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Saddle Up For Success | Summer 2006 Out Here Magazine

Zane and Logan Pluhar of Canyon, Texas, have had the full benefit of growing up with horses. "I don't know of a better way to raise kids," says their father, Darwin.

Horses can be life enhancing for your child

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer
Photography by Robin O'Shaughnessy

If you ask Darwin and Jenny Pluhar, raising children successfully requires a little horse sense. And a horse or two.

"From a parent's standpoint, I don't know of a better way to raise kids," says Darwin, father of three. "They learn to think on their feet. They learn respect. And they learn to accept responsibility for their actions."

The Pluhars' eldest son, Zane, recently received the Texas Quarter Horse Youth Association's outstanding youth award. Now in his first year at Texas A&M University, Zane plans to become an equine veterinarian. Younger son Joe and daughter Logan also are active in TQHA.

"Riding and showing teaches youngsters to prepare, and to muster the courage to compete," Jenny says. "They learn to take the risks, enjoy the rewards, and deal with the disappointments."

Riding families have always known horses are good for kids, but now research is proving it. Horses do indeed enhance life skills in children, says a study sponsored by the American Youth Horse Council that looked at youngsters involved in 4-H, Pony Club, the American Quarter Horse Youth Association, or high school rodeo.

"If your child likes animals and you're concerned about that child's problem solving, goal-setting, or decision-making skills, then definitely get him or her involved with horses," says Ann Swinker, a professor in Animal Science at Penn State University and one of the study's co-authors.

Taking care of a horse, such as cleaning hooves, teaches a child responsibility.

If yours isn't a riding family, you may be surprised to learn just how beneficial horse involvement can be. Here's what growing up with horses can offer to your child:

 

Wholesome Fun

 

Horses make wonderful childhood companions. Children are naturally attracted to them, and that makes horses a desirable alternative to TV-watching, Internet-surfing, or just hanging out. Horseback riding also puts children in touch with nature, and can be enjoyed alone or in groups.

 

Family time spent together with horses can enhance family bonds and become the stuff of treasured childhood memories. Moreover, benefits of horse involvement are enduring, as a child's "horse habit" can evolve into a rewarding lifelong hobby.

 

Character Development

 

Handling, riding, and caring for a horse or pony can develop positive traits, including responsibility, accountability, patience, level-headedness, empathy, kindness, and self-discipline. Even equine nature itself can exert a positive influence on a child.

 

"Horses can't be made to feel guilty, or talked into saying yes when they know they should say no," observes Dr. Janet Sasson Edgette, an equestrian sport and child/adolescent/family psychologist and author. "They simply respond to what their rider is doing in the present or has done in the past. Riding enables kids to realize how their choices, attitudes, and behaviors affect the other living creatures around them."

 

Scholastic Enhancement

 

The perseverance needed to ride a horse well can translate into improved performance in the classroom.

Zane recently received the Texas Quarter Horse Youth Association's outstanding youth award.

Leadership Training

 

"Riding increases a child's focus and intensity," says California trainer Carol Dal Porto, who prepares youngsters to compete on the Appaloosa circuit. "You can't let your mind wander when you're riding a 1,200-pound animal." This learned concentration later shows up in kids' schoolwork, "to their parents' delight," she adds.

 

If your child becomes involved with a group such as Pony Club, 4-H, or the youth group of a breed association, the opportunities for learning management and leadership skills abound.

 

"Holding an office, leading a smaller group of children, working on a project — all of these are ways in which youngsters learn and grow," says Mary Fay, the American Youth Horse Council's 2003 Youth Horse Leader of the Year. "4-H requires children to keep records of their time, activities, and money spent. These are all important life skills."

 

Health Benefits

 

Riding is terrific exercise. "People who think the horse does all the work have never really ridden," notes Katie Phalen, an instructor at Waredaca Farm in Gaithersburg, MD. Apart from its aerobic benefits, riding also helps a youngster develop balance, coordination, and flexibility, she notes.

Hefting feed buckets and hay bales make a great upper-body workout, but feeding their horse also shows children the importance of good nutrition not only for their horse — but for their own bodies as well.

Moreover, activities involved in caring for a horse — grooming, hefting buckets and saddles, cleaning stalls — can make for a great upper-body workout.

 

And, as children learn how important good nutrition, veterinary check-ups, dental work, and regular exercise are to a horse, they begin to appreciate their own health needs.

 

One more thought. In the 21st century, moms and dads can agree that parenting is not a job for the faint at heart. Horses provide a way to keep youngsters positively engaged during those "scary" years from pre-teen through young adulthood.

 

For that benefit alone, horses are terrific for children.

 

Jennifer Forsberg Meyer is the editor of the annual publication Growing Up With Horses: A Parent's Handbook & Resource Guide, from which this article is adapted.