We all have our reasons for why we ride. There are concrete reasons and more abstract reasons for why we dedicate our time, our money and sometimes our lives to these beautiful animals. For the industry to stay strong, it is a great thing to have so many passionate advocates to help draw in new people into the sport. So if you know someone who is curious about riding, here are 12 key benefits to horseback riding to share with others thanks to three very involved Certified Horsemanship Association (CHA) certified riding instructors.
Positive Character Traits
Riding helps to develop positive character traits, because along with the actual riding comes the care of the animal. Learning about horse health, tack and farm care all involves a lot of time, hard work, dedication and responsibility in order to put that knowledge into practice for the benefit of the horse. Riding also teaches patience, discipline, understanding, empathy, compassion and self-control.
“There are so many character traits that horses have helped to develop in me,” said CHA Master Instructor and Certified Instructor of Riders with Disabilities Shellie Carmoney of Johnston, Iowa. As the Equestrian Program Specialist at Jester Park Equestrian Center in Granger, Iowa, she guides instructors, teaches able-bodied riders and riders with disabilities, works with driving teams and serves the public through various programs.
“The one trait that stands out the most in my life is selflessness,” continued Carmoney. “You cannot be self-centered and be a good horse owner. I have to find the balance in keeping myself healthy so that I can keep my horses healthy. All horse owners know that your horse will inevitably need you when you have plans to go somewhere, and you lay those plans aside in the drop of a hat to take care of that need.”
Horseback riding is considered a moderate-intensity exercise when done for at least a half-hour or more, three times per week, after the 2011 publication of a study commissioned by the British Horse Society (BHS) to look at the physical health, psychological and well-being benefits of recreational riding. Riding can burn hundreds of calories, as does grooming and saddling. Of course, actual calories burned varies and depends on body weight, workout intensity, conditioning level and metabolism.
“The physical work it takes to take care of a horse is in addition to the physical work it takes to ride one,” said Carmoney. “I don't have a gym membership because lugging water buckets and hay through the snowdrift is the best resistance training a gal could ask for!”
Riders can develop strength, reflexes, coordination, a sense of balance and cardio benefits. There are many benefits that riding offers to riders with disabilities that they can’t get with any other form of therapy or exercise. CHA Master and Clinic Instructor Debbie Holmes of Chino Valley, Arizona, has been a therapeutic riding instructor with Horses with Heart since 2010. Before that, she was an instructor and barn manager for Arizona State University’s horse program. Her background includes teaching riders with emotional and physical disabilities, at-risk youth, and she has served as a Special Olympics delegation head coach. In addition, she is a PATH Registered Instructor and Equine Specialist, and has a Level One certification through the American Hippotherapy Association.
She described the transformation of a young rider with disabilities after less than a year of riding: “She comes to the barn scared, on crutches, and unable to speak or hear,” said Holmes. “Her first few rides are side saddle due the extreme spasticity in her legs and hips. Nine months later, she wins her division in a Special Olympics show. That is what the warmth and movement of a horse can accomplish!”
The 2011 British Horse Society study also concluded that horseback riding stimulated mainly positive psychological feelings. More than 80% of rider questionnaire responses claim that horseback riding made them feel "quite a lot" or "extremely cheerful, relaxed, happy, or active."
In addition, developing a skill that not everyone knows is beneficial for developing confidence and self-esteem. As students meet goals set by a riding instructor, they learn just what they are capable of.
Holmes describes a group of special needs riders who she had been teaching to jump: “During our year-end show, they showed off their jumping skills to the song, ‘We are the Champions.’ There was no doubt to all who were present that these kids considered themselves champions, probably for the first time in their lives.”
CHA Certified English and Western Instructor Ashleigh Hamill of Arvada, Colorado, described how horses are therapeutic by nature. Hamill teaches riders of all abilities at her Frontrange Equestrians in Lafayette, Colorado. She has worked at Castle Rock Arabians in Walnut Creek, California, and as Director at Bella Oaks Stables in Martinez, California, where she was responsible for the design and implementation of all recreational riding programs.
“If you don't leave your troubles, stress and distractions behind when you’re working with a horse or riding, you can get hurt,” she said. “That thought is always present, if even subconsciously. So folks seem to be forced to live in the hands-on moment with a horse.”
Problem solving is an everyday occurrence around a barn. “My daddy always told me to think about the worst case scenario for a horse-related emergency, because chances were, that emergency was going to be a doozy! He was right of course!” said Carmoney. “Think of the most bizarre situation and Bingo ... you have a platform for Problem Solving 101. Managing a large herd during my camp days kept me on my toes and really taught me to stay calm and control the chaos!”
Hamill described her journey with a 9-year-old rider with bipolar disorder as she learned with Hamill’s Arabian, OKW Octane. “Her first lesson with me she screamed and ran out of the grooming stall, cursed and threw a brush at me,” recalled Hamill. “We stuck together, and I kept working with her. She won two high point awards this year in walk/trot western pleasure and equitation.
“I have to give the credit mostly to Octane as he was the one who changed her life,” she continued. “He never let her off the hook, he was always there patiently awaiting her attention and for her to be responsible for him. He made her focus on him rather than her own emotions all the time.”
