Other Riding

Gratitude & Horses: Healing the Cracked Places

horse girl hugging
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Written by Lindsey Rains

Childhood as it Should Be

The apartment is quiet. All around me I see spare water glasses, cereal bowls, hair ties, and half-completed coloring pages. I’m tired, but I feel full. This week has been different than most weeks because our life was pleasantly interrupted by two eleven-year-old Peruvian girls.

Full of sparkle, hugs and insight, the girls filled our lives with laughter and sweet company.

I work at a non-profit that finds sponsors for children who are orphaned or living in terribly adverse situations. Every year, upwards of twenty children from various countries around the world are chosen to come to the United States. They perform in a choir that raises awareness and sponsorship for other children in similar situations.

For several weeks out of every year, my husband and I host some of these visiting children at our home.

Of course, I’m always chomping at the bit to take any willing child to the barn. Most have never even been around horses, much less sat on one. This time was no different. My husband and I picked up the girls and headed straight to the barn. They were tired from a long day of practicing for their performance, but the kids insisted they weren’t too tired for horses!

When we arrived at the barn, Chip was in his sleepy post-dinner stupor. But he meandered out of his stall to enjoy all the pets and cookies the excited girls bestowed upon him.

One of the girls, introspective and calm, lovingly stroked Chip’s neck with deep wonder and contentment in her eyes, as though she had been waiting her whole life to meet such a majestic and sensitive creature.

The other girl squealed and giggled any time Chip snorted or snuffled her for a cookie inspection.

Both girls were eager to get on a horse for the first time, but they were nervous to do it alone. After saddling, I mounted Chip. (They laughed because Chip kept swinging his rump away from the mounting block.) Once I got on, my husband walked the quieter girl to the mounting block. She climbed up the two steps, and he boosted her the rest of the way. She quickly wrapped her arms around my waist and settled onto Chip’s butt right behind the saddle.

We began to walk, and I asked her how it felt to be on his back. “Beautiful,” she said.

I talked to her about how Chip was strong and trustworthy enough to carry us both. When I asked if she wanted to go faster, though nervous, she nodded. Chip has a lovely, slow, prance-like trot that he brings out especially when there are children on his back.

When I brought him back down to a walk, we circled, and trotted again. The little girl hopped off with a wide smile on her face.

horse hugging little girl

Source: Pxfuel.com

Now it was her friend’s turn, and she was more vocal about her nerves. She climbed onto the mounting block and  exclaimed, “Oh! I’m so nervous!” She covered her face with her hands.

“Let me ask you a favor,” I said.

“Yes?”

“Take a deep breath for me.”

She took a deep breath, settled, and let my husband lift her onto Chip’s back behind me. She squirmed around and clung to my waist.

“Take a deep breath,” I said. “The secret to being a cowgirl is simply breathing deeply and relaxing.”

Finally able to settle down, she echoed her friend’s sentiment that being on a horse was beautiful. She was even daring enough to try Chip’s prancing trot.

“Look how delicately he carries you,” I said.

She was delighted and enamored as we circled the arena.

The little girl inside me was happy, too, because Chip was such a good babysitter. He gave them a truly lovely first experience on horseback.

It was my husband, though, who made it a personal experience for them. Even though his approach was simple, he was able to show them what I couldn’t.

After being around horses for so long, I have gotten into a mindset of doing, accomplishing, figuring out, getting past the next roadblock.

On the other hand, he only started being around horses since we started dating. He could relate to the girls’ wonder and share what he knew and liked about horses as someone with little experience. He showed them how he’d been taught to walk up to a horse and and greet him. He talked about how to calm your fears. He explained that talking to them and feeding them cookies can help make a horse your friend.

That evening at the barn reminded me that being around horses is such a gift.

Even simple interactions—be they between animals or human beings—can be sacred. I remembered how much being around horses at a young age had saved my heart when it was severely broken. Likewise, seeing the delight in the girls’ faces when they were riding reminded me how invincible and free I had felt in the saddle as a teenager.

Children have a unique way of reaching out and touching those cracked places in our hearts that are broken — the ones we are convinced are unsalvageable.

They convince us that innocence and joy can exist even in the midst of hardship and adversity. After seeing how safe and loving our home felt to these girls, I realized just how much is going right in the world. I am more grateful for my own life, for my sweet husband who connects with people in ways I never could, and for the ability to offer even a small bit of comfort, joy, and magic to others.

Though they’ve moved on from our home, the girls touched my heart in ways I won’t soon forget. For now, I have little colored bits of paper and hair ties to remind me of all the movie nights, hair braiding, couch time, and conversations about life and all that is beautiful and wonderful… like horses. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a good age to start riding a horse?

As with most things, there is no clear-cut answer to the best age to start riding horses (or ponies). Some lesson programs won’t accept children until age seven; the Pony Club states the six “is appropriate” and still other establishments will start teaching kids as young as four.

What is best will likely depend on the child—confidence, physical ability, and mental determination will all play a factor. That said, some people don’t start riding horses until they are adults. Horses can be a great way for any age to bond with an animal, get physical activity, and build friendships with like-minded people.

Is horse riding good for children?

Horseback riding can be a great activity for children. It helps build balance, coordination and core strength. Horses get kids outside, off the couch, and into nature. Going to the barn can be a way to bond with family members or create lasting friendships with a wide age range of people.

At my show barn, we had youth and adult amateur riders learning and working together. Horses can boost our mental health, providing a welcome respite from the stress of everyday life. Caring for a horse can build confidence along with teaching empathy, respect, kindness, and responsibility.

Why do kids like horses?

It is hard to say what draws kids to different activities. Each child is different and will develop unique hobbies. Some are drawn to horses; some will never grow out of it. These “horse crazy” kids are a special breed. Some are born into it; others develop a passion out of seemingly nowhere.

Horses make excellent companions and are a great way to get kids outside and active. Horses are a great way to teach kids responsibility and trust while building confidence and providing a sense of independence.

horse rookie guide to jumping

Can horses feel gratitude?

Gratitude is a very human emotion, so it is difficult to definitively say whether horses can feel it or not. Gratitude does have a place at the barn—focusing on gratitude and overall positivity can impact performance in a good way. Horses can teach us a lot about relationships, and that is something for which to be thankful.

Horses do, however, seem to be able to recognize emotions in people, specifically reading the difference between positive and negative facial expressions. Some studies indicated that horses even have a “memory for emotion.” We all perceive the world differently depending on our individual circumstances, so it seems logical that animals perceive the world differently from people. That said, it is quite possible that horses (and other animals) are capable of feeling emotions.

What is so special about a horse?

Horses are incredibly intelligent, beautiful animals that just draw certain people to them. You’re either “horse crazy” or you’re not—it’s pretty polarizing. Those that fall into the “horse crazy” category can sense something special. Two famous quotes come to mind:

  • “I’ve often said there’s nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse.” -Ronald Regan
  • “No hour of life is lost that is spent in the saddle.” -Winston Churchill

Horses are amazing therapeutic animals—they can help build communication skills, patience, and teach boundaries. Horses are incredibly aware of our emotions and feelings and can give immediate feedback.

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About the author

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Lindsey Rains

Lindsey Rains is the owner of Hoof Print Marketing, a boutique equestrian social media agency serving clients like The Plaid Horse, Savvy Horsewoman, and (of course!) Horse Rookie. She resides in Post Falls, ID, USA, with her husband, where she loves taking jumping lessons.