My mother once told me, “Cherish every moment with your daughter. She will grow up quickly before your very eyes. Before you know it, she’ll be off to college.” Well, she was right. Though Charleigh Grace is far from college age, she is a confident, opinionated, and compassionate four-year-old who, believe it or not, can post the trot on the lunge line all by herself!
It seems that our mother-daughter relationship has entered a new-found level of I can do it “all by myself.” As a mother, this has been challenging. Of course I want independence and personal growth and development for my daughter. Yet, I also want to hold her hand, calm her fears, and shelter her from any harm that may come her way. I’ve made progress, believe it or not!
Charleigh’s first riding lesson was May 4, 2013, just three-months shy of her third birthday. I remember the day so clearly. I hurried to tack up Scout, the pony we were lessoning on, at the same time attempting to wrangle a two-and-a-half-year-old who was honestly more intrigued with the barn cat, Tigress, than the pony. Go figure… Miss Erin, our assistant trainer, and I literally held Charleigh up in the saddle. Her little legs barely fell below the saddle flap and she just kind of perched there with this huge grin from ear to ear. She was hooked.
Charleigh at her first riding lesson
Over the months, Charleigh learned the basics of horsemanship, the importance of keeping her heels down and hands together. All this time I was glued to her side. Miss Erin and I soon entered Charleigh in her first lead-line class at Sonoma Horse Park. It was blue ribbons and fun for all!
In October of 2013, a sweet little pony named Olive came into our lives. The bond between Charleigh and Olive was instant. This mare is honestly the kindest soul ever and it was my hope that she would be the one to not only teach my daughter, but me as well, the importance of growing up and letting go.
Cordelia, Charleigh, Olive and Coach pose together for Charleigh’s Cookies’ Holiday shoot. Photo Credit: Woodside Images, JSinclair
Charleigh’s confidence on Olive has grown over the past year. She went from asking me to help groom the pony to finding a step stool, dragging it over and grooming little Olive herself, giving me careful instructions when I was too close or doing something incorrectly (“Seriously child? I have been grooming horses since before you were born…”).
On Charleigh’s fourth birthday, she got to trot for the first time. Miss Erin and I jogged next to her. Charleigh sat up tall as Olive trotted along. The sweet giggle that escaped Charleigh’s lips had us both in tears. The smile of sheer joy and accomplishment across her face reminded me of how I felt when I started riding many years ago.
Now, a year-and-a-half into lessons, my new “role” is the mom at the gate. I’ve managed to remain un-glued to Charleigh’s side for the past six weeks as she enters her new-found world of trotting on the lunge line with her trainer. I find myself biting my tongue a lot and mumbling under my breath, “Keep your heels down… Hold your hands together…” all the while letting her soak up this amazing experience and figuring it out for herself.
My confidence in my daughter has increased—not that it was ever lacking, EVER—and I am able to witness her proud moments. Like the time she kicked hard enough to make Olive trot by herself! Imagine a small child with legs out wide and that slight “thud” that’s just barely enough to mean “trot”. These are moments I would not have witnessed had I been glued to her side. Progress for us both!
"If you are not a horse person, it might be hard to understand why some people love their horses so much," writes HuffPost blogger, bestselling author and relationship expert Margaret Paul, Ph.D. "There is something about a horse's energy that creates a powerful shift in me. Whenever I'm at all tense, I have only to hug Stryder and I can feel my whole system coming into alignment. His heartbeat slows my heartbeat until the stress completely leaves my body. His soft eyes bring me into the present moment and I can barely contain the love I feel."
While this kind of experience is far from universal, there's a lot to recommend spending time with horses. For the people who love them, time riding and caring for these animals is full of natural, organic interactions and a deep sense of fulfillment.
Luckily, you don't have to be a horse owner to spend time with them and reap the accompanying benefits. Horse stables nationwide often accept grounds volunteers enthusiastically, and as well as offer riding lessons and trail rides -- and not all of these opportunities are restricted to rural areas. In fact, you just might be surprised by the unexpected places where quality time with horses is an option.
