Last Updated on August 21, 2023 by Allison Price
Horses may be the most effective tool in today’s world for raising healthy, well-adjusted kids.
My mom introduced me to horses when I was a small child. I was shy and awkward as a youngster, wearing glasses and braces. I was also unsure about myself among my four lovely sisters. Horses were the great equalizer. They were a great help to all of us, but especially me, navigate the tricky transition from girlhood into womanhood. It was a joke between my father and me.
He would tell his parents to get the horses, especially for girls.
“Get ’em horses, and the horses will take care of the rest.”
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As a mother, it was important that my daughter was raised with horses. I have had many opportunities as an equine journalist to see the impact horse involvement has on families and children.
How do horses help young people? This is a long list. These are only a few of the most valuable rewards.
Companionship – Wholesome Fun and Companionship
Horses can be a great antidote for 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.
Karissa Dishon reports that she received her own horse when she was seven years old. She is also a member on the American Youth Horse Council’s Board of Directors and a professor at Oregon State University. “From that point onwards, all my spare time was spent at the barn or obsessively researching horse-knowledge resources. There was no time to sit around. I was driven to be a better horseman and took every opportunity to do so.
Horseback riding is a great way to get children off the couch and into the natural world. It can be done alone or with a group. The bond between family members can be strengthened when everyone gets involved in horseback riding.
Madeline McEachin is the AYHC’s Student Leader of The Year 2016. “Horseback riding was a way for my family to wind down, reconnect on the weekends,” she says. She describes the equine sector as introducing her to “my horse family”, people she was very close to growing up.
She says, “We spent every weekend in our horse trailer sharing laughs with each other and making memories I will cherish for the rest of my lifetime.”
Her experience at horse shows is not unique. Children who compete often make friends from across the country with children like them.
Holly Spooner PhD, a member of the AYHC board and professor at Middle Tennessee State University, says, “My daughter, is the fourth generation to get involved in horses on his side.” “At six years old, she is showing Pony of the Americas [Pony of the Americas] across the country. Our POA group feels like family. Grace is looking forward to competing against her friends from Indiana, Texas, and all over the country.
Horse involvement has many benefits that last. A child’s passion for riding can turn into a rewarding hobby or even a career.
Spooner, who was a horse lover in her childhood, says that the horse industry has many jobs. My parents believed I would outgrow horses. Instead, I decided to make a career teaching people about horses. It’s a great job that allows you to do what you love every single day.
Horses are fun, and children love them. Horsemanship is a valuable life skill that can help children build their confidence.
The American Heart Association estimates that one third of American teens and children are overweight or obese. The number of children who are obese has more than tripled between 1971 and 2011. Too many sedentary pursuits, such as the iPhone, have contributed to this increase. Obesity is now the number one health concern, surpassing drug abuse and smoking. Parents’ number one health concern.
Are horses helpful? You bet! You can ride!
Katie Phalen, a Central Maryland riding coach who was formerly an instructor at Waredaca Farm Gaithersburg, says that “people who believe the horse does all of the work have never ridden.”
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).
A ride can help a child develop coordination, balance, and flexibility. The activities involved with caring for horses, such as grooming, lifting equipment and cleaning stalls, are great muscle building opportunities.
Dishon laughs, “Horses were the strength-training regimen I used.” “As I stacked hay bales and pushed wheelbarrows and carried water buckets, both my coordination and strength grew, so did my horsemanship skills.”
McEachin had the same experience. McEachin teases, “I had six-pack abs throughout high school. It wasn’t because of going to the gym.”
The bottom line: It’s better for kids and teens to come home from school and go out to the barn rather than plopping down in front of a computer screen.
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Mental Health Booster
These days, kids are subject to a lot of pressure. Their mental health can be affected by the stress of managing school testing, social media and managing their busy lives. Horses are a great way to get away from the stressors. They offer the unconditional friendship and stability of a living creature, as well as being a positive presence in children’s lives.
Research from Washington State University has shown that children who work with horses are less likely to have high levels of cortisol in their saliva than those who are not.
We are not trying to imagine the blissed out feeling that we get from being with our horses. It is a real outcome, and can do wonders for young people’s outlook.
A horse that is right for your child can be a great confidence booster in every aspect of your life.
Spooner notes that it takes skills to promote confidence and competence in children.
Does that sound good? We are not finished yet. Horses can also contribute to the development and maintenance of positive traits.
Reduce Costs by Minimizing and Parsing
Although horse ownership comes with some expenses, you don’t have to own one in order for your child to be involved. These are just a few options.
Lessons. This will introduce your child to riding. Under the supervision of an instructor, your child will be able to learn the basics on well-trained lesson mounts.
Sharing. If your child wants to build a friendship with one horse, you might consider sharing one. Sponsorship may be possible at your lesson barn. This can bring some benefits. You may also find another parent willing to ride and care for the horse your child has. These arrangements can be either informal (your child rides for friendship or help with barn chores), or contractual. A “part-lease”, in which you pay a portion of the horse’s monthly shoeing, board, and routine vet expenses in exchange for riding privileges for a certain number of days, works well.
*Leasing. A complete lease will give your child all the advantages of horse ownership without the initial cost of buying. The cost of horse care and boarding will be your responsibility. There may also be an additional charge for highly desired animals. Leasing can be a great way to test the waters before you commit. To ensure maximum success, it is important to carefully review all terms and conditions of the lease, including responsibilities and privileges, before you sign.
