Good vibrations: Horse-riding can improve children’s learning ability, study suggests

A child works her pony in an arena. Japanese research suggests riding can have cognitive benefits for children, as well as the widely acknowledged physical benefits.
A child works her pony in an arena. Japanese research suggests riding can have cognitive benefits for children, as well as the widely acknowledged physical benefits.

Horseback riding can improve learning in children, a study carried out in Japan suggests.

The study showed that the effects of vibrations produced by horses during riding led to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which improved learning in children.

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the fight or flight response.

However, it appears that the horse has to generate the right vibrations for the cognitive benefits to occur.

A professor at the Tokyo University of Agriculture, Mitsuaki Ohta, said few studies had addressed the effects of horseback riding on children and the mechanisms underlying how the activity affected humans.

“We wanted to look into these effects because previous studies have demonstrated the benefits of horseback riding with respect to enhancing physical health and the mental effects,” he said.

Ohta and his colleagues noted that there were many obvious health benefits to riding, including developing a strong core and legs, but also many less obvious benefits, such as increased confidence and introspection.

The study team examined the effects of horseback riding on the performance of children by having them complete simple tests directly before and after horse-riding, while measuring the children’s heart rate in response to movements created by the horses.

The researchers used 34 boys and 72 girls, aged 10 to 12, in the study. They were divided into three groups – horse riding, walking, and resting.

Three healthy horses were used in the study, with an average age of 20. One was a half-breed mare that stood 155cm at the withers, another was a 141cm tall gelded Kiso, which is a Japanese traditional horse, and the third was a pony gelding that stood 135cm at the withers.

The behavioral reactions of the youngsters, who were described as typical healthy children, were tested using a “Go/No-go” test, which assesses the cognitive response using fast computerized questions.

The test determined the children’s ability to appropriately respond in a situation, by either performing an action or demonstrating self-control. The children were also asked to complete simple arithmetic problems to test their mental performance.

The results, reported in the open-access journal Frontiers in Public Health, showed that riding on some horses at a walk greatly improved the ability of the children to perform the behavioral tasks, but less of an effect was seen on the children’s results when solving arithmetic problems.

Ohta believes this difference in results may be due to the simplicity of the mathematical test, as increases in heart rate were associated only with the behavioral test.

“The Go/No-go tasks might be harder than the arithmetic problems and thus cause a more extensive activation of the sympathetic nervous system, since increases in heart rate were associated with the improved performance of Go/No-go tasks, but not arithmetic problems,” he explained.

These results mean that the act of horse-riding could improve cognitive abilities in children. These are brain-based skills of which an improvement can lead to enhanced learning, memory and problem-solving.

So, what is specific in the movement of horse-riding that leads to these improvements, and why did the researchers suggest improvement might come from only some horses, not all?

“One important characteristic of the horse steps is that they produce three-dimensional accelerations,” Ohta explained.

“The movement of the horse’s pelvis may provide motor and sensory inputs to the human body and in this study, I believe some of the differences among the rider’s performances might be due to these accelerations.”

Ohta said the results may be due to the vibrations produced from the horse’s motion activating parts of the sympathetic nervous system, leading to improved behavioral test results.

He said it was important to consider that the results could vary based on the horses or breeds. Indeed, significant differences in the three-dimensional acceleration and the autonomic activities were observed among the three horses used in the study.

“Riding on a half-breed horse or a pony improved the ability to perform Go/No-go tasks and solve arithmetic problems, possibly through sympathetic activity,” the researchers reported in their paper.

“Some horses, like the Kiso, might provide a healing effect to children through parasympathetic activity.

“The acceleration in the Kiso horse group during walking in hand was significantly different from those involving the other two horses, indicating that the vibrations produced by these horses might modify the autonomic activities.”

The autonomic nervous system is responsible for control of bodily functions not consciously directed, such as breathing, the heartbeat, and digestive processes.

Ohta acknowledged that a lot of children did not have easy access to horse-riding, suggesting that perhaps some benefits could be acquired from more attainable pet interactions.

“There are many possible effects of human-animal interactions on child development,” he said. “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.”

The study team concluded in their paper: “The important benefits of horseback riding for children and human health appear to be caused by the horse’s vibrations, which may be different among horses.

“Riding particular horses or breeds might improve the ability to recognize the appropriate action depending on the situation (Go reaction) and the appropriate self-control (No-go reaction) in children, possibly through the activation of the sympathetic nervous system.

“Some horse riding may reduce stress through the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system,” they added.

Horseback Riding Improves the Ability to Cause the Appropriate Action (Go Reaction) and the Appropriate Self-control (No-Go Reaction) in Children
Nobuyo Ohtani, Kenji Kitagawa, Kinuyo Mikami, Kasumi Kitawaki, Junko Akiyama, Maho Fuchikami, Hidehiko Uchiyama and Mitsuaki Ohta.
Front. Public Health, 06 February 2017 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2017.00008

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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