I was over the moon when my daughter expressed an interest in horseback riding several years ago. What’s more magical than horses? Their majestic stance, graceful trot, and the enduring trust they lend without any expectations are rare in the animal kingdom.

At her first lesson, I beamed when she confidently mounted a small pony and began grasping the basic commands. I rode horses for a short time as a child, so I felt a familiar combination of accomplishment (for having the courage to ride a horse) and love (because it’s hard not to immediately fall head-over-hooves with your four-legged companion).

I knew horseback riding had health and therapeutic benefits, too, but I never suspected that it could expand her learning ability well beyond the sport.

 

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A new study shows that the vibrations produced by horses during horseback riding lead to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system – the same system responsible for the fight-or-flight response, which improves learning in children.

Previous studies have shown that horseback riding enhances physical and mental health, improving circulatory functions, muscle strength, and development of motor functions. But few studies have addressed the effects of horseback riding on children and the mechanisms underlying how riding affects humans.

Mitsuaki Ohta, a professor at Tokyo University of Agriculture and lead author of the new study, said in a press release that his team wanted to dive deeper and learn more about the effects of the vibrations.

The study included 34 boys and 72 girls, aged 10 to 12 years old, who were divided into three groups: horse riding, walking, and resting. Participants, who were described as typical healthy children, completed simple tests directly before and after horse riding. As they completed these tests, their heart rates were measured in response to the movements created by the horses.

A “Go/No-go” test, which assesses cognitive response using fast computerized questions, was used to test how the children responded to different situations using either self-control (No-go reaction) or performing a specific action (Go reaction). For this experiment, children were seated at desks after the first 10 minutes of riding, walking, or resting. In addition, they were given simple arithmetic problems to test their mental performance.

Three different horses were used, including a half-breed mare, a gelded Kiso (which is a traditional Japanese horse), and a pony gelding. The findings revealed that riding several of the horses, specifically the half-breed and pony, did have a positive impact on the children’s ability to perform the behavioral tasks. This suggests that horseback riding can enhance learning, memory, and problem solving.

Researchers believe the three-dimensional acceleration a horse produces as it moves is the key to improving these abilities, which many differ among different horse breeds. Horse riding had less of an effect on the children’s results when solving the arithmetic problems. Ohta said the math may have been too simple to have activated the sympathetic nervous system.

Although the findings are promising, many children do not have access to horses or horseback riding classes. The study does reveal that some benefits could be acquired from interactions with more attainable pets or other animals, such as those used in therapy.

“There are many possible effects of human-animal interactions on child development,” Ohta said in an interview. “For instance, the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions, which we described in this study, and the ability to appreciate and respond to complex emotional influences and non-verbal communication, which requires further research to be understood.”

Horse experts are excited by the team’s findings. “We have personally seen so many incredible things happen through work with horses,” said Laurie Roberts, co-founder of Nevada Equine Assisted Therapy.

“From the mostly non-verbal child on the autism spectrum, who after just a short time is communicating in simple sentences, to the teen who is struggling with depression but over time is able to share their feelings and find a path to health and healing, work with horses has so much to offer. It is wonderful when new research supports the things we have been experiencing in our sessions.”

The study “Horseback Riding Improves the Ability to Cause the Appropriate Action (Go Reaction) and the Appropriate Self-control (No-Go Reaction) in Children” was published in the February 2017 edition of “Frontiers in Public Health.”

Has your child benefited from horse riding? If so, share your story in the comments.