The question came up in conversation this week, what are the measurable benefits of being around horses? Those of us who are around them can say that they make us feel better, we like the exercise, they are magical, it gets us outside, they “understand” us. But how do we quantify that? Well, I have a few thoughts.
1. Being connected to nature is healthy. Horses are closer to nature, or should be at least, than humans. Being in nature slows us down and awakens our senses. Whether we like it or not, we feel more and experience more with our whole beings when we are in nature than when we are in front of a computer or sitting inside a climate controlled building.
2. Horses help us disconnect from technology. Or they should if we are present with them, which we should be because they are big, powerful, reactive animals. We have all seen the horse trainers riding around on their cell phones, or the person texting while grooming their horse. But if we are truly present with our horses, they help us put those devices down. Did you know that studies are showing that every time you hear the “ping” on your phone or computer telling you there is a message it actually gives you a shot of cortisol? Cortisol is the stress hormone. It is entirely possible that we are all now in heightened states of stress because we are so driven to look at our devices. Did you also know that studies are showing that brains in children are actually developing differently because of the amount of time spent with technology, not the least of which is video games?
3. Horses give us exercise. We all know exercise is good and healthy. We know it makes us feel better. Don’t ask me to go jogging! You can, however, ask me to clean a 10 stall barn every day and I willingly pick up the pitchfork. Why? Because that’s not for me; it’s for the care of the horses. Which leads me to number 4.
4. Horses help us be less egocentric. We have to take care of our domestic horses. It’s not just about us; it is also about them and their well being. I can’t tell you the number of times I hear parents say, “I wish I could get my kid to clean her room the same way she cleans the stalls!” Cleaning our room is just for us. Cleaning the barn is caring for another being. This is so valuable for kids (and adults) to learn and it teaches us that we don’t get to just live for ourselves. There are connections to others and other living beings that are important and they make us feel better.
5. Thinking Like a Horse. This is an exercise we do with clients often. It is really about staying in the moment and using our five senses to take in our surroundings. While we are doing this exercise, everything else clears out of our mind. How often are we able to do that? Just being around the horses, or outside in nature, helps us use our five senses to notice our surroundings, which is something we do not do well when we are inside performing daily tasks. This is just a good mindfulness technique.
As the field of equine therapy progresses, we anticipate that these ideas will be looked at in greater detail. We know that we will be looking at them and finding ways to measure them. Maybe that is another benefit: the curiosity of answering the question “why” when it comes to our interests, our horses and our mental health.