Dr. Sheryl King is professor emeritus of Southern Illinois University, a Fellow of the Equine Science Society, a Best Horse Practices Summit board member, and lifelong horsewoman. In this guest column, she writes about the range of benefits from working and owning horses.
By Dr. Sheryl King:
“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man” Winston Churchill
It seems Churchill had it right in more ways than he imagined. Horses are indeed good for people. Not only do they labor on our behalf, horses stimulate our body and souls.
How does owning a horse make us healthier? Many of us are overweight and don’t get enough exercise. National guidelines call for thirty minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, five days a week. Riding a horse carries the equivalent calorie expenditure as a moderately brisk walk; trotting and galloping can increase that exercise level to the equivalent of jogging or swimming. Add to those pleasant activities, the effort of catching your horse at pasture, grooming, tacking, and hotwalking and you have yourself a workout.
Activity guidelines also include muscle-strengthening exercise on two or more days a week that works all major muscle groups. Horse barns are the equivalent of weight-training gyms! If you care for your horse yourself, you are likely indulging in weight training as well as aerobic exercise. Horses produce about fifty pounds of manure a day, add sodden bedding to the equation and you have a regular mini weightlifting session in the form of stall cleaning.
Lifting, hauling, dumping, raking, and rebedding are good for the horse and good for the heart. A typical five-gallon water bucket weighs about forty pounds – many horse owners schlep a few of those around each day. Add hauling hay bales, grain sacks, hammering, digging, and fixing up after your horse’s mischief, and you have likely met your weekly exercise quota without even counting the muscular rigors of riding.
I once had an argument with my daughter’s grade-school gym teacher: Weekly exercise outside of school time was required as part of the class grade. This teacher refused to consider riding a form of exercise. “The horse does all the work,” she said. “Spoken like someone who has never ridden a horse,” was my reply.
Anyone who has ridden a horse for the first time, or after a long hiatus from the activity can testify to the unique muscles that are (ouch) stimulated by this activity.
Indeed, horseback riding is a well-documented and widely accepted mode of delivering physical therapy. Former US press secretary, James Brady, famously complained about his hippotherapy rehabilitation (he called his physical therapy “physical terrorism”). Horses helped him regain some of his function following the head wound he sustained during the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.
NARHA (North American Riding for the Handicapped Association) is a global organization that has revolutionized the delivery of physical therapy for children and adults with physical, mental and emotional challenges. Horses are officially rehabbing our military veterans.
Horsemen know the profound effect these animals can have on our psyche. We can testify to horses’ stress-reducing effect on us. But horses have also proven their value in reaching humans as no other therapy can. Horse-assisted psychotherapy has succeeded in helping people with profound mental problems, such as autism, eating disorders, PTSD, and anger management. Horses connect with us at a most primal level, and although psychic healing is more difficult to document than physical rehabilitation assisted through horses, it is nonetheless increasingly recognized.
EAGALA – Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association – is an international program devoted to the notion of horses assisting with social, emotional and mental healing. At the equine science program I directed, we hosted a similar program where I had the privilege of witnessing the transformative power of the horse on children with autism, ADHD, victims of unspeakable abuse and those faced with other mental, behavioral and social challenges.
So, the next time you are breaking a sweat at the barn or enjoying a companionable moment with your mount, thank your horse for keeping you healthy – body and soul.