Therapeutic riding is a well-established and highly regarded equine-assisted activity for helping people with physical disabilities. Horses are also becoming increasingly recognised for their beneficial role in interventions designed to improve mental health and wellbeing, especially in relation to PTSD and other forms of trauma.
But horses don’t have to be put in the role of therapist for us to benefit. Being around horses can help all of us become better human beings – even horse people who mostly take their routine interactions with horses for granted.
In this article, I discuss how horses can provide the motivation and the means for us to improve ourselves in everyday ways – no therapist required. Horses can motivate us to get active, go outdoors and be more aware of ourselves and the impact we have on humans and horses.
Anyone who has ridden a horse will know that horse riding is a sport. One way to measure the intensity of different physical activities is using a MET score. MET stands for Metabolic Equivalent Task and one MET is equal to the rate you burn calories while you are sitting.
According to a 2011 activity compendium, horse-riding has been calculated at an average of 5.5 METs. That means that horse riding burns 5.5 times more calories than sitting, which puts horse-riding in the category of moderate intensity physical activity (a range of 3 to 6 METs).
However, the effort required for horse-riding depends on what pace you are riding. Riding the walk is 3.8 METs, trotting is 5.8, cantering and galloping are 7.8 (this score above 6 METs is considered a vigorous intensity activity), whilst jumping is a score of 9. In other words, riding a horse over jumps burns nine times more calories than sitting. That is a higher MET than has been calculated for football, handball, lacrosse, mountain climbing, singles tennis, and volleyball which all have a MET of 8. And at 1.8, driving a horse carriage burns almost twice as many calories as sitting.
Like any scoring system, the MET scores should only be seen as indications. But one thing is clear; horse riders are not just sitting in the saddle making the horse do all the work. Riding requires – and therefore helps you to improve – physical fitness, but you don’t even have to ride to get physical benefits from horses.
Looking after horses entails physical activities like grooming, saddling, cleaning stables and yards, carrying bags of feed and walking horses to and from their paddocks. These activities have a MET score of 4.3 which is the same as archery or walking around a golf course carrying clubs. Lincoln Park Horse and Human Rehabilitation Centre in South Australia advertise ‘trail walks’ where people can lead their horses together.
This concept is a great for so many reasons – leading beginners, rehabilitating injured horses and giving young horses new experiences. You might think that taking a horse for a walk is an odd thing to do, but if walking a dog has a MET score of 3, then you can imagine the MET of walking a horse (and who said you had to ride to be a horse person?).
Being around horses can help all of us become better human beings – even horse people who mostly take their routine interactions with horses for granted.
Despite horse sports and horse-related activities clearly being physical activities, their public perception as not-mainstream means that they can have particular appeal for children and adults who do not identify as ‘sporty’ or ‘outdoorsy’. In that regard, horses can be a gateway to increased physical and outdoor activity. In fact, one of the often-overlooked reasons behind the success of equine-assisted interventions is the practical fact that being around horses usually means getting outdoors.
There are lots of benefits to getting outside. The main one is getting some Vitamin D from sunshine, but daylight helps our bodies regulate our circadian rhythm – the internal body clock that makes us feel sleepy at night and wakeful during the day.
Being outdoors has particular benefits to children, as exposure to sunlight has also been found to reduce their occurrence of myopia (near-sightedness). Horses can be a great motivator for those who might not otherwise have any need or desire to go outdoors or get active.
Overall, being outdoors is associated with increased happiness and reduced stress. Some of these effects are chemical but they may also be explained by something called the biophilia hypothesis. This is a theory stating that humans have a biological drive to connect with nature and animals.
This is where equine-assisted interventions can differ from programs involving other animals such as dogs. You have to go out into nature to connect with horses (even a city stable is a little piece of nature) and horses can take you much deeper into natural places like forests, beaches, parks and scrublands than you may have been able to go in a car, on a motorbike or even on foot.
Being mindful – or just being
Being around horses is a great way to become mindful of our thoughts, bodies and the present. However, being around horses is also a great way to become complacent about what being around horses even requires.
Regular equestrians have to put effort into really noticing the horses with whom they are familiar, considering how they experience their environment, how they relate with us and what this looks like at any given moment of any particular day.
How many of us watch our horse’s expression and body language before we have even opened the gate to their paddock? Do we routinely check to see what distance they are most comfortable maintaining from us and if that changes if we wait, step back or move forwards? How long does it take for them to react, how do they react and what are they communicating? And throughout this period of observation and noticing, what do we notice in our bodies, our breath and our emotions?
I recently attended EQUUSOMA® training with Sarah Schlote. Sarah introduced me to a way of seeing humans and horses that has provided a whole new way of thinking about being with horses. She encouraged us to see one another – and our horses – for the mammalian nervous systems that each of us share.
