How horses can help children with learning disabilities

Posted by iChild, June 09, 2021 2:14 PM

By Katie Allen-Clarke, Head of Marketing at Horse & Country TV

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The relationship between humans and horses isn't new — in fact, the domestication of horses can be dated as far back as 6000 BC (Equine World UK). But it wasn't until relatively recently that it was realised just how much these creatures can enhance our lives. Today, equine therapy is used to help people live with a range of conditions — depression, dementia, and anxiety, to name just a few.

Equine therapy has also been found to be beneficial for both children and adults with learning disabilities. Not only is horse riding a fun activity that promotes exercise and getting outdoors, but it has been found to improve mental health and emotional wellbeing. Here, I'll explore just some of the benefits that riding and spending time around horses can offer for children with disabilities.

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Sensory experiences

If you've ever ridden a horse, you'll already know that it's a unique sensory experience. The sound of trotting hooves, the sights you see from experiencing the world at a new height, feeling every movement that the horse makes — it really has a bit of everything. That's what makes it great for dealing with sensory processing challenges, which are common in children with learning disabilities. While it may take some getting used to, equine therapy is a great way to encourage people to experience different senses in a fun and safe environment.

Building confidence

Most kids struggle with their self-esteem at one point or another, but this can be even more of a challenge for children with learning disabilities. And if nothing is done to work on these confidence issues, they can continue into adulthood. That's why it's important to start working on confidence building sooner rather than later — and horse riding is a great tool for this.

Horses need leadership, and it’s the job of whoever is in the saddle to provide it. Being in control of such a big and powerful creature is a lot of responsibility, and it can be a great way to show a child just how much they can achieve. And the leaderships skills that are practiced while riding can be transferred to everyday life, meaning that the impact of equine therapy can last into adulthood.

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Forming connections

You may have heard that dogs are man's best friend, but the special bond between horses and humans says otherwise. Not only have horses been found to read and understand human emotion, but they respond differently to people depending on how well they know them (MedicalNewsToday). And it isn’t just a one way relationship: horses can express their own emotions too, through snorts and whinnies (Treehugger).

As horses are so emotionally intelligent, it makes it easier for children with learning disabilities to bond with the animals and develop their social skills. In fact, one study found that children who rode horses significantly improved their social skills after just 12 weeks (PubMed). These social skills will stay with them as they grow older, and allow them to form strong and healthy bonds with others.

Beating stress

Living with a learning disability in a world made for neurotypical minds can be extremely challenging. This may partly explain why stress and anxiety is more common in people with learning disabilities — one study found that 38% of child respondents with learning disabilities experienced either severe stress or severe anxiety (NCBI). But when humans spend time with horses, their levels of cortisol — otherwise known as the stress hormone — decrease, which leaves them feeling relaxed and content.

Grooming the horse is a particularly great stress-busting exercise. This will relax both the horse and the rider, and strengthen their bond too. Plus, the slow and repetitive motions will help the rider take their mind off of the other stresses of the day and just focus on what's in front of them.

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Physical benefits

Although we have come a long way in recent years, there are still many barriers for people with learning disabilities who want to exercise. This in part explains why only 9% of people with learning disabilities exercised as much as the recommended guidelines (Nursing Times).

Many people don't realise just what good exercise horse riding can be. To sit on the horse safely and comfortably, you must be able to balance by using your core muscles. Not only does this build strength, but it improves posture both on and off the horse. This is really beneficial for people with learning disabilities who may find it difficult to easily adjust their posture (CSP). And as horse riding is a great cardio exercise, it protects heart health and lowers blood pressure too.

Not everyone can fall in love with exercise. But horse riding is so different to any other form of physical activity, that even exercise haters can fall in love with this heart-pumping workout. Plus, using specially made adaptive equipment allows children of all mobility levels to enjoy it!

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Looking for the best ways to support your child's development? Make sure to check out the educational and creative resources available at iChild

By Katie Allen-Clarke, Head of Marketing at Horse & Country TV

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