This year, we have a unique opportunity to reflect upon the unprecedented challenges that the world faced in 2020 and what they meant for ourselves and our loved ones. Many have found that the newfound and widespread discussion about mental and physical health that quarantine initiated, paired with its elimination of the normal distractions of everyday life, offered them a chance to assess their health more thoroughly than they otherwise might.

The result of the renewed emphasis upon body and mind wellness, of course, is the increasing demand for new habits that promote smart lifestyle choices such as regular physical activity, home-cooked and balanced meals, and self-care. Individuals hoping to find beneficial hobbies that positively affect their life might not immediately consider horseback riding as an option. However, it is an activity that offers riders a wealth of opportunities to help improve their lives.

Whether you are an equestrian amateur or experienced elite, one needs to understand the value that horses offer during the pandemic and beyond.

COVID-19 and mental health

One unwelcome element of everyday life made itself known during the unfamiliar experiences of lockdown and worldwide health concerns. Recent research from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health indicates that COVID-19 and its resultant lockdown significantly impacted Canadian mental health. Conducted in July 2020, the report collected information from Canadians across the country to assess the overall emotional health challenges that many were facing. They found that 50% of Canadians experienced worsening mental health that they attributed to the pandemic, and 80% of Canadian workers reported a significant drop in their mental health since the beginning of the crisis.

The main cause of much of the mental health decline and emotional struggle is increased stress. COVID-19 not only offers its own challenges, but it also heightens problems already facing much of the population. Financial implications from the spread of the virus and the resulting drop in employment stand to impact Canadians for years to come, with much of the burden falling to those already affected by economic hardship. Low-wage workers, for example, are at a heightened risk for long-term financial difficulty when compared to other groups. Stress triggered by concern over finances compounds existing mental health issues and affects even those without prior history of such conditions.

 

It might not be possible to change the state of worldwide well-being, but it is possible to improve your own mental and physical health.

 

COVID-19 and physical health

It is not just mental health that has taken a hit due to the pandemic. Even those who have not experienced COVID-19 directly have faced physical health challenges during the lockdown. One study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, explored the impact of the pandemic and the sedentary lifestyle that many people adopted during quarantine on Canadians, in particular.

Researchers found that nearly 23% of previously active individuals became significantly less active and more than 40% of individuals who were not previously active became even more sedentary. They note that this is not the case for all respondents, of course, and that some active and inactive people alike actually increased their physical activity during lockdown. They also found that people who became more inactive, as well as those who simply maintained their pre-pandemic levels of inactivity, were more likely to experience consistently worse physical health outcomes than those who were active.

Like the mental health consequences of the pandemic, physical health issues are only heightened during times of stress and increased sedentary behaviour. Individuals who already lived with physical health complications likely saw them worsen during lockdown, while those without pre-existing conditions are at risk for all the risks that a lifestyle with little physical activity causes. These include problems with the cardiovascular system as well as an increased possibility for diseases such as diabetes or cancer.

Horses and overall health

It might not be possible to change the state of worldwide well-being, but it is possible to improve your own mental and physical health. Horseback riding has many different benefits for riders, including a new, healthy coping mechanism for effective stress management as well as an increased level of overall bodily wellness.

According to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation, horse riding decreases body fat while increasing skeletal mass and potentially improves flexibility, balance, muscle strength, and metabolic control. This means that horse riding is an effective form of physical activity that can help riders increase their daily exercise while having the added impact of allowing them time outside in the sun – something that has been lacking for many over the past year.

Horses can also improve mood while lowering stress. A 2014 study from researchers at Washington State University found that children with regular access to equine-related activities had demonstrably lower cortisol concentrations than children without such experiences. These results were achieved with a single 90-minute activity session per week, and the study authors found that these results were independent from child gender, referral status, age, and baseline levels of cortisol.

This information is likely good news for horse riders as well as aspiring horse riders searching for a positive outlet, and the results are independent of the pandemic. They stand to benefit riders even under more normal circumstances.

Socially-distanced activities

Tried-and-tested activities such as online casino games and crafting remain lockdown favourites. However, horseback riding presents an additional socially-distanced activity to add to your days. This type of outing is sanctioned by the Office of the Premier of Ontario, which explicitly named horse riding and care an acceptable reason to travel outside of the home. With that said, keep in mind that stables have various guidelines to follow in order to comply with rules about public safety and social distancing. You might have to be flexible about riding dates and times for a while, but the opportunity to spend your days or evenings outdoors while also burning calories is worth the effort.

Horse riding is sometimes overlooked as a physically and mentally beneficial endeavour, but it can help you manage stress levels and increase your regular activity levels while giving you a reason to leave the house – something that can be scarce right now. The benefits that you receive will serve you well long after the virus has been controlled.