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How riding can give your child more than mere exercise

I was 8 years old the first time I rode a horse. I was tall, skinny, awkward and unbelievably excited to start riding. Once I was on the horse, though, my excitement quickly turned to terror.

I spent that first lesson holding on for dear life and praying I wouldn’t fall. My mom brought me back a few more times though, and during my third lesson something miraculous happened as I was trotting around the ring — I laughed. Just like that, I went from complete fear to feeling like I could conquer the world. I have been riding ever since.

“Kids can immediately bond with horses and feel they have a creature who understands all their troubles in the world,” says Ginger Fedak, owner of Sun Pony Ranch. “Horses have something about them that is so intangible, you can’t even put a name on it. They have a very soulful understanding that people who don’t know horses don’t understand.”

Riding horses certainly helps build muscle and coordination, but for kids, the emotional boost is particularly impactful, Fedak says.

“With team sports you always have the stars of the team and then you have the benchwarmers,” Fedak says. “With horseback riding, you don’t have that. If you have a good instructor, it builds these kids’ confidence, and makes them feel good about themselves.”

Kids learn to work with and trust the horse, which helps them form a bond and make a new friend, Fedak says, and builds a sense of responsibility, empathy for another living creature, and teamwork.

“These days, unfortunately, there are so many kids who have problems at home, like parents going through divorce,” Fedak says. “The horse world is an oasis for them where they can forget all their troubles and hug on their horse friend and just get away from it. Horses are incredible that way. That’s why they are used for therapeutic riding.”

Penelope Powell, the program coordinator for the Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center, witnesses the therapeutic benefits of riding firsthand. The riding center uses horses to help kids and adults with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, paraplegia and other physical and mental disabilities.

The movement of riding horses helps build core muscles, which can help with speech challenges, and is similar to the way people move, which can help people with walking, Powell says. The horses at the center are also used to help people with social and emotional challenges.

“For a lot of our population with challenges with social interaction, the interpersonal skills of opening up to someone or acknowledging that someone has feelings and a way of doing things in this world can often be easier to see in a horse and then transfer that to humans,” Powell says. “Horses help them start to see a world outside of their own because they are less demanding than people. Basically they aren’t in your face talking to you like people do, they are just present. That is a lot less intimidating for a child, which helps them step outside of their own view and see the view of another being.”

Fedak and Powell agree that the change in a child that comes from riding horses is palpable.

“I can see it the moment the kids start moving and realize, ‘Wow, this is really cool. I’m taller than everyone else!’ or when they feel the horse’s fur, or the horse turns its head to look at them,” Powell says. “It is all an almost indefinable experience, the way the kids just bond with them immediately. My favorite part of my job is seeing the smiling faces on these kids because they could not wait to see their horses.”

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