When I’m not riding Knight my off-track Thoroughbred or blogging about horses at Saddle Seeks Horse, I’m probably at my day job teaching middle school history just outside of Los Angeles, California (and thinking about horses).
An interesting thing occurred at the beginning of this school year when I attended a teacher training and marvelled at how the lecturer’s message on brain health validated my own long-held belief that horses are good for humans.
Here are three specific points Horacio Sanchez made. Notice how well riding horses or just being around horses applies to these brain health tips. (By the way, his lecture was based on his book The Education Revolution: How to Apply Brain Science to Improve Instruction and School Climate.)
1. Spend one hour unplugged each day.
This is not hard at all if you are with your horse and especially riding. It’s impossible to get sucked into a Netflix binge from the back of a horse. When you’re grooming, cleaning a stall, talking to your horse’s neighbours, it’s kind of hard to be fully immersed in scrolling through Instagram, updating your Facebook status and answering email.
Horse time equals unplugged time. And usually more than one hour. I typically spend between two to three hours at a time at the barn. How much time is unplugged time when you’re with your significant equine other?
2. Do focus drills to exercise your brain.
During the lecture, Sanchez had a Powerpoint showing several cards from a deck of cards and said to look at the nine of spades. Over time the cards kept moving and going off the screen and basically getting shuffled around. We were supposed to track where the card was and know which card it was “under.” I lost it after the third shuffle, but it seemed several people around me were successful in focusing on that one card and knew where it was. The whole point of that was to keep our brain tracking with that particular activity.
How does this translate to horseback riding? Well, riding is a series of focus drills. We equestrians have to be aware of our horse and adjust what we’re doing depending on our desired outcome. This requires immense, ongoing focus.
For example, several months ago my Thoroughbred Knight and I were having sluggish trot to canter transitions. It would take a few strides to get the canter. Long story short, I read somewhere to exhale through the transition.
My trainer encouraged me to tie the transition in with a leg yield. Doing just one of those things, the exhaling or initiating a leg yield, requires focus. Doing them simultaneously would seem to require a more intense focus drill.
Do you jump? Memorising a course–that sure sounds like a focus drill.
Are you into dressage? A dressage test equals a focus drill.
Really, isn’t everything we do on horseback a focus drill that exercises our grey matter?
3. Do important tasks as a single task activity.
Throughout the lecture, Sanchez said that multitasking is really not a thing–that only .2% of the population can multitask and that “we are creating a new generation of people unable to focus,” because we are trying to do so much at once thanks to technology and social media. (I love you Instagram and Facebook, but you have made me a little distracted!)
The good news is, it seems most horse-related tasks are single task activities. I cannot clean a stall and pick a hoof. Nor can I jump a fence and oil my saddle.
Getting into a routine of single task activities should hopefully help “stable people” (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun) maintain their stability and focus.
Finally, Sanchez cited several stats which I wasn’t fast enough to write down about how continual learning leads to long-term brain health. Dedicated horse lovers and owners realise that no matter how much we already know about horses, there is always more to learn. This surely gives us a jump on doing right by our brain.