The Benefits of Equine-Assisted Programs for Children
Equine programs, from horseback riding to equine-assisted therapy, have long been known to help improve human mental health.
Winston Churchill was famously quoted as saying:
“The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.”
Indeed, people across generations, from little girls to old men, have been captivated by horses for centuries.
Although pioneered in the 1970’s, equine-assisted programs have increased in popularity in recent years. A number of studies conducted have shown that horses are particularly good for children; and have exceptional benefits for children with emotional or behavioural issues.
How do horses help us heal?
Horses have lived on earth for more than 50 million years – almost ten times longer than man’s earliest ancestors (that evolved around 6 million years ago). And this has given them some remarkable evolutionary adaptations.
One of these adaptations is their incredible herd synchronicity. In a herd of a thousand or more, if one horse that’s ‘standing guard’ senses danger and raises their adrenaline*, the entire herd within milliseconds will synchronise with the alert horse – all ready to flee at a moment’s notice.
*As with all living creatures, this adrenaline rush gives them the extra oxygen boost they need to outrun a predator (or other perceived danger).
This synchronicity is not exclusive to horse-horse interactions. They can synchronise with all animals, including humans. And as such, have an amazing ability to sense our true emotions.
So, while many of us are adapt at hiding our true emotions and feelings from others (and often ourselves) we cannot ‘hide’ from a horse. And this makes them a wonderful mirror to our true selves – synchronizing and mirroring back to us the emotions we have been hiding or avoiding.
In the right setting, participants in an equine-assisted program, learn to communicate with horses in a non-violent, non-coercive manner, and have the opportunity to explore how the animals react to their different moods, vocal tones, and body language.
This ‘feedback’ from the horses helps them distinguish between hurtful or harmful behaviours, and teaches acceptable ways of asserting themselves.
This interaction also provides the perfect opportunity for lessons on the importance of trust and respect in a relationship.
Benefits of equine-assisted programs for children
Equine-assisted programs have been proven to be beneficial to all, and are particularly beneficial to children struggling with:
- Bullying (both bullies and those being bullied)
- Emotional & Behavioural Issues
- PTSD & Trauma
- Shyness / Withdrawn
There are many benefits for of time spent with horses for children and teens, especially in a well-crafted equine-assisted therapy (EAT) or equine-assisted learning (EAL) program. These include:
Participants learn how to improve their self-awareness and regulate their body language and emotions through specialised interactions with horses.
Often ground-based, simple equine interactions including leading and herding exercises, help develop participants’ confidence and self-worth.
As they establish a relationship with the horses around them, participants gain the horses’ trust and unconditional love. For many, this is a very new experience – one that can be powerfully affirming. And participants often feel an incredible sense of accomplishment after their equine experience.
Enhanced Communication Skills
As they learn to work in groups, build sound groundwork methods, and work in a partnership with their horses, participants learn the value of effective communication and the power of teamwork. They also build resilience and learn to practice essential skills like ‘other focus’.
Equine interactions for your children
All children and teens can benefit greatly from once-off, or preferably on-going, interactions with horses. We recommend researching equine-assisted programs in your area.
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 there are no structured programs available, an alternative is getting in touch with a local equine rescue centre about the possibility of visiting their facilities to groom and interact with their horses as a family.
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 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.