Humans and horses have been relating to and with each other for at least 5,000 years. Horses benefitted from these relations by receiving food, medical treatment and protection from predators and the elements.However, it is fair to assume that the original purpose of these relationships was primarily for human benefit – food, transport and military advantage. Today, the benefits of interacting with horses are much more broadly recognised.
Horse riding is great exercise. This has been shown using a MET score, a way to measure the intensity of different activities. MET stands for Metabolic Equivalent Task and one MET is equal to the rate you burn calories while you are sitting. Horse-riding has been calculated at 5.5 METs. That puts it in the category of moderately intense physical activity (within the range of 3 to 6 METs).
However, the effort required depends on what pace you are riding. Riding the walk is 3.8, trotting is 5.8, and cantering and galloping are 7.8 (a score above 6 METs is considered a vigorous intensity activity). Jumping is even higher, at 9. This means that riding a horse over jumps burns nine times more calories than sitting. That is more than football, handball, lacrosse, mountain climbing, singles tennis, and volleyball which all have a MET of 8.
Like any scoring system, the MET scores are best seen as indications only. 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 improve – fitness, balance, coordination, muscle tone and body awareness.
You don’t just have to ride to get the physical benefits from horses. Looking after horses requires lots of different tasks like grooming, saddling, cleaning stables and yards, carrying bags of feed and walking them 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.
So we know that horse riding and caring for horses can help you get active and improve your fitness, but there are other benefits that you may not have considered before.
Being around horses means getting outdoors. There are lots of benefits to being outside. A key one is getting vitamin D from sunshine. Daylight also helps the body regulate its internal 24-hour clock (circadian rhythm) so we get sleepy at night and feel wakeful during the day. Plus, sunlight exposure has also been found to reduce near-sightedness (myopia) in children.
Overall, being outdoors has also been 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.
That makes horses twice as useful for our wellbeing.
You have to go out into nature to connect with them (even a city stable is a little piece of nature) and horses can take you much deeper into natural places like forests, parks and woods than you could go in a car, on a motorbike or even on your own feet.
You can learn a lot about animal behaviour and human psychology by working with and training horses. Like people, horses respond much better to positive reinforcement than punishment.Horses can be trained very easily with positive reinforcement.They like food treats such as carrots and apples but even a rub or a scratch will do as a reward.This mimics the way that horses groom one another on their necks, backs and withers (the part of their body where their neck meets their shoulders and where we measure their height).
Positive reinforcement training means paying attention to the good things and ignoring the bad things.
In the early stages oftraining, it means rewarding every little try. This is good for training horses but it also helps us notice the good things that are going on around us. This is an important mindset for contextualising and coping with and the negative things that happen from time to time.
The mood enhancing effect of being around horses is widely reported and is one of the reasons why they are often involved in therapy for people living with stress or trauma. Touching animals can cause humans to release oxytocin, which has a role in social bonding and relaxation. Touching horses can be quite different to touching a cat or a dog, simply because horses are so big. Horses can be intimidating, so some people get a real confidence boost out of riding or just touching them. Being able to influence how and where a horse moves can also improve self-esteem. Horses can help us understand that size doesn’t matter. That is, it doesn’t matter how small (or quiet) we are (or feel) if we focus on our communication skills.
At the same time, if you are physically big and loud, you need to reflect on how that makes other people and creatures feel.Horses can help with this too. From an evolutionary perspective, horses are prey and humans are their predators.Sometimes we can come across as aggressive and intimidating to horses (or other humans) even when we don’t mean to be or if we don’t feel that way.
Horses can give us immediate feedback about our emotional state and how we are presenting to others.
For example, a horse might be difficult to catch if we stride out into the paddock in a hurried, predatorial or preoccupied manner.
Horses are often said to be mirrors for humans.That doesn’t mean they do exactly what humans do, but that their reactions hold up a mirror for people to look at themselves in new ways.If the person in our example recognises that the horse they are trying to catch is showing signs of fear, then they can ask themselves if they are feeling angry or if they are thinking about an event that made them angry – instead of focusing on the present which is their ability to relate to the horse in front of them. In this way, being around horses can help people to learn to control their behaviour and regulate their emotions.
