December 5, 2023

7.2 M Reasons to Celebrate Our Love of Horses

December 13th marks a special occasion for equine enthusiasts everywhere: National Day of the Horse. It’s a day to recognize the profound impact these amazing animals have had on our history, culture, and hearts.

The United States is home to an estimated 7.2 million horses and the horse industry contributes $122 billion annually to the U.S. economy. The U.S. horse industry also employs 1.74 million people. It is no wonder, since humans have been sharing an enduring bond with horses for centuries. These equine companions range from the graceful Thoroughbreds to the sturdy Quarter Horses, each breed contributing its own charm and character to the rich tapestry of American equine culture. Wikipedia claims there have been 52 breeds native to the US, though we currently only recognize 11.

Gallop Through History: The Narragansett Pacer, America's First Horse Breed and Its Legacy

Narragansett Pacer

The first horse breed developed in the United States was the Narragansett Pacer. This breed emerged in the 18th century (1700s) and was theorized to be a mix of English and Spanish breeds, although the exact cross is unknown. The Pacer was primarily associated with Rhode Island and the New England area. It became extinct by the 20th century as horse breeding shifted to Kentucky and Tennessee in the late 1700s​​.

The Narragansett Pacer was known for being sure-footed and dependable, qualities that made it suitable for racing and general riding. Despite not being particularly flashy in appearance, the breed was owned and ridden by many notable figures of the American Revolutionary War era, including President George Washington and Paul Revere. The last known purebred Pacer is thought to have died around 1880, though the breed had disappeared from pedigrees earlier, in the late 1700s or early 1800s​​.

This breed played a significant role in the foundation of several other American horse breeds. It contributed to the development of the Morgan and Standardbred horses, and through the Morgan, influenced the American Saddlebred and Tennessee Walking Horse as well. The Narragansett Pacer also served as foundation stock for the Canadian horse and, through crossbreeding with Canadian and Morgan stallions, influenced the Chincoteague Pony of Virginia​.

The Heart of a Horse: Why We Cherish These Creatures

There’s something inherently captivating about horses. Their strength, grace, and intelligence resonate deeply with us. Horses are not just animals; they are storytellers, healers, and athletes. They teach us patience, resilience, and the importance of mutual trust and respect. The way a horse can tune into our emotions and respond with such sensitivity is nothing short of miraculous.

Did you know that spending time with horses can have a real impact on our emotions? It's true! Horses, with their amazing ability to understand and react to human feelings, are now becoming a key part of therapies designed to improve our wellbeing. Just like us, horses communicate through subtle signals, and they're incredibly good at picking up on our emotional state. This connection can lead to a mutual sharing of emotions during therapy sessions, benefiting both the horse and the person.

In fact, scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are looking into how this emotional bond works, studying both the human and the horse during Equine Assisted Interventions (EAIs). They're finding that when we interact with horses, it's not just a physical experience; it's an emotional one too. This bond we form with horses can help people with various challenges, from physical disabilities to emotional and social struggles. And guess what? Even the way we move can sync up with our equine buddies!

It's fascinating to think that our relationship with horses goes beyond just riding. It's a deep, emotional connection that's now being harnessed to help us feel better, both inside and out.

A Healing Hoofprint: Horses in Therapy

Equine-assisted therapy (EAT) has gained recognition for its effectiveness in helping people with physical, mental, and emotional challenges. The gentle nature of horses, combined with their ability to mirror and respond to human behavior, makes them excellent therapy partners. They provide a sense of calm and presence that can be incredibly therapeutic, offering comfort to those who need it most.

