The Psychological Benefits of Equestrian Sports

Introduction

Although it has been known for some time that exercise is good for physical health, it is within the past 10 years that it has become commonplace to read in magazines and newspapers that exercise can also be of value in promoting sound psychological health (Singer, Hausenblas & Janelle, 2001).

As with other sporting activities, the human derives not only physical but therapeutic, social and psychological benefits from participating in equestrian sport.  Some gain pleasure from occasional rides at weekends or during holidays, others develop a strong bond by keeping the same animal throughout its life.  Other riders develop a deep sense of trust with their horse and feel they can predict how their animal will react to most situations (Robinson, 1999).

Riding has long been considered to be a healthy and therapeutic pastime, the benefits of riding for people with disabilities have been recognised for over three thousand years, during the time of the ancient Greeks it was acknowledged that riding was more than a means of transportation; it was a way of improving the health and well-being of people with handicaps (Strides, Therapeutic riding for the disabled).

At the turn of the last century, England recognised riding for the disabled as a beneficial form of therapy for wounded soldiers during World War I and by the 1950’s, British psychotherapists were exploring the possibilities of riding as therapy for all types of handicaps.  Riding for the disabled has subsequently developed as a form of recreation and as a means of motivation for education, as well as for its therapeutic benefits (Strides, Therapeutic riding for the disabled).

The Benefits of Participating in Sport Generally

The demands of modern living have affected the mental health and psychological well-being of society, with many people suffering from anxiety or stress.  Over the last 20 years there has been an increased interest in the connection between health, exercise and well-being, including exercise and health psychology.  With greater attention has come more understanding of the role that psychological factors play in health and exercise (Weinberg & Gould, 1995).

The Allied Dunbar National Fitness Survey (1992) showed that physical activity was positively related to perceptions of health and well-being among the English population (Biddle, 1995).  The increased level of interest and research activity in this field has led to the publication of position statements from organisations such as the International Society of Sport Psychology who, drawing almost exclusively on North American research, conclude that exercise results in the reduction of various stress indices and has beneficial emotional effects across all ages and in both sexes.  Long-term exercise is associated with a reduction in traits such as anxiety, neuroticism and mild to moderate depression. (International Society of Sport Psychology, 1992; Morgan & Goldston, 1987 – see Biddle, 1995 p51).

Singer, Hausenblas and Janelle (2001) found that exercise is related to, but does not cause, desirable changes to occur in anxiety, depression, stress reactivity, positive mood, self-esteem and cognitive functioning.  The overall effect of exercise on these variables ranged from small to moderate, but was still however, statistically significant.