Going to the barn has always left me with a peaceful feeling of accomplishment and overall just a good sense of well-being. People who go to the gym and workout on a regular basis understand this feeling well. You just feel so good. On the flip side, when you make plans to go ride and then you wake up to a rainstorm or just as you pull up to the barn and there starts a downpour, you’re left with that somewhat anxious twinge of disappointment.
As I work on my Horse Boy Method Certification and watch the videos explaining how the mind works and the effect that the horse has on your mind and body, I now fully understand why horseback riding makes you feel so, so good.
It’s a Hormone Thing
It is a hormone thing, but in a good way. When you are stressed, the amygdala in the middle of your brain recognizes stress. In response to that, your body’s adrenal glands produce cortisol. Cortisol is the stress hormone. It’s the hormone that activates your “fight or flight” response. When you’re in a stressful situation, that hormone is released but it’s meant to be short lasting – just to protect you type of thing.
What happens in our daily lives, however, is that when we work a stressful job, have anxiety, or you’re a kid on the autism spectrum, that cortisol keeps getting pumped out. An overactive amygdala constantly recognizing stress and causing the production of cortisol is not a good thing. It’s actually very bad for our bodies causing:
- Increased anxiety
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Weight gain
- Sleeping issues
- Digestive issues
- Memory and concentration issues
- The development of Cushing Syndrome, which includes all of the above plus diabetes, muscle weakness and other health problems.
So, what’s the antidote to this overproduction of cortisol? Oxytocin. Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus, but certain actions of the body help produce it. One of those is the rocking of the hips.
Guess where you can rock your hips? On a horse! The canter is the best action to really get your oxytocin flowing, but that’s a big step for beginner riders. But, the action of your body following the horse’s movement also gets it flowing.
Kids on the autism spectrum often have low oxytocin levels resulting in always feeling stressed from high levels of cortisol. Because cortisol can cause non-essential aspects of the body to shut down, you have kids with social issues, problems with change, artificial light, and noise. They tantrum because they are overwhelmingly stressed. The main premise of the Horse Boy Method is that the action of the horse or even simply movement (such as swinging) activates the oxytocin in their bodies and they begin to come out of their “shell.”
Kids who are raised in stressful environments, such as parental emotional unavailability, domestic violence or family instability, also suffer in the same way as kids on the spectrum. The more traumatic their experience, the higher the cortisol levels. The overproduction of cortisol in their environment can cause them to have lower cognitive functioning. This means that they have issues with learning, remembering, thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving. They often act out because they simply don’t know what to do. Just another reason that horses are great for this group of kids as well!
For those of us that are neuro-typical, we get the same great benefits! We get all of that lovely oxytocin washing away our stress, anxiety, and worry while we are on the back of a horse.
It Also Helps Us Learn!
All of this fun hormone stuff going on inside our brains and bodies also does something else amazing. It turns on our learning receptors, so we are actually able to learn (about anything) while horseback. You can teach kids math, teach them to spell or even memorize something you really need to remember. (I just wish it helped me remember I left the water running in the troughs!)
But seriously, Hannah and I experienced this the other day and we didn’t even realize it at the time. We were both working on remembering a dressage test so that we can participate in an online horse show. I am usually the worst at memorizing patterns and “tests.” But when I was on the back of Mistic or Jackson and looking at the pattern and then actually riding it, it stuck! Hannah was able to learn it very quickly as well.
Finally, the other reason you feel so much better is because you’re outside in nature. You’re interacting with a creature that imparts no judgment. They don’t care what kind of issues you have. Plus, in nature, there’s no artificial stimuli. You don’t have annoying artificial light or buzzing electronics. All of these artificial things are stressors that constantly turn on the production of cortisol, albeit in small amounts. For many, these are minor stressors, but for some, the slightest hum or flickering of a light, can be a major stressor. The more you can be out in the fresh air and one with nature, the better it is for your mind, body and soul.