When teaching horse riding to children, I noticed how stressed some of these children were. Being with horses should be relaxing and fun. However, I found that many children were having difficulty enjoying their time with horses.
The children were tired, tense or sad when at the stables. They were preoccupied and in a state of stress and the horses would be affected by this. The effects are cumulative, the horse reacts to the stress present within the child, which in turn creates fear for the child.
Stress within Children
When we think about stress or anxiety, we usually think of adults who experience this in life. Unfortunately, children also experience stress. Research shows that 1 in 4 children have physical ailments, and that of those ailments, 9 out of 10 cases are caused by psychological stress.
Symptoms we may show when stressed are higher heart rate, quick (high in the chest) breathing, shaking and sweating.
Children express stress in similar ways as adults. They complain about a headache, stomach ache, exhaustion, have no appetite or an unusual big appetite. Why is it so difficult to recognise stress with children? We do not immediately link these symptoms to stress when children express them. I feel we need to take these symptoms seriously when children experience them to recognise stress in the early stages.
How we teach children how to handle stress sets them up for the rest of their lives.
Stress within Horses
Before we can speak of stress within horses, we first need to understand the natural behaviour of the horse. Horses are herd animals. A herd has a leader, the leader takes the initiative to graze or rest and the other horses in the herd usually follow. The rest of the herd always has a choice to follow or not, it depends on how confidently the leader sets her intention.
The horse’s day is occupied with grazing and walking. Wild horses who live in a large area will walk between five and ten kilometres per day. They graze on the way and do not linger for too long in one spot.
Horses usually communicate with body language because sounds may attract predators. Horses use their body language, positioning of the ears, neck- and tail positioning to communicate with each other.
Of course, this is only a small part of the natural behaviour of horses. Still, it is sufficient to conclude that most domesticated horsed do not show this behaviour. When a horse cannot express himself this way, he will show inconsistent behaviour. This behaviour differs per horse as it can with people.
What Happens in the Body of Horses and Children During Stress?
Stress sends a signal to the nervous system. The body has two nervous systems, the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system.
The central nervous system includes the nerves in the brain and spinal cord. It is contained within the skull and vertebral canal of the spine. All of the other nerves in the body are part of the peripheral nervous system.
The peripheral nervous system consists of the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, these two systems are crucial when we talk about stress.
The sympathetic nervous system is also known as the accelerator of the body. It enables us to survive in life-threatening situations. In this case, adrenaline and noradrenaline or stress hormone is created, which creates increased heart rate, blood pressure and breath. The body uses energy during this process.
The parasympathetic nervous system is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system and acts as the brake of the body. This nervous system enables recovery, structure and rest. When this system is at work, the heart rate and blood pressure lower. The muscles and organs receive sufficient blood and oxygen to recuperate and create relaxation and recovery.
When the stress is short-lived, the body will have ample time to recuperate. The adrenaline slows down, and the parasympathetic nervous system can do its work. When the body has increased and prolonged stress, it will have increased difficulty to recover. This is what is called chronic stress which means that these two nervous systems are imbalanced.
Stress via this nervous system, also known as the slow route, has the adrenals create the hormone cortisol. Cortisol enables the horse to react to stress. It also has a braking effect on stress.
If the horse is experiencing chronic stress, both the cortisol and sugar levels have been heightened for too long, causing exhausted adrenals. Cortisol inhibits the immune system, which in turn weakens. The intestines can become imbalanced, and ulcers may arise. When the blood sugar levels are increased for an extended time, it disturbs the metabolism. This may result in tying up, cramped muscles and Laminitis.
Both horses and people show similar symptoms during stress, increased heart rate and breath, shaking and sweating. With horses, there are other risks when they are experiencing chronic stress or stress through the parasympathetic nervous system.
Now What? What Next?
I also teach yoga and see the benefits of both yoga and the practice of mindfulness. I decided to incorporate this into my horse riding lessons and observe the effects on both children and horses.
I wanted to see if it would affect the child in how they dealt with themselves and how this changed the relationship between horse and child. What would the effect be on the horse when a child had a deeper connection with whom they were in that moment.
I completed this study as part of my Equus Universalis education. For four weeks, I guided a group of children aged 10 to 15 one day a week. The course I taught consisted of meditation, breathwork and gratitude exercises in connection with the horse.
After four weeks, a new world had opened to me, I was stunned that after 1.5 hours of mindfulness the children were calm and centred. They showed more patience and listened better to what the horse communicated. They were better able to judge when to reward the horse, previously they would become frustrated if things did not go as they had expected when riding. Now they would calmly try again.
I observed the horses during the mindfulness lesson and in the paddock calming and relaxing. The herd calmed, and the rest of the horses became curious. Some of the horses lay down with us during the meditation.
This experience has shown me that the emotional state of the rider has a profound effect on the horse. Horses need people who are in balance and authentic and can observe without attaching an emotion to it. After this experience, I wished to continue this work with both children and horses.
I created workshops and retreats, working books for children where they could continue the work themselves. It is a work in progress. There is much to gain for both the well being of children and horses.
How to Excercise Mindfulness
Practise this exercise with your horse, the children in your class or even with your children at home.
Observe your breath. Is it slow or fast? Are you breathing from your stomach or from your chest? Are you breathing through your nose or your mouth? Perhaps you notice you are holding your breath.
Just observe, there is no right or wrong. Every time you feel your mind wander, bring it back to your breath. This will calm your mind.
When you do this exercise on your horse or next to your horse, the horse will feel you calm down and will also become calmer. Breathing together with your horse will create a deeper connection between you.