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The Power of Riding: Heart, Brain and Body

I am constantly asking myself what it is about the human/horse relationship that can be so profound. A few years ago I worked with a teenage boy with Tourette’s Syndrome. When he rode during our psychotherapy sessions his tics would disappear. I asked him what other sports he did, and if his symptoms went away when he engaged in those sports as well. He said he played basketball and that the tics would diminish, but that they wouldn’t go away completely like they did when he was riding. Both of us were thrilled and yet baffled by this enchanted affect the riding was having on him.

Time and time again I observe how riding, and our time with horses, effects mind and body differently from most other sports and endeavors. In my practice as a psychologist using a therapeutic horse as my co-therapist I have witnessed many seemingly enchanted moments like the one experienced by this boy with Tourette’s for which I have found little explanation. It is a question I believe I will be exploring for the rest of my life.

Recently I was reading an article in Scientific American titled Your Brain In Love. It explained that MRI studies have been able to measure what is happening in our brain chemically when we are in romantic, maternal or unconditional love. The illustrations showed what parts of the brain are most active when we are experiencing “love” and what chemicals (Neurotransmitters, the chemicals responsible for the communication between neurons, such as Dopamine, Ocytocin, Vasopressin and Serotonin all change dramatically when we are feeling love) are increased or decreased.

When we ride our own horses, or even develop a relationship with a horse we take lessons on once or twice a week, we are often engaged in a profound relational connection. In addition, those positive emotions are combined with exercise. (As many of you know, there are many studies showing how endorphins and other chemicals that affect our mood positively are released when we exercise.) Consequently, I couldn’t help but wonder if we measured these same factors in someone’s brain during or after riding that those MRIs would find the exact same thing described in this article: Love

Combine love and exercise and it seems, sometimes, there is enchantment.

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