Incidentally, those who think horses know when people are afraid can be reassured by one study that found no evidence to show that people who are fearful of horses are at any additional risk of injury.
So even if horses can smell your fear, you won’t be in any extra danger.
Being mindful – or just being
Despite domestication by humans, horses still have all the instincts of a prey animal.In particular, they have a fear of new things (neophobia) and a highly tuned flight instinct (their first reaction is usually to run – often at new things!). After all, that’s how they have survived as a species. Horses have the largest eyes of any land mammal and a range of vision of up to 350 degrees. Their ears capture a wider range of high-frequency tones than the human ear. Because of this, horses are incredibly sensitive to their environment and they notice even slight changes to familiar environments, such as a flowerpot that has been moved.
It’s important to have a healthy respect for horses for your own safety, too. Because of their size (the average horse weighs around 500 kilos) and prey-animal instincts, they can be dangerous to humans. In flight mode, they can run into or crush people who are in their way. If they are cornered and scared, they can kick or bite. Whilst these risks are always present, they can be easily addressed. All it needs is a little bit of knowledge and a lot of mindfulness.
By watching the body language of horses, it is possible to pre-empt their mental state and likely reactions.
By being aware of your surroundings (situational awareness), you can anticipate events that might scare them (someone letting go of a plastic bag on a windy day, for example). So you have to be incredibly aware and mindful when interacting with horses. The good thing about this is that whilst you are focused on your horse, you are giving your mind a break from worrying about other things in life that your horse doesn’t care about (such as homework, exams, arguments with friends, what you look like or what other people think about you). This is another way in which being around horses can reduce stress, improve mindfulness and increase confidence.
Any time we are with an animal, we have to learn to communicate in ways which are quite different to how we communicate with other humans. Horses can be trained to respond to voice commands but that is very different from having a verbal conversation. Still, you can have a conversation with horses via body language. Horses are very effective nonverbal communicators. ‘Conversations’ with horses require mindfulness, focus and self-awareness as described above. Humans need to learn how to read horse’s body language to try to understand how they are at any point in time.
Trying to imagine how the world is from the horse’s perspective helps us to develop empathy for others and ability to consider things from different points of view.
Postures such as ears back, head high, quick breathing, foot stomping, tight lips/chin and tail swishing, are generally signs of a horses’ irritation. These are the signs that tell you to approach with caution. On the other hand, ears forward, licking and chewing, lowered head, deep blowing breaths, loose mouth and chin with ‘soft eyes’ are signs of relaxation which generally mean the horse is comfortable and safe to approach when you have their attention. It is a little harder to tell if horses are in pain. Prey animals generally hide their signs of pain in case they attract a predator. This is why scientists have made a special chart of the equine pain face to help people recognise when their horse is injured or sick.
Horses are also very good at ‘reading’ human bodies and expressions. In fact, horses and humans share some facial expressions, including the muscles used to communicate to one another – especially around their lips, nostrils and eyes. Horses have also been found to use referential gestures to signal to a human the location of something they can’t reach themselves. For example, horses have been recorded pointing, nodding or shaking their heads at food buckets out of reach when there is a human nearby to help them.
Trust and teamwork
The skills needed to ‘read’ and respond to the body language of horses can help to improve the ways in which we communicate with other humans. But there is something special about our relationship with horses that makes communicating with a horse so different from communicating with other animals. We ride horses. This is probably one of the things we take most for granted about them. There are very few animals that humans ride.
When we ride horses, we are not face-to-face with them. Instead of communicating with them using body language that we can see, we communicate through body language that we can feel.
When we ride, the things that keep us feeling safe are trust and teamwork. This is two-sided. Both humans and horses need to trust one another and work together as a team. But as you can see from this article, horses don’t just help us become better riders, they can help us become better humans.
About the author
Dr Kirrilly Thompson is the Participation Manager of Pony Club Australia. This article first appeared in ‘Health & PE’, Volume 3, Issue 3, 2019, published by Warringal Publications.