According to the BHS study, one of the biggest motivations for going horseback riding was "interaction with horses." Horses make wonderful companion animals and many equestrians call horses their best friends, including Carmoney. “I can be having the worst day ever, and give me five minutes in the presence of one of our horses, and it helps my outlook on the situation,” she saids. “My gelding, Aragorn, is the comforter of my soul. I love all horses, but his friendship I cherish the most.”
Hamill acknowledged how she has seen the horse as a vehicle to acceptance for the human. “They are universal in that horses don’t acknowledge weight, appearance, race, etc.,” said Hamill. “Horses transcend boundaries and judgments, and the human is drawn to that acceptance.”
If we look at the benefits that therapeutic riding has been shown to give to riders, improved interpersonal skills and socialization skills are on the list. Holmes described a withdrawn 10-year-old student with socialization challenges: “Over a period of two years, she blossomed into a young lady who has made friends, expresses her needs, and shows pride in her riding abilities,” Holmes added.
The horse industry is a very social community. Riders will socialize with their horses, each other, their instructors, barn employees, other competitors, etc. The equine industry is one where people help each other with their horses, at shows, on trail rides, during lessons and outside of the barn. There are countless horse organizations to join—from breed registries, to sports organizations, discipline-specific organizations, local clubs, youth organizations, etc. Once you begin riding, you become part of this whole new wonderful world.
“Horses are great for a social life,” said Carmoney. “They have allowed me to travel all over the nation and network and build friendships based on the mutual love of horses. If you are the ‘crazy horse girl,’ there is never a shortage of non-horse people who have an interest, so sharing my passion with others has led to great friendships in my life!”
Those who like to compete have a number of disciplines and horse sports to choose from in order to compete with their equine partner. In addition, there are more recreational-based options, such as competitive trail and endurance riding. According to Hamill, “Horse showing/competition teaches life lessons about how to handle success as well as failure, equally important in my mind to know how to do both. Horse showing is a metaphor for the tests and challenges we face in life. Heart breaking, overwhelming, exhilarating, stressful, exhausting, but in the end, a personal journey between yourself and your horse.”
Transportation/Seeing the World/Being Close to Nature
Obviously the domestication of horses for transportation changed the course of history. Horses help us see parts of the world inaccessible by car or on foot. In addition, they provide the chance to have amazing adventures. Carmoney has had several adventures that she looks back on fondly: “I have had the opportunity to ride all over the U.S. and even managed to find horses in Belize, Central America, where I was off the beaten path alright!”
Our society spends much time indoors. The ability to get closer to nature is why many people started riding, according to the BHS study. “Horses are a part of nature,” said Holmes. “They live, eat and breathe in the natural world. The horseman is required to join their world, to become a part of Nature. Some say that the best part about riding is the ability to get away from the hustle of everyday life. I couldn't agree more!”
There are a plethora of lifestyles for equestrians with a variety of factors determining what that lifestyle looks like. There is the ability to create an entire life revolved around horses, like Carmoney, Hamill and Holmes have done. “Horse people are unique, and I love how different our lives are depending upon which ‘branch’ of horses we are in,” said Carmoney.
Horses also provide many jobs in a wide range of roles. According to the American Horse Council, who conducted a national study in 2005 through Deloitte Consulting, 4.6 million Americans were involved in the industry as horse owners, service providers, employees and volunteers with 460,000 with a full-time job and a direct economic effect on the U.S. of $39 billion annually at the time of the study. “A career in the equine industry offers many different and rewarding avenues,” said Holmes.
Carmoney has spent most of her life working with horses. “I am one of the few that is blessed enough to make my living in the horse industry,” she said. “I take that seriously. I feel that I have a responsibility to share my passion with others and to help build up the next generation of horsemen/horsewomen. I feel fortunate to lead such an incredible life.”
There is nothing like loving a horse, except for the love returned. The human-animal bond is one of the best reasons to learn to ride. Horses are willing to become true partners with their riders. Holmes has one special mare in mind when she thinks about the special love between horse and human: “She was my girl. The one I could go to in the middle of the night and lay with in the grass. She stayed by my side through many of life's challenges and taught me how to live, love and ride. Always waiting for me at the gate and knowing when I needed comfort. She was my one and only, the one who will never be replaced.”
Learning any new skill involves hard work and dedication, but anybody who has learned to ride a horse, or driven one, knows that it is just plain fun. There is adventure, freedom, movement and gracefulness. It makes amazing feats of athleticism possible. It is a total thrill to gallop across an open field in tune with your horse.
Not every minute spent in the saddle is like the scene from a movie. Yet, despite all of the work, dirty stalls, chores by the bucket-load, and exhausting days, horse people that stick with it all find it worth it. It can be the time of your life. Carmoney sums up all of the benefits best: “Surround me with horses, and I will forever feel that I am living a full life.”
Sarah Evers Conrad is currently a freelance writer and founder of All In Stride Marketing in Lexington, KY. She has a BA in Journalism and Equine Science from Western Kentucky University. As a lifelong horse lover and equestrian, Conrad started her career atThe Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Caremagazine. She has also worked for the United States Equestrian Federation as Managing Editor ofEquestrianmagazine and Director of E-Communications. She then spent several years as a travel writer.