Play animals have been a staple in toy chests for generations. Dig through any play menagerie and you’ll probably find a toy pony or two, plus dolls all decked out to go for a ride. And don't forget about that all-important horse stable.
There’s just something about horse toys that capture kids’ imaginations. But it’s not as mysterious as it may seem. In fact, there are proven benefits to riding and caring for these big, gentle animals with hearts of gold. Play is just a natural extension of a delightful and time-honored pastime.
Experts agree that exposure to live horses is a child’s best bet, but play horses are the next best thing and have benefits of their own. Here are pluses and minuses of each.
Horses are Healthy: Why Riding Can Be Just the Ticket
There’s solid science behind why kids are so drawn to horses. According to studies, here are some of the things riding or visiting with live horses encourages:
· Empowerment. When children ride horses, they’re directing something larger than themselves. This wires a child’s brain with a can-do attitude that will serve her in organizing and leading her own life one day.
· Learning and School Grades. Amazingly, at least one study has shown a clear link between this favorite activity and brainpower. Researchers say that’s down to a stimulation of the rider’s sympathetic nervous system.
· Activity. A rider wants to put her tablet or phone down and go riding. It’s probably no mystery why this makes it a parental favorite.
· Stress Reduction. Kids today have more stressors than ever. A peaceful, rhythmic and fun activity like horseback riding can quickly lower stress levels.
· Social Development. A child may work with a group, or she may work with a trainer. Either way, she’s meeting new people, which is critical during these important years.
· Responsibility. Taking lessons or owning a horse is a commitment. The child and horse have a symbiotic relationship: each must show the other respect, and each must take care not to accidentally hurt the other. A horse also needs to be curried and fed. These are all “lessons that don't feel like lessons” for a curious young mind.
When a Real Horse is Not an Option
Of course, owning a horse is a fairly sizable investment. On the other hand, lessons may be a long drive away. That’s