The activity of nervous systems changes, rises and falls in response to internal and external stimuli as well as other nervous systems. It is hard – if not impossible – to not be mindful and in the present moment whilst paying your nervous system some attention.
What is my nervous system doing? What about my horse’s nervous system? This is more than just assessing a horse as being quiet, sleepy, grumpy, inattentive or ‘on its toes’. It is about taking a dynamic view of nervous systems as rising, falling and going through different stages in relation to others and the world around them.
If I was to graph the nervous system, is it tracking up or down? What happened just beforehand? What happens if I just stay aware? If I think of the nervous system as continually cycling, has the cycle even ended and how do I know?
The answer to each of these questions has implications for what we are capable of thinking, feeling, learning, doing or responding to at any given moment.
Being around horses can help people to learn self-control of their behaviour and self-regulation of their emotions
There are certain extremes in the cycling of nervous system activity during which it is futile to ask or expect a horse or a human to do anything.
In extreme states of hyperarousal or hypoarousal – when we might describe a horse or a human as being in flight, fight or ‘flooded’ (or crazy, stubborn, or ‘checked out’) – the best we can do is to create a feeling of safety. We can help each other out by providing a safe nervous system to provide a touchstone for co-regulation.
Co-regulation is essential for a nervous system to learn how to self-regulate. For example, human infants are unable to self-regulate their internal emotions and reactions to external stimuli. However, when they are soothed by a caregiver’s voice, hold or touch they are being co-regulated by another, which helps them learn to self-regulate.
Whilst it is true that one nervous system may trigger another into an increased state of dysregulation, anxiety or excitement, the assumption is that nervous systems are attracted to more regulated nervous systems and the feelings of increased safety, confidence and mastery they can provide.
Thinking through human-human and human-horse relationships through this framework of nervous systems helps to explain why some humans seem to have a calming effect on other humans and/or horses, or why some rides feel better than others.
Think about your last ride. Was it a good one or a bad one? Can you recall what state your nervous system was in before you mounted (or even when we were haltering our horse, or way before that when we were approaching the gate).
Now, can you remember what state your horse’s nervous system was in, how you knew and whether or not you allowed the time and space for both nervous systems to return to a state of regulation?
If you felt nervous, impatient or frustrated, did you get on anyway, or did you wait to see if that feeling gave way to something else? This level of awareness might provide new insight into that ride.
If you can’t remember those details from your last ride, don’t worry – you are in good company. Sadly, it is hard enough for so many of us to fit horses into our lives that we simply don’t take the time to notice, or prioritise the need to do so.
Starting to look at other living creatures as a room full of nervous systems has been particularly impactful. It feels like I have Superman’s x-ray vision, allowing me to see humans and horses in new ways, and better understand my interactions with them.
For example, when I perceive a sales assistant or a horse as being in a state of dysregulation – not just being rude or difficult, I can respond in a proactive rather than a reactive way. Instead of taking their behaviour personally (which would impact my nervous system as much as theirs), I can think about the role I play in co-regulation and how I can provide time and/or space for their nervous system to move in a direction of self-regulation. Sometimes all it takes is a step back and a deep, slow breath.
Taking a nervous system view of relationships is not only useful and insightful – it challenges some of our long-held beliefs.
For example, removing pressure from a horse (or a human) isn’t always about backing off and ‘letting them win’ or reinforcing their undesirable behaviour. Instead, it can be about recognising their window of tolerance (which can change at any moment in time), allowing their nervous system to reach a point where they can cope with our request and maybe even building greater tolerance over time.
That is when we are really setting one another up for success and ultimately, for self-regulation and the confidence that it comes with.
Thinking about nervous systems, self-regulation and co-regulation whilst you are hanging out with your horse can have wide-ranging benefits. When undertaken with polite observation, free of judgement, this framework can motivate mindfulness, being present, noticing your surroundings, be aware of self, other and the two of you together.
Whilst you are attending to these thoughts, you are giving your mind a break from worrying about other things in life that your horse will never care about (such as homework, exams, arguments with friends, what you look like, what time it is, how late you are for whatever, what notifications are on your phone, what your boss is waiting for, or what other people think about you, etc.). And that freedom gives yourself a chance to self-regulate and your nervous system a chance to reset and rebalance.
These are just a few ways in which being around horses can help all of us become better human beings. But there are no guarantees. Horses are not a magical panacea to human ills. They do, however, provide us with opportunities to be better versions of ourselves.
More importantly, perhaps the ultimate way in which horses can help us become better humans is for us to care more about making sure that our interactions with others (human and animal) benefits all and contributes to feelings of safety.
- MET Scores: 2011 Compendium of Physical Activities complied by Stephen Herrmann and available at https://sites.google.com/site/compendiumofphysicalactivities/Activity-Categories/sports
- Equusoma: Horse-Human Trauma Recovery https://equusoma.com
- The most subtle ways in which horses communicate: https://calmingsignalsofhorses.com/en/