The Science Behind Why Riding is So Therapeutic

1630
Photo © Heather N. Photography

BY LAUREN MAULDIN

Mindfulness is a word that gets tossed around a lot lately. I originally threw it into the same bucket that holds a lot of other new-age ideas I consider “granola.” You know, kambucha and mumus and crystals. But then my anxiety and depression started to skyrocket this summer. As I’ve been going through it, I realized that one of the few places I felt myself the most was the barn. And while I have never doubted the healing power of ponies, I began looking into the magic of a good canter.

Whether you consider it woo woo or not, mindfulness is actually a pretty simple concept. It’s defined as:

Maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.

Riding, when it’s done right, is one of the most mindful activities I can think of.

Remember your last bad ride or lesson. Did that come after a really busy work day? Trouble at home? And if it did, did you bring those feelings of frustration and hurt into the barn with you? If you’re anything like me, you did. Even if a ride comes with difficulty for me or my horse, I never seem too upset about it unless I’m carrying all that negativity with me.

When you ride a horse, you need to zone into everything around you. The way the air feels. How their skin, muscles, tendons, and hooves look when you’re grooming and tacking up. Other riders in the ring when you’re hacking. How your horse’s inside shoulder feels in corners. If their snorts are getting too fast or strained when you canter. Equestrians recognize literally thousands of details during a few hours at the barn.

Now think about all of those details in relation to mindfulness. Bodily sensations, surrounding environment, not only our thoughts and feelings but also our horse’s. By its very definition, you can’t get more mindful than that.

But how does mindfulness really help us? Any rider will tell you that they’re happier at the barn. That’s not a revelation. How does this connect to everything else?

Research has shown that practicing mindfulness brings improvement to physical and psychological symptoms as well as benefiting our overall physical health. It helps with anxiety, depression, and even everyday stress. It improves mental health in two main ways:

Awareness

By being aware of what’s happening within and around you, you begin to notice emotions, anxieties, and negative self-talk before they become all-consuming. The earlier you notice these things, the better you learn to respond to them.

An Open and Accepting Attitude

Like knowing that a cool day with high winds might not be the best to school difficult exercises with your green horse, developing an open attitude allows you to accept what comes instead of trying to suppress it (spoiler alert—that does not work). When you can accept your emotions, the internal conflict dies down and you have more mental resources to deal with the situation.

We know how to be mindful at the barn, but it doesn’t have to end once we get in the car to drive home. If you find yourself drifting into negative thoughts or excessive stress, take a second to remember what you’re doing. Are you cooking dinner while your brain goes into a hurricane of negativity? Focus on your actions, the chopping or stirring. The way the food smells. The bright colors. Whatever it is you’re doing, break it down into the same observation and feeling skills you have with your horse. In other words, be present in the activity instead of constantly obsessing about that really annoying email you got from your boss.

I know it sounds hokey—believe me. I was a huge skeptic. But here are some research-based benefits of mindfulness:

  • Practicing mindfulness can boost your immune system (study)
  • Mindfulness increases positive emotions while reducing stress. (study)
  • It increases density of gray matter in brain regions linked to learning, memory, emotion regulation, and empathy. (study)
  • It makes couples more satisfied with their relationship (study)
  • More mindful people have a stronger sense of self-esteem (study)
  • It has been linked to reducing PTSD symptoms in veterans (study)

Science is just beginning to unfold all the benefits, and the best ways to be mindful in our everyday lives. But us equestrians have an advantage. We already know and practice these skills with our horses.

So the next time you’re sneaking out of work a bit early or stalling a little bit coming home from the barn, don’t feel guilty. You’re not only enjoying your hobby and passion, but also practicing mindfulness. And that has seemingly endless benefits for your horse and you.

Sources:
Greater Good Magazine: Mindfulness Defined
Mindfulness for Mental Health, University of Minnesotta
Benefits of Mindfulness, Harvard Health


About the Author: Lauren holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside, and is a lifelong rider and writer. Beyond equestrian journalism, she explores body positivity, mental health and addiction through personal narrative. She enjoys showing on the local hunter/jumper circuit in Austin, Texas.

Read More from This Author »