The Horseback Riding High

The Horseback Riding High

Why this "Addiction" is a good thing.

Webster defines addiction as a “  compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance... characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal; broadly: persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful.”

Hmmm, well, certainly my personal experience might qualify me as “horse addicted” under most of that definition, though horses are only harmful on an occasional basis.  But habit-forming, I'd have to say "yes" and well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal, again I'd have to say "absolutely"! Let’s look further.  The ASAM (American Society of Addiction Medicine) further defines addiction as the “inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.”  WHEW!  Well, they have to sound that way because they're experts I guess. 

I think there are really two portions to this definition.  The first is behavior based, are you compulsive, is it hard to abstain.  Then secondarily is this "addiction" creating a negative impact on the quality of your life or your personal health? Let's turn to some basic science for more insight.

As it turns out the brain science behind what happens when we horse people are interacting with horses is pretty impressive.  You may know that the human body has the ability to create specific pleasure chemicals in the blood, ie a number of "feel good"hormones including serotonin, prolactin, dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin.  Perhaps this was initially meant to help guide us toward positive behaviors in our daily lives, but unfortunately, human ingenuity has found ways to abuse this amazing ability.  In fact, we have invented countless methods for triggering this pleasurable hormonal cocktail.  You know what I”m talking about, things like alcohol, drugs even computer gaming and facebook viewing all release the same cocktail of chemicals into your bloodstream, which is why so many people enjoy them, and of course and continue to use them.

What we can conclude very quickly here is that there are addictions that are primarily beneficial and then those that are absolutely destructive to the quality of life.  Unlike the traditional addictions we hear about every day, that cause harm to the human body & mind and/or our social structures, horseback riding and all those associated activities most often creates the opposite outcome in a number of very profound ways:

  • Chemicals released into the bloodstream; endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin; create a sense of well-being.  Spending time with our horse actually lifts our mood, improves the clarity of our thought, problem solving and memory.  We are more positive about our lives in general and are better able to overcome inevitable challenges.
  • Horses are also highly intuitive. As herd animals, they naturally exhibit “mirroring” of their human partners.  This means they are tuned into our emotions and movements - thus requiring us to calm ourselves and become present at the moment to keep our horse calm and behaving well.
  • Working with a large, strong and potentially dangerous animal also forces us to get “out of our own head” and pay attention.  This invariably causes a perspective shift as we realize the vastness of the world around us the stressors of the day diminish in size and may not seem so overwhelming.  I'm sure you have heard the saying, "Don't sweat the small stuff.... and it's ALL small stuff!"  Upon the back of your horse, this is easier to see.
  • Can’t ride a horse in the house so we’ve got to get back to nature and hit the outdoors.  Taking a few deep breaths is the signal to your body to relax and calm and often leads to moments of appreciation and gratitude. 
  • Just the physicality of riding or working with a horse causes us to exert ourselves.  Working with 800 lbs of muscle with an attitude can work up a sweat in no time.  Feel your heart rate elevated during your canter through the hay field, the wind blowing through your hair.  It’s the human body at the height of its purpose.  Working muscles, body and mind to create a pleasurable riding experience.

So all of these things are most definitely NOT what a drug or alcohol addicted person would derive from their habit.  While we might answer the overall question as a “yes, I might be addicted” we should also be able to add that we are thrilled with our addiction and all the benefits we derive. Our horse companions offer us invaluable support in our lives:

  • Unconditional love and acceptance - We can count on them to be interested in having us around no matter our mood
  • Behavior modification - Horseback riding interrupts our stressful routines and guides us to other calming activities.  We are their caretaker so we must think of their best interest.
  • Promote touch - encourage us to connect with them via touch, pat, brushing and riding.  When we are with them we want to stay connected.
  • Lower blood pressure - all those great chemicals released in our blood have a lasting impact on our health, generally lowering our blood pressure and decreasing other stress-related symptoms.  There is even research showing that our horse will improve our immune system responses, not to mention we are physically in better shape.

So congratulations for choosing an addiction that brings you all the positive chemicals you need in your system to have a sense of well being and gratitude!  In the long run, this addiction is probably cheaper than the others you could have chosen, so don’t let anyone tell you differently!

Wahoo! Promoting Spontaneous Horsing Around!

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