Here are some popular programs and their effectiveness:

  1. Therapeutic Horseback Riding: This form of therapy involves teaching individuals how to control a horse while riding. It is particularly beneficial for improving coordination, balance, posture, muscle tone, and overall well-being in disabled individuals. It also helps in building confidence as individuals learn to work with the horse both on the ground and while riding​​.
  2. Hippotherapy: Similar to therapeutic horseback riding, hippotherapy usually involves an occupational therapist, physiotherapist, or speech and language therapist. The horse is led through various gaits, tempos, and directions, challenging the rider to use different postural responses. This therapy is effective in strengthening the muscles of the rider, making it especially helpful for those with physical disabilities​​.
  3. Equine-Assisted Learning (EAL): EAL focuses on personal development, education, and professional development through interactions with horses. Participants in these programs develop heightened self-awareness and gain self-confidence by learning to work with large animals. This therapy helps in understanding non-verbal communication and its impact on others, thereby aiding in personal and professional growth​​.
  4. Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP): EAP uses horses to address psychological problems. Unlike therapeutic riding or hippotherapy, EAP often involves groundwork with horses, including grooming, feeding, and ground exercises. It helps clients explore and discuss feelings, patterns, and behaviors, and is effective in addressing social, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral issues​​.

Equine therapy is effective for a variety of reasons:

  • Trust Building: Learning to trust a horse can be a profound step towards growth in interpersonal relationships, especially for individuals whose ability to trust has been compromised by difficult life experiences​​.
  • Anxiety Reduction: Contact with horses significantly reduces physiological anxiety levels. Overcoming initial fears of horses can empower individuals to embrace therapy and diminish anxiety​​.
  • Depression and Isolation: Interaction with horses can decrease feelings of rejection and isolation often associated with depression​​.
  • Mindfulness and Emotional Regulation: Equine therapy integrates mindfulness, helping individuals to be present and engaged, thereby positively impacting cognition and emotional regulation​​.
  • Self-Esteem and Social Skills: Building confidence and learning appropriate communication skills are key aspects of equine therapy. Working with horses in a non-competitive, non-judgmental environment improves self-esteem and social interactions​​.

Equine therapy can help clients with depression, anxiety, ADHD, conduct disorders, addiction, trauma, eating disorders, spectrum and health difficulties, dissociative disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and other mental health difficulties​​. The unique non-verbal communication opportunities provided by equine therapy enhance self-awareness, help recognize maladaptive behaviors, identify negative feelings, and confront self-defeating cognitions​​.

Chastain Horse Park has one of Atlanta's oldest and most well-known Equine Therapy programs. They partner with My Heroes Therapy.

Galloping Towards Glory: Horses in the Olympics

As we look forward to the 2024 Olympic Summer Games, we’re reminded of the extraordinary abilities of equine athletes. From dressage to show jumping, horses will once again captivate the world with their agility, precision, and unspoken communication with their riders. These events not only highlight the physical capabilities of these magnificent creatures but also the deep bond and trust they share with their human partners.

The equestrian events at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris are scheduled to run from 27 July to 6 August at the Palace of Versailles, featuring 200 riders across three disciplines for both individual and team competitions, namely dressage, eventing and jumping.

Beyond the Track and Field: The Unique Qualities of Horses

Horses possess an uncanny ability to live in the moment, a trait we humans often strive for. They remind us of the beauty of simplicity and the joy found in life’s quiet moments. Whether it’s a peaceful trail ride at dusk or the thrill of a gallop, every moment spent with a horse is a reminder of the simple pleasures in life.

The Unbreakable Bond: A Connection Like No Other

For those who have experienced the bond with a horse, it’s a connection that transcends words. It's a look in the eye, a nuzzle, or a gentle whinny that speaks volumes about trust, understanding, and companionship. This bond is a sacred one, built on mutual respect and love.

In Conclusion

On this National Day of the Horse, let’s celebrate these magnificent creatures for all they bring into our lives: joy, healing, excitement, and an unparalleled connection with the natural world. They are not just animals; they are partners, teachers, and friends. As we eagerly await the Olympic spectacle in 2024, let us also take a moment to appreciate the everyday magic that horses bring into our lives.

Here’s to our equine friends, the unsung heroes, the gentle giants, and the spirited athletes. May we continue to learn from them, care for them, and cherish the incredible bond we share.

Happy National Day of the Horse!