Horse involvement is not without cost, but as parents all know, expenses are a relative term when it comes to child rearing. Horses are a great way to engage children in the crucial years between pre-teen and young adulthood.
McEachin says that horseback riding is “worth every penny” in light of all this.
I can do it! Children learn to care for horses and develop balance, coordination and flexibility. Horseback riding is a proven aerobic exercise option that gets kids off their screens and onto the horse.
These days, negative influences on children are common in mass media, pop culture and politics. These negative influences can be countered by riding and caring for horses. It promotes positive character traits such as responsibility, patience, self-discipline and empathy.
This has been known by riding families for years. Dishon also points out that even non-horsey families can appreciate the benefits of horses for their children.
“One mother of a horse-crazed teenager had serious doubts about her daughter getting involved in the beginning. Nine years later, she said that she finally understood. It’s not about her riding ability. It’s about giving her all the tools she needs to be successful in life.
Dishon says that this is the key.
She explains that lessons learned from horses are more powerful than those taught to youth. However, they still represent the fundamentals that we want to teach all children. The difference with horses is that the children are more excited to learn and see these lessons than if they receive them from their parents or other authority figures.
Recent research confirms the positive effects of horse participation. A study that was sponsored by the AYHC examined young people who participated in 4-H, Pony Club or American Quarter Horse Youth Association activities, as well as National High School Rodeo Association activities, in one eastern and one west state. The results showed a positive correlation between horsemanship skills, life skills, and the findings.
“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). The greatest benefits for 4-H members were learning how to do their best, and building self-respect.
One 17-year old participant in a study said, “I have learned that hard work is important and believing in yourself can get me anywhere.”
Dishon points out that horses can help children develop kindness and empathy.
She says that when youth take responsibility for caring for horses, they learn to be considerate of others and see the larger picture.
Spooner, who helps college students make educated decisions regarding equine welfare and health, said Spooner is already seeing her young daughter make positive choices that reflect real caring.
She’ll give her pony a break during classes and ensure he gets water before giving him a drink. Spooner says that kindness to an equine companion is a sign of kindness in all areas of our lives.
Horses can also be used to teach children how to lead in all possible senses.
Start with Groups
* 4-H. The 4-H horse program is the best place for children to get involved with horses. Ownership is not required. For information about 4-H horse clubs in your area, or to start one, contact your county extension agent ( 4h.org/find ).
* Certified Horsemanship Association. CHA certifies riding instructors and accredits equine facilities. It also produces materials and conferences. Chainstructors.com will help you find a certified instructor near you.
* Time to Ride. Through partnerships with groups like the American Quarter Horse Association (AHA), Time to Ride connects American families to local resources such as lessons, camps and clubs. Timetoride.com has an interactive web site.
* Interscholastic Equestrian Association. The IEA supplies horses and tack to every aspiring rider and serves middle and high school students in the United States. Roxane Durant ( rideiea.org), co-founder of IEA and executive director, says, “Because our’re the low cost entry into equestrian sports, we’re exposing young riders who might otherwise have the financial capability or access to compete,”
* Equestrian and breed groups. Check with the organization to see if they have any special programs for beginners. See HorseandRider.com for examples of how such groups attract new enthusiasts.
Horse involvement can be costly, but there are ways you can reduce costs depending on what activities your child chooses. You don’t even need a horse to “do the thing”.
Employers and colleges today are searching for young leaders. They also need young people who can work in a group. Horse involvement fosters both competencies.
McEachin observes that “just working with horses requires the rider take on a leadership position every time they work together.” This refers to the need for a handler or rider “to be the leader” to earn respect from horses. Children learn from their horses that it is better to treat them as partners than as servants.
McEachin says that there is something about the sport that involves living beings with brains, which forces you to examine your behavior when working with them and brings out your best qualities. McEachin also notes that equine organizations offer youngsters additional opportunities to develop leadership skills.
She recalls that as an 8-year old, she was reluctant to give my age and name to my 4-H group. Later, I was participating in the statewide council and leading meetings. I was able to not only learn leadership skills but also to practice them regularly through 4-H.
“I spent the last year at Penn State,” says the accounting major. “And as soon as I stepped foot on campus, I could immediately see a difference in me and my peers.” I have used leadership training, out of all the things I learned from 4-H and horse participation, the most valuable in the real-world.
Dishon felt that her equestrian experience helped her in academic settings as well.
“With horses, the key attributes needed for success–consistency, patience, dedication–are also essential in school (and in life in general). She says that college can be difficult and there are many different paths to take. “The lessons you have learned about prioritizing your barn time will give you great value and new meaning.”
What about the older grades? Horse involvement is also a boon. Spooner claims she is seeing positive results in her daughter. Spooner says Grace is already a leader in her class and other activities, such as dancing. I believe it is due to the skills she has gained with her pony.
Horses are beneficial for children from all walks of life. Although horses can be costly, they don’t have to be prohibitively expensive (see “Parsing – and Minimizing–the Price,” page 68). There are many organizations that can help kids connect with horses. See “Groups to get you started” at right.
Get your child in the saddle and encourage other parents with their children to do the same. It will make the world a better place.