There are plenty of obvious reasons to learn how to ride a horse: it's fun, it's thrilling, and it'll come in handy in the event of an orc attack. But can taking up horseback riding lessons offer more long-lasting benefits of well-being? To answer three questions built around the idea of "can horseback riding lessons make you happier?", we talked to Tony Golcazk, horse owner of 25+ years and all-around horse enthusiast, and also dug up some additional research. Here's what we found:
Answer: According to a British Horse Society study, it does. The study found that more than 80 percent of horseback riders reported feeling more "cheerful, relaxed, happy, or active" after riding. Researchers suggested this might have to do with the sense of companionship that riders oftentimes report, and which Golczak has seen firsthand.
"They're like a pet in a way, because they're domesticated. They're not like a mule or a cow," Golczak says, "They know who you are. You're the one feeding them, you're the one grooming them. They get accustomed to you, they depend on you."
Answer: Scientists already know that exercise releases endorphines, which can make you happier. But does horseback riding engage enough muscles to qualify as "exercise"? Golcazk emphatically says yes, "for both horse and rider."
"You don't think of it as a sport," he says. "But If you and I go horseback riding for about an hour, our butts would be killing us. We'd have to learn how to ride and physically do it. It's an atheltic move."
A New York Times article agrees, calling horseback riding "moderate or even strenuous exercise" for the rider and noting that studies have shown increased muscle development in the legs. Golcazk says all the proof you need is in the physique of a professional jockey.
"[Jockeys] are probably pound-for-pound as strong as football players for what they do," he says. "They're 110 pounds, and they've got control of a horse."
Answer: If you've read any literature about equestrianism, you've probably seen the term "therapeutic horseback riding" pop up. This type of equine-assisted therapy, used by people on the autism spectrum or with movement disorders, stimulates cognitive function through the horse's repetitive motions. Golcazk has seen it first-hand.
"The motion of the horse really works out for these kids because it loosens them up, gives them confidence," he says. "And the horses know—honest to god, I don't care what anybody says—they know that there's somebody on them that has problems, and they take to them."
The pairing makes sense. Three studies have linked horseback riding with increases in self-esteem, and another, recently published in Frontiers in Public Health, showed that the practice improved a child's behavioral and learning abilities. To Golcazk, the activity just seems to brighten the riders' day.
"The motion of the horse, it loosens people up. It helps them with balance," he says, adding: "It's not 'therapy' for them, it's horseback riding."