How Horses Help Our Mental Health

From the importance of daily routines to outdoor exercise, what we can learn from our equine friends.

Photo by Raphael Wicker on Unsplash

A few days ago, Chrissy Teigen shared a photo of a horse with Twitter and told her followers that her therapist recommended she do something for herself. “Today begins my journey into the horse world,” she wrote.

For those who aren’t aware, Teigen and her husband John Legend lost their pregnancy last fall. Following that experience, she shared her struggle with grief and depression publicly. Horseback riding, it seemed, could be a positive way to cope.

Of course, the internet had plenty to say about it. Although some people accused Teigen of ignorantly flaunting her wealth while others are struggling during the pandemic, I have a different opinion.

Horses are used therapeutically — whether riding or simply spending time with them — for good reason. Equine-assisted therapy is shown to have incredible benefits. It can help with managing anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, depression, and myriad other issues. Why would we begrudge Teigen for turning to something that works?

The benefits of horse therapy aren’t confined to ownership (which is notoriously expensive) or even a potentially costly therapeutic program. Volunteering with horses or just taking lessons now and then are more affordable ways to access equines.

This past summer, I ventured back into the horse world after taking a break from riding for several years. Although I knew it would be a challenge financially, I felt that the mental health benefits would make it worthwhile. Especially because COVID-19 has taken away so many of the activities I used to enjoy.

I adopted a rescue horse in July and spent the past six months rehabilitating her. It has been an incredibly rewarding process. Here’s what I’ve learned about mental health from that experience.

Self Care Is Not Optional

Horses have to be fed throughout the day. They need access to fresh water. Their hooves must be picked to remove rocks and mud. Their stalls must be cleaned. When I first adopted my horse, I saved money by doing all of her care myself instead of paying a boarding stable to do it.

That meant I had to wake up early every morning and go to the barn to feed her, refresh her water bucket, groom her, and put her out to pasture for the day. This routine reminded me to eat my own breakfast, drink water while I worked in the hot summer sun, and go to bed so that I got enough sleep to wake up early.

Taking care of an animal can be a brilliant way to remind you to take care of yourself. A horse has to be fed and looked after. It’s a daily reminder that you need looking after too. At the time I struggled with an anxiety disorder that manifested in a lack of appetite, but working with my horse brought my appetite back and reminded me when to eat and drink.

Caring for animals is not optional. Neither is caring for yourself.

Fresh Air and Physical Activity Are Essential

If you work with horses in any capacity, you’re going to spend time outdoors. Even if a horse lives in a stall, it still needs to be turned out in a pasture to stretch its legs. And they need to be regularly exercised.

If you work inside or spend a lot of time in your house, you need fresh air and physical activity as well. Spending time outdoors horseback riding and just working with horses is not uniquely beneficial. There is plenty of science to support that exercise helps combat anxiety and depression.

In the fall, I moved my horse to a new barn and started working there to cover the cost. I was recently promoted to assistant manager. I love the position because it involves working outdoors, doing physical activity, and handling horses every day. I don’t need the gym when I’ve been lugging around hay bales and cleaning stalls all morning. It also offers me more time with my own horse, and I ride more frequently.

Don’t underestimate the benefits of getting outdoors and being active. I typically experience a bit of winter depression when it is dark and cold. But this year, even during COVID-19, I spent so much time outside in the sunlight that I never experienced my usual period of winter blues.

Like horses, we need to stretch our legs and breathe in the fresh air.

Companionship Helps Prevent Lonely Isolation

Horses are herd animals. They feel happier when they are with each other. You learn this quickly when you try to separate them and they whinny to each other, letting their friends know where they are.

One of the trademark symptoms of depression is isolating yourself. You may not even realize you are doing it — staying in your bedroom just feels safer. But during COVID-19, when we are forced to social distance to be healthy and safe, many more people have become isolated. Being with animals is good companionship to combat this.

In addition, I’ve found that working at the barn and spending time there helps me find social time in a safe way. We wear masks and stay apart, but we’re also partaking in activities together. This has been a pleasant way to meet and interact with new people. A little social time is good for the heart.

When a horse whinnies for its friends, it’s a reminder that we need companionship too.

A Routine Can Ward Off Depression

Horses have to be fed at certain times throughout the day. It’s important to keep them on a regular schedule for feeding, pasture time, and exercise. Animals thrive on routine, but so do we.

During the pandemic, many of us have lost our routines. We’re stuck working from home. Maybe we changed jobs or are suddenly looking after children who would normally be at school. COVID-19 brought a lot of changes to our lives, and it’s important to establish a new routine. Structure can make a big difference for mental health.

“Routines can create a positive level of stress that keeps us focused and may avoid some of the depression that many people may experience as a result of the COVID pandemic, isolation, fear and uncertainty,” says Dr. Ramon Solhkhah of Jersey Shore University Medical Center. “I recommend creating and maintaining routines that you can follow even in quarantine that will help reduce the mental health impact of what we are experiencing.”

Keeping my horse on a schedule means I’ve had to get on one, too. I remember to eat breakfast now so that I have the energy for work. Knowing what you are doing and when can make a big difference, especially if you’re stuck staring at a computer while sitting in your living space all day.

By having a routine and sticking to it, we can ward off depression by finding security in routine and doing what we need — just as a horse comes to expect when it needs dinner.

Happiness Comes From Making Progress and Having Purpose

Oftentimes when you are working with horses, you are working toward a goal. Maybe you are learning how to ride by taking lessons. I have been training and rehabilitating my rescue horse. This gives you a sense of progress and a feeling of accomplishment when you notice you’re reaching your goals.

Riding offers many opportunities to make progress, both physically as you learn to ride and mentally as you brave scary moments of uncertainty. Horses can be unpredictable — they’re prey animals and much larger than we are. Working with them in any capacity takes courage.

Recognizing your goals and how you are making progress toward them can bring you happiness and a sense of purpose. I find meaning in looking after my horse and helping her get in better physical condition than when I first acquired her. She nearly starved to death in her past. Now, she is muscled and beautiful. She is not scared of me anymore. Even her attitude is happier.

I’ve also grown as a rider and a horse trainer. I feel more confident about what I’m doing. It’s taken months and progress seemed slow at first, but every now and then I notice how far we’ve come. It is incredibly rewarding.

Horses bring meaning to my life. I found my purpose in them, and having that sense of purpose helps me manage my mental health better. Maybe they can help you, too.

The author’s horse.

Science writer wrangling words and horses in the Pacific Northwest. | she/they

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