At least twice a week, a group of women who board their horses at the same barn get together to take a short trail ride on the farm’s premises. The ride is a ritual that provides time for the women to socialize – to catch-up on their lives outside the barn and to commiserate about everything from spouses to kids to jobs. But there is another reason too.
The women call it “taking a mental health day,” and a physician, an equine psychologist and a trainer, say there’s a good reason they feel that way.
According to Dr. Naomi Betesh, DO, horse handling is an activity recognized as a good way for anyone to perform health-promoting exercise. That’s partly due to the intensity of the exercise that horse handling generates. Betesh says that one of the ways exercise intensity is measured is by METS. Moderate exercise intensity clocks in at 3 to 6 METs, she says Grooming and tacking-up registers 3.5 METS. Just walking along the trail produces 3.7 METs. When riders trot their horses, their METs measure at 5.0. By comparison, walking 2.5 miles in an hour measures 3.0 METs, and cycling at 10 miles-per-hour is 4.0 METs, Betesh says.
“So caring for a horse and horseback riding are good ways to get moderate-intensity exercise,” she says.
There are mental benefits, too. During periods of exercise, the body releases endorphins, chemicals that trigger a positive feeling in the brain, Betesh says. As a result, according to a survey that studied the effect of horseback riding, 80 percent of equestrians reported feeling relaxed, happy and active after riding their horses.
“Researchers also found that the psychological benefits of horseback riding were not tied to how often you rode, so you can gain psychological benefits even if you do not get the physiological benefits,” says Betesh, who is an equestrian herself.
Trainer and mental skills coach Tonya Johnston agrees. She says there are even more psychological reasons why horses promote good mental health. According to Johnston, riding and grooming their horses allows equestrians to connect with their animals, their own both minds and bodies and to experience joy in the immediate moment.
“It’s all good,” Johnston says. “Look at your motivation and enjoy it.”
Finally, in their study of equestrians researchers found that the happiness riders experience ranks above many physiological benefits of the sport, Betesh says.
“What is interesting about the study of equestrians, is that riders rated interaction with their horses as the motivation to ride,” Betesh says. “Riders also rated contact with nature and scenery and views as important.”
And when it came to time in the saddle, riders told researchers that personal development, including developing skills, taking on new challenges, staying physically active and just taking time for relaxation were all important reasons to ride.
“Interestingly, weight loss or improving fitness were not important motivation to riders,” Betesh says.
None of that is surprising to the women in the weekly trail riding group.
“Ultimately, I do this for me,” June says.
Patrice D. Bucciarelli is a veteran journalist who covers a range of equestrian lifestyle topics. When she’s not working, Bucciarelli unwinds with her Tennessee Walking Horse, Santino.