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A scientific study has revealed that an involvement with horses boosts the life skills of young people. Horses, the study found, acted as both teachers and friends for young people.
The US study, using a simple linear regression analysis, even managed to quantify the improvement in life skills.
The study indicated that about 25% of youths’ life skills development are attributable to their development of horsemanship skills.
The Impact of Equine Activities on Youth Development Study was conducted by the Pennsylvania State University Department of Dairy and Animal Science in co-operation with the American Youth Horse Council, 4-H, the American Quarter Horse Youth Association, United States Pony Clubs and the National High School Rodeo Association.
The American Youth Horse Council has long believed that involvement with horses had a positive impact on youth, but evidence to support the claim had been limited.
Youths who learnt horsemanship skills showed better decision-making, thinking, communicating, goal-setting and problem solving.
Working with horses helped them develop positive values and life skills that are transferred to a young person’s daily life.
The organisations who co-operated in the research represented more than 450,000 youths.
The findings will hardly come as a surprise to parents such as Samantha Armstrong. “The daughter who won’t lift a finger in the house is the same child who cycles madly off in the pouring rain to spend all morning mucking out a stable,” she says.
Aside from life skills, young people also benefit through the physical demands of riding and horse care.
“Horseback riding is a complex and demanding physical sport,” the report says.
“Riders develop coordination, balance, fine motor skills, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, and can improve posture and cardiovascular health.
“Additionally, the daily care of horses further develops physical fitness and instills a source of regular physical activity in a child’s life.
“The partnership that youth form with their horses demonstrates the mental development that benefits youth for years to come.
“Horseback riding teaches teamwork in a very immediate way. Communication between the horse and rider is key to translating cues from the rider to the action of the horse.
“Development of this communication process requires the rider to be attentive to their mount and to process many visual, tactile and auditory inputs.”
Working with horses improved young people’s self-esteem and confidence, the study found.
“The emotional benefits of horse involvement are evident in the relationships that youth form with horses. Caring for horses allows youth to form lasting bonds with animals and practice nurturing skills.
“Daily horse chores play a role in developing a sense of responsibility, empathy and compassion; important skills for starting and maintaining relationships with others.
“The horse also provides unconditional acceptance, as well as emotional support for their young caretaker.”
Horses serve as both teachers and friends, and in both roles, positively impact the physical, mental and emotional well-being of youth.
“Over the years I have seen miraculous cases of troubled youth, who are literally saved from traveling down the wrong path in life through horse involvement,” said Extension Horse Specialist Dr Ann Swinker. “The sense of pride that kids feel when they reach a goal with their four-legged friends, gives them every reason to remain on course.”
The study found that most of those who took part (86.9%) were female, and most (87.8%) owned their horses. Some, however, shared or leased an animal.
It found that once young people became involved in equine activities, they invested much of their time and energy to their new hobby.
Horse involvement also proved to be a chance for young people to foster relationships with adults and peers.
Results indicated youth horse programmes should continue to develop and support a focus on the development of horsemanship skills and life skills. Volunteer leaders should place increased emphasis on safety, health management and nutrition, as results indicated that these contribute significantly to life skills development.
More than 90% of youths in the study indicated that having fun with their horse was important. Over 80% indicated that riding their horse was important.
Interestingly, less that 50% indicated that winning a ribbon or winning a blue ribbon at horse events was important.
Article first published on Horsetalk.co.nz in April, 2006.