People who love horses will invariably tell you a moving tale of how horses have affected their lives. They may say horses keep them sane. They might claim better physical health. Is there evidence in the scientific literature that humans benefit from interacting with horses? What do we really know about how our lives are affected by being with horses?
Therapeutic riding for those with physical or mental disabilities is well documented in scientific literature, showing the physical, mental, and social benefits of horses used as therapy for individuals with additional needs. Some conditions commonly treated with horses include post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, epilepsy, Down syndrome, multiple sclerosis, autism, polio, and partial paralysis [1,2,3].
For those of us not suffering from these conditions, what benefits might horseback riding provide? As it turns out, similar physical, mental, and social benefits may be attained by almost anyone who rides horses . The only contraindications mentioned in the scientific literature were: severe allergies to horses; physical disabilities wherein there is not enough muscular control to safely ride; no interest in horses; extreme fear, anxiety, or violent behaviour; and when riding caused pain for the rider [1,2].
Everyone else is expected to derive benefits from riding. That probably includes you.
The sometimes strenuous activity of riding has been shown to improve muscle strength and the coordination of gross and fine motor skills . You can always tell someone has never ridden before by the question, ‘But doesn’t the horse do all the work?’ Horse riding is, in fact, a highly active sport, but that doesn’t mean people who are not physically fit cannot participate. Good instructors have ways of making lessons physically easier or harder, and can match a horse and the riding activities to the ability of the rider .
Blood circulation is also improved by the stimulation the horse’s movement provides, as well as the horse care tasks included in learning to ride . After examining the effects of the horse’s three-dimensional movements on children’s bodies, one study  suggested that the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated by the vibrations of the horse, thus engaging appropriate self-control responses. Some horses’ movement patterns may also stimulate the human parasympathetic nervous system, which can aid in reducing stress .
From an occupational therapy viewpoint, riding improves mobility, posture, and range of motion [1,2]. Improvement in flexibility and balance were indicated in another study . Due to the shape of the horse, some flexibility is needed in order to ride, and the horse’s movement flexes joints and forces the rider to use muscle power to remain upright on the horse.
These physical benefits alone may be sufficient to convince you to ride a horse—but there are other benefits as well.
You may have heard that it is beneficial to get outside, away from the city, and be in nature. Horseback riders receive all of the benefits associated with ‘green exercise’ [5,6]. Among these was a reduction in stress, and an immunizing effect of outdoor physical activity against future stressors was even reported in one study ! Outdoor physical activity also improves concentration and the ability to think clearly . Even participants’ moods improve [5,6].
Findings more specific to interaction with horses include increased self-esteem [6,7] and social interaction with other people that is more positive and more likely . An increased potential for emotional attachment was observed, along with an improvement in general attitude and openness. All of these benefits remained even after the riding activity was no longer taking place . Fear was reduced, and participants were more likely to engage in ‘safe risk taking’ . Interacting with horses appeared to motivate participants to create positive change in their lives, to be active , and to take responsibility for the well-being of the horse .
Across all studies of those with disabilities and those without, a reduction in stress, anxiety, hyperactivity, and depression were noted, along with increased relaxation [1-7].
For many, interacting with horses gave them a sense of purpose  and a sense of status, normality, and freedom .
Better general health was observed among those partaking of ‘green exercise,’ which allows for more and better social interactions .
After some interaction with horses, the motivation produced allowed the participants to learn new social behaviours and begin interacting with one another more, while their attitudes and social skills improved .
The increased ability to employ self-control and determine the appropriate action for a certain situation was also noted after participation in horseback riding . Participants were more likely to take responsibility for their actions as well .
Attention spans of riders increased compared to non-riders, as well as their capacity to cooperate with others, to trust others, to be patient, and to exercise self-discipline .
All of these benefits, physical, mental, and social, are available to those who interact with horses—and riding is not the only way to obtain them. Many of these benefits are related both to riding and to caring for the horse or interacting with it on the ground .
Riding is not just for the wealthy, for women, or for the disabled. The benefits of riding are available to all who interact with horses. You don’t even have to be aware of the positive aspects of being with horses to benefit. It is as simple as showing up, meeting a horse, and developing the skills and relationship that can change your life.
Note that all of the horses used in the studies reviewed by researchers [1,2,3,4,7,8] were older, well trained horses. This ensures that the rider has a positive experience and is not frightened by poor horse behaviour. Any horse, however, can be trained to be more predictable using learning theory. To have the best experience with horses, find a trainer (like myself!) who will teach you about equitation science!
 Young, R. (2005) Horsemastership part 1: Therapeutic components and link to occupational therapy. International Journal of Therapy and Rehabilitation, 12(2):78–83.
 Young, R and Bracher, M. (2005) Horsemastership part 2: Physical, psychological, educational and social benefits. International Journal of Therapy and Rehabilitation, 12(3): 120–125.
 Hilliere, C; Collado-Mateo, D; Villafaina, S; Duque-Fonseca, P; and Parraça, J. (2018). Benefits of Hippotherapy and Horse Riding Simulation Exercise on Healthy Older Adults: A Systematic Review. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Article in Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmrj.2018.03.019
 Ohtani, N; Kitagawa, K; Mikami, K; Kitawaki, K; Akiyama, J; Fuchikami, M; Uchiyama, H; and Ohta, M. (2017) 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, 5:8. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2017.00008.
 Pretty, J; Peacock, J; Hine, R; Sellens, M; South, N; and Griffin, M. (2007) Green exercise in the UK countryside: Effects on health and psychological well-being, and implications for policy and planning. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 50(2): 211–231, DOI: 10.1080/09640560601156466.
 Pretty, J; Griffin, M; Peacock, J; Hine, R; Sellens, M; and South, N. (2010) A Countryside for Health and Wellbeing: The Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Green Exercise. Countryside Recreation Network, Sheffield Hallam University.
 Kendall, E; Maujean, A; Pepping, C; and Wright, J. (2014) Hypotheses about the Psychological Benefits of Horses. Explore10(2):81–87.
 Robinson, I. (1999) The Human-Horse Relationship: How Much do we Know? Equine Veterinary Journal, Suppl. 28: 42–45.