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It’s official: Horses are good for us, they get us close to nature

New research shows horses are good for the soul because they get us close to nature.

When you go for a ride, do you feel more “at one with nature”? If you do—and in particular if that makes you happy—you’re not alone. According to a new study, horseback riders feel more in touch with nature, and this has positive consequences for their well-being.

People who ride horses spend more time outdoors in “green” areas away from cities and generally feel better physically and mentally than people who don’t own any animals, said Gabriele Schwarzmüller-Erber, PhD candidate, of the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna and the University of Applied Sciences, both in Vienna, Austria.

Similar to dog ownership, horseback riding allows people to be more connected to nature, and activities with these animals in a natural environment “is a source of wellbeing, enjoyment, self-confidence, and social contacts,” Schwarzmüller-Erber said.

That’s of particular importance in middle-aged and older people, who often get so involved with work and routines that they find less time for exercise and outdoor activity. “Working periods increase, and, consequently, health-related problems increase as well,” she said. “Horseback riding acts as an opportunity for physical activity and mental relaxation.”

In their study; Schwarzmüller-Erber and her fellow researchers carried out extensive questionnaires with nearly 200 people over age 44 who either owned dogs, rode horses, or had no pets at all. There were 67 recreational horse riders, 57 dog owners, and 54 people without pets who answered 14 pages of written questions and spoke with researchers by phone or in person.

They found that dog owners and riders were equally attached to their animals, but dog owners referred more to “loving” their pets, she said. Both groups benefited from better moods and general well-being than people who had no animals. In particular, they noted these people had happy feelings when spending time with their animals and just afterwards.

Dog owners and horseback riders also had similar levels of connection with nature, Schwarzmüller-Erber said. Although they got about as much exercise as people without pets, horseback riders tended to feel like they had better physical health. That might be because horseback riding involves the use of multiple musculoskeletal regions, involving trunk stabilization and muscle strengthening. And in fact, the more horseback riders and dog owners felt connected to nature, the healthier they said they felt.

“Natural environments are associated with positive feelings, decreased depression, and higher perceived mental health,” she stated in her paper.

As a horseback rider herself, Schwarzmüller-Erber said she noticed that riders often preferred to ride outdoors instead of in an indoor arena even during inclement weather. “I asked myself whether this is due to nature relatedness, and I wanted to compare it to dog owners, who always have to walk with their dogs even in bad weather conditions,” she told Horses and People.

Her study underlines the fact that horses can bring both physical and mental wellbeing to humans, in particular as they reach more advanced ages. “Horseback riding makes it possible to reach the recommended activity levels (150 min of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week) even at an older age, and thereby to increase well-being (esp. physical and psychological),” Schwarzmüller-Erber said.

Her research did not include people who are both horseback riders and dog owners, she said, but she would like to see that pursued in a separate study.

This study is open access and can be read here – Nature Relatedness of Recreational Horseback Riders and Its Association with Mood and Wellbeing by by Gabriele Schwarzmüller-Erber, Harald Stummer, Manfred Maier and Michael Kundi.

Christa Lesté-Lasserre

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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