the wait-list as the control group. The program involved mounted and unmounted horse activity, including observations of horse behavior and grooming. Parents rated children's social competence before and after the experiment. Children who participated in the horse program made many positive gains. This included improvements in the children’s self-awareness, self-management, personal responsibility, decision-making, goal directed behavior, and relationship skills.
When the wait-list group took part in the program at a later date, similar improvements in social competence were also found post-completion. In a 2014 study, levels of the stress hormone cortisol in teenage participants of a horse-education program were measured: 131 teens participated in the study, with 53 teens randomly allocated to the 11-week horse activity program and 60 teens placed on a waitlist to act as the control group.
Each week the teens in the program took part in 90 minutes of horse-related activity and learning, both mounted and unmounted. The study took saliva samples of the teens in the program and compared them to the samples from the wait-listed teens. High stress cortisol levels indicate ill-health while lower levels of stress cortisol indicate positive health and mental health outcomes.
The teens who had contact with horses had lower afternoon cortisol levels and lower total cortisol concentration per waking hour at the study’s end compared to the teens on the waitlist. The results suggest that regular contact with horses may help reduce stress levels and promote healthy outcomes for teens.
If you would like to explore the benefits of horse riding for your child, here are some pointers:
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