Riding Certain Horses Improves Cognitive Test Results

Horse Camp
Horseback riding brings joy to kids who participate, but it could have other surprising benefits as well. Photo: YMCAHCwk5 by YMCA of Snohomish County on flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

We already know that riding horses provides countless physical, mental, and emotional benefits for participants. A new study suggests that it could also help children develop self-control and decision making.

Researchers in Japan worked with a group of students between the ages of 10 and 12 to see how riding horses at a walk would affect the students’ results on two tests. The results showed that riding horses had a positive impact on results of one of the two tests, called a “Go/No-go test,” which is described as:

“a behavioral test that determines the ability to take appropriate action (Go reaction) and to show appropriate restrain (No-go reaction) depending on the situation.”

In this case, participants were tested using a computer program that displayed blue, yellow or red. Students were instructed to press the spacebar when blue or yellow were displayed (the “go” reaction) and to refrain from pressing a key when red was displayed (the “no-go”).

The other test was a simple arithmetic test where students were given 30 single-digit addition problems. The accuracy of the students’ math and the duration it took to complete the math problems were recorded.

The students were divided into three groups: One riding group, one walking group, and one resting group. The students in the riding group were all new riders, having ridden a horse no more than once in their lifetime prior to this test. Within the riding group, the students were divided into three subgroups, each riding a different horse. The first was a mixed-breed mare. The second was a Kiso gelding. The Kiso is a small, sturdy breed native to Japan. The third horse was a mixed-breed pony gelding.

In the first experiment, students would perform the Go/No-go test, and then would have 10 minutes of either riding, walking, or resting, depending on which group they were in. They would then perform the test again. The arithmetic test was conducted with the same structure.

The group of students who rode horses had improved results in the Go/No-go test when compared with the walking and resting groups. However, the subgroups on the mixed-breed horse and pony had much better results than those on the Kiso: 55.6% of the riders on both the mare and pony gelding had improved results after riding while only 27.8% of the Kiso gelding riders had an improved result, which was comparable to the walking control group.

There was no significant difference in arithmetic tests performed before and after riding, although the students who rode the mixed-breed equines finished their post-ride math tests significantly faster than those who rode the Kiso.

However, the researchers did manage to find an advantage that the Kiso gelding seemed to have over the other two. During the tests, researchers measured the students’ heart rate and heart rate variability, which can be used to determine stress levels. They found that the Kiso horse had a stimulating effect on riders’ “parasympathetic activity,” which is an effect of the nervous system that causes the body to relax. In other words, riding the mixed-breed horse or pony resulted in a better test result when it comes to choosing an appropriate action or choosing restraint, but riding the Kiso resulted in stress reduction.

As part of the study, the researchers used an accelerometer on the riders to measure the motion of each horse’s walk. They found that the Kiso had significantly more of what they call an “up and down ‘shaking’ movement,” and suggest that that type of motion might be what causes the differing results between horses.

Ohtani Nobuyo, Kitagawa Kenji, Mikami Kinuyo, Kitawaki Kasumi, Akiyama Junko, Fuchikami Maho, Uchiyama Hidehiko, Ohta Mitsuaki
Horseback Riding Improves the Ability to Cause the Appropriate Action (Go Reaction) and the Appropriate Self-control (No-Go Reaction) in Children
Frontiers in Public Health, Vol. 5, February 6, 2017 DOI=10.3389/fpubh.2017.00008

Leslie Potter is a writer and photographer based in Lexington, Kentucky. www.lesliepotterphoto.com



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