The Surprising Way Horses Benefit Kids' Emotional and Social Skills

What does current science say about the benefits kids can enjoy from being with horses?

Many years ago, I read Mary Pipher’s influential text “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls”. Pipher speaks briefly and encouragingly about the positive benefits of horse riding as a hobby for teen girls’ emotional well-being. It’s one of my favorite parts of this engaging read.
Since then, 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. Do the positives that Mary Pipher noted and that I experienced apply to other children and teens? Here’s what I found.
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:

  • Make time to explore your local options. Visit the facilities and find out about the programs they offer. There are many options, including lessons, day horse-care camps, and trail ride.
  • Regular interactions with horses are better than one-off pony rides or trail rides to build up skills and confidence similar to those achieved in the studies.
  • Horse related activity requires space. Many urban children can’t have contact with horses easily due to transport and distance. If you live far from horses, consider lessons, horse-care day camps, or trail rides when you vacation in a rural area.
  • Horses and their upkeep are costly, which can make horse-related activities too expensive for some children. If affordability is an issue, riding schools are time intensive businesses and many welcome teen volunteers.
  • As with any activity involving children, if you are not present, please make sure your child will be in good hands and that all appropriate safety and welfare checks are in place.
  • If you can only spend small amounts of time around horses, use those opportunities to teach your child about horse-human relationships. When I am around horses with my children, I use those opportunities to help them notice the feedback they receive from a horse. I teach them first how to make contact with a horse, to wait for signals of trust, and to watch for the signals in the horse’s ears and the way their body reacts for signs of acceptance, anxiety, or irritation.
  • Horses are large animals, and there is some risk involved. If you’re feeling anxious about your child interacting with horses, please note that horse riding establishments vet horses for temperament to mediate the risk. They want your child to have a good and safe experience just as much as you do.
  • Why not learn to ride with your child? You may even experience some positives for your wellbeing, too.