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Using Horses to Teach Kids Life Lessons

On a beautiful afternoon in December at Cordillera Ranch, I watch vehicle after vehicle pull into the barn with parents picking up their kids and I asked myself,  “What is the motivation for so many kids to be involved at our barn?”

By Shane Reynolds  ::  Photography by Kelsey Grudle

Our new Equestrian Manager, Susie Phillips, has re-energized our facility and program and she has a lot of new kids involved in learning about horses and horsemanship. I have always known that horses can teach humans a lot about themselves, and watching this from a distance and seeing the joy on the kids’ faces as they load up into their vehicles to go home lets me know that Susie has our program on the right path to success. 

So, what is it that horses can teach us? After doing a bit of research on the subject, there are certain things found common amongst equestrian facilities that work with kids and horses. On the premise of preparing students to learn how to be successful, working with horses can give kids the confidence and skills they need to work towards goals in other areas of their lives. Here are seven of the many ways horses help kids:

1. Horses mirror emotions. 

When kids get on a horse, the horse will often mirror the mood or emotion the child is feeling. This means the horse starts to act like the child. All of a sudden, these kids have to deal with themselves! It is the only therapeutic tool of its kind I am aware of. A student may have way too much energy, so the horse starts to get excited and not pay attention and all he wants to do is run amuck! Here is a kid who now has to respond to this and use his energy to slow that horse down, give his full attention to get the horse to behave and complete the lesson. Or a child may have a hard time putting forth the effort it takes to accomplish a task. Now that student has a horse that is just not willing to move unless the student really digs deep and puts in the effort to wake up that horse, stay present and be determined to get that horse to move.

2. Working with horses is a healthy recreational outlet. 

It doesn’t matter who we are. Doing something fun, exciting and physical is good for us. Many kids will pick up unhealthy coping skills as a way of dealing with the challenges they face in their lives. These unhealthy skills may include drug or alcohol use, unhealthy amounts of screen time, hanging out with peers who have a poor influence on them, or just not being engaged in anything at all. We don’t break old habits unless we have something to replace them with. Riding is fun. They can continue to ride long after their time at the Equestrian Center.

3. Horses are bigger than we are! 

Once kids learn they have the power to control something bigger, stronger and sometimes more stubborn than they are, they start to understand the power they have to control their own lives. They are able to begin to believe they can control over things bigger than they are such as additions, loss, abuse, physiological issues and more.

4. Horses help build emotional bonds and attachments. 

Some people are just able to love an animal so much quicker than they can people. These kids bond with their horses, and can transfer those feelings and emotions to bonding with people. Slowly but surely, we can get them to recognize those feelings, to express them and to enjoy the associations they have with others.

5. Horses teach us to trust. 

Most people will think this teaches them to trust the horse and that is part of it. But the real benefit is they learn to trust themselves. The word used for this is building “self-efficacy.” It means they really believe they can do something, and the important part is that it is true! They really are capable of doing this. They feel it! They can do it! What a great feeling.

6. Horses teach us respect. 

Horses are very honest creatures. They give back what we put into the relationship. They don’t care if we have the latest new shoes or live in a fancy house. They don’t care if we dress like our friends or what mistakes we have made in our past. They teach us what really matters is how we treat others. If we treat them well, they will meet you at the gate each morning wanting to be with you. If you don’t, well, they’ll let you know that, too.

7. Horses teach us to enjoy work. 

We can’t just jump up on a horse’s back and go for a ride. We have to feed them, clean up after them, exercise them, brush them, give them water, learn to put their tack on, learn to clean the tack, scrub out the water buckets when they are dirty, etc. Whenever we do a work project in the barn, we are always surprised by how many kids want to help. They want to work! They’ll volunteer to come out to bathe their horses, pick out their feet, move hay, rake the alleyways and even clean the stalls. We have kids who would sleep at the barn if they could. What do they get out of it? A sense of accomplishment. The joy of mastering something. The thrill of productivity. A reason to say, “Look what I did.”

Give Susie a call to get your kids involved at the Equestrian Center and they will learn a lot about themselves by getting involved with horses! 

 Susie Phillips is the Equestrian Manager at The Clubs of Cordillera Ranch. She can be reached at sphillips@cordilleraranch.com or 919.422.2256.

Shane Reynolds is the Outdoor Recreation Director at The Clubs of Cordillera Ranch. He can be reached at sreynolds@cordilleraranch.com or 210.616.6051, or the Cordillera Ranch Outfitter Center at 830.336.4823.