Here are 8 ways horses can help us truly thrive each day.
They can help us find common ground.
When spending time with horses -- from brushing their manes to guiding them along wooded trails -- we naturally sense a connectivity and closeness to them that, turns out, is rooted in science as well as our intuition.
“There are striking similarities between horses and people,” Dede Beasley, M.Ed., LPC, an equine therapist at The Ranch, told Elements of Behavioral Health. “Like people, horses are social beings whose herd dynamics are remarkably similar to the family system. As a sophisticated herd animal, horses immediately begin building relationships with people as members of their herd.”
They can help keep us calm.
Pets have the incredible ability to reduce our stress and boost our sense of Zen by simply looking at us with those beautiful eyes -- and that power isn't limited to just dogs and cats. One of the many psychological benefits of spending time with horses is the tranquil nature they encourage within us. A Washington State University study suggests that teenagers especially are impacted by a horse's presence -- frequent time in the pasture makes them less likely to suffer from stress.
They can help us learn.
A pioneering 2013 study from the University of Kentucky discovered that spending time with horses can help people develop a sense of empathy as well as enhance their social and leadership skills. The small group of nurses from UK Chandler Hospital who participated in the study noted the importance of self-awareness and non-verbal communication during their time in the stables.
"If horses can increase our ability to understand ourselves and others better, then the healthcare industry is a perfect place for studies like these," study project manager Lissa Pohl said in a statement. "When nurses and doctors benefit from collaborating with horses then ultimately their patients also benefit."
They can keep us healthy.
Research suggest that equine therapy, a method of integrating horse-related activities and their environment to assist people suffering from a variety of health problems, can promote physical, occupational, and emotional growth. A study commissioned by the British Horse Society in 2011 confirmed that regular horse riding and horse riding-related activities like mucking out stalls counts as moderately intense exercise and can help keep a person healthy. Additional research associates equine therapy with lower blood pressure and heart rate, reduced stress, and fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.
They can help relieve symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
While spending time with horses can provide physical and mental benefits to people suffering from a variety of illnesses and conditions, those who struggle with Alzheimer's disease find their time with these majestic creatures especially therapeutic. The disease is mainly associated with memory loss, but patients also find their personalities changing as the condition worsens, often leading them to feel more moody and withdrawn from others. Equine therapy seems to help them find a sense of calm and ease the frustration that comes along with living with Alzheimer's. A new study from Ohio State University researchers found that such an experience helps lift patients' mood and reduce incidents of negative behavior.
They can be our best therapists.
Equine therapy activities, including everything from grooming and feeding to walking and riding, can substantially improve psychological health -- particularly in people who don't feel comfortable with the more traditional verbal therapy methods. Alongside a licensed therapist and horse professional, people can find relief for behavioral issues, attention deficit disorder, substance abuse, eating disorders and abuse issues, to name a few.
"The horse is the perfect mirror, they are very emotional beings; we're only starting to realise how intelligent they are," Gabrielle Gardner, a therapy counselor of Shine For Life, told The Guardian. The benefits of working with horses are also being increasingly recognized by therapists who work with autistic children.
They can help us live the present.
In an open clinical trial published in 2007 by the Journal of Human-Animal Studies, researchers explored the potential effectiveness of equine-assisted experiential therapy. Afterwards participants reported feeling more oriented in the present, better able to life more fully in the here-and-now, less burned by regrets, guilt and resentments, less focused on fears related to the future, more independent and more self supportive.
They inspire a sense of wonder in all of us.
"There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man." - Winston Churchill
Horses have played a prominent role in mythology, inspired countless books and stories, and served as some of the most beloved family members of people across the globe. Many argue that there is no better example of both gentleness and power in nature, a combination that instantly leave us feeling lighter in their presence and free to explore the world we live in. Science aside, there's no denying this magical and moving quality they possess.