A “horse-crazy” phase is normal for many kids- especially girls. For lucky kids with access to horses and horseback riding facilities, horseback riding offers an incredibly enriching experience for kids, tweens, and teens. For kids growing up in the digital age, horseback riding offers an analog sport, free from screens and stats, and free from many of the pressures of organized sports. In this article, we’ll take a look at a specific range of benefits that horseback riding offers teenage girls: body image improvement.
The Horse Crazy “Phase”
Sometimes a young woman interested in horses and horseback riding girl gets labeled as going through a “horse crazy phase,” and ignored. It can be tempting to “wait it out” but in this authors experience working with both horses and teenagers in the mental health field, an interest in horses is often far more than a casual interest in a hobby- often, what really interests girls about horses is the emotional connection with an empathic animal, the empowerment that comes through riding, and the sense of control in handling an animal as large as a horse. For teens and tweens who, as a typical part of growing up, often feel disconnected, misunderstood, and powerless, the horse-crazy “phase” can actually be a girl’s way of seeking to get these needs met. Brushing off a child or tween’s persistent requests to get their needs met in healthy ways can have significant consequences for them later in adolescence as they potentially seek less healthy ways of getting their needs met. For a dedicated article exploring the topic, check out my article on parenting horse-crazy kids.
Horses and Body Image
For girls coming of age in our media-saturated culture, concerns about body image are often major stressors and are frequently listed as contributors to the development of mental health issues. With eating disorders affecting approximately one in eight women by the age of 20 (source), many parents are searching for any way they can to promote positive body image. We know that equine–human experiences positively impact us physically, developmentally, and psychologically, but what you may not know is how involvement with horses can boost a child or teen’s perception of their own body. Here’s a list of the ways that horseback riding and horses improve body image for young girls:
Access to a Nonjudgmental Companion.
It’s no secret that girls bond with their horses. Horses are highly emotional creatures able to intuitively connect with humans. A bond with a horse includes unconditional acceptance and nonjudgment– things we all need, but especially teenagers. When we have someone– or something- that accepts us and loves us exactly as we are, without asking, suggesting, or forcing us to change, we grow more confident in who we are– including developing a better body image.
For girls in larger bodies, well-meaning parents can often be a source of the stigmatizing experiences that lead to binge eating behaviors and/or weight gain (academic study source), horseback riding gives girls access to a 100% nonjudgmental companion. Father of modern psychology Carl Rogers theorized that what made good psychotherapy effective was 3 things: 1. empathy 2. unconditional positive regard and 3. congruence (aka honesty). Horses offer two- if not three of these things- making them an excellent companion for kids and teens.
Self-Confidence that Leads to Better Body Image
Often teenage girls feel– and for the most part are– very powerless to control their own life. While adults and institutions make many decisions for them, horseback riding gives girls one context where they get to be in charge. Learning to control a horse helps girls develop confidence and a sense of power. Having a very large animal trust, listen, and obey their instruction can be very empowering for girls. While not directly related to body image, developing self-confidence and a sense of empowerment is a powerful antidote to the powerlessness that often makes him girls turn to self-destructive behaviors and defiance to gain a sense of control over their life.
Horses Teach Emotional Regulation
No matter what type of riding we do, or what context (like organized riding lessons, solo rides, trail riding, or barrel racing) riding horses helps us grow in our ability to connect our mind with our body. While most of life asks us to “check out” from the signals that our body sends us, part of learning how to ride a horse is checking in with body sensations, developing better balance, and growing our ability to intuit what’s going on with our horse based on body sensation. The connections in the brain that are built and strengthened through this activity last a lifetime, helping young women connect thinking, feeling, and body sensations in a way that helps them be better at noticing and responding to their own emotions, and helping themselves calm down before panicking, overreacting, or acting out in self-destructive ways. This can result in more satisfying relationships, increased resilience to depression and anxiety in adulthood, and a greater capacity to self regulate when they receive messages that their body isn’t “good enough”.
Positive Peer Relationships through Riding
Riding helps girls make friends based on shared interests, not on appearance. Many times, girls can feel most judged (and most stigmatized, if their bodies don’t meet an ideal standard) by their own social group. When girls have the opportunity to ride in a community – such as part of a riding lesson stable or pony club – girls bond and form friendships based on a shared interest in horses. This refocusing on a communal goal can help girls grow supportive peer relationships that support lasting good body image long after they stop riding.
keep in mind that this may not be true for every community of young riders. If you’re the parent of a child or teen who rides at a competitive stable or a barn with resident “mean girls” the opposite effect can occur– though in this author’s experience it happens less frequently among riders than in many organized sports.
Horseback Riding Teaches Girls Boundaries
It takes assertiveness and boundaries to be comfortable in one’s body in a culture that profits billions from women’s body dissatisfaction. Horses can build body image in girls by teaching girls to stand up for themselves. Horses are often reluctant to do exactly what they’re told, and when girls learn through riding lessons how to follow up on their commands with consequences, girls learn skills that transfer to them standing up for themselves when friends, media, or influencers challenge their beliefs about their body.
Horses Teach Girls Conflict Resolution
Safely handling a horse means learning skills for de-escalation and negotiation. You can’t just challenge a 1,200 pound animal and expect that exchange to go well. Girls must think creatively about how to discipline their horse without escalating to a dangerous situation. This teaches girls to stay engaged in conflict. Why is that a good thing? And why is a connected body image? Well, often, girls in American culture are taught to automatically appease or fawn when threatened. Learning skills, through horseback riding, for gentle assertiveness and confident boundary-keeping is a skill that transfers well to resisting the messages of diet culture and pressures towards eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.
Horseback Riding Helps Girls Grow Physically Stronger
Research indicates that body image (how we feel about our body) isn’t actually closely correlated to our body shape (in other words, people who hate their body are likely to still hold extreme contempt for their body even after losing weight) but growing strong can help girls and teens feel empowered in their body- and to develop a mindful appreciation and gratitude for their body’s abilities- all things that DO correlate to improved body image.
Girls who Care for Horses Learn Functional Nutrition
While teenage peers and media influencers often pressure girls to eat less and less to make their bodies conform more and more to an ideal standard, girls who are involved with horses learn about functional nutrition. Girls who participate in the care of their horses- especially girls who ride performance horses competitively- learn to understand that food is energy- energy which is essential for their horse to perform at their best. Through this experience feeding and noting how their horse is impacted by good, girls can learn the important role of consuming enough calories to perform at peak performance. In a culture that has confused calories with morality, girls involved with horses have the opportunity to see the link between sufficient nutrition and fuel to be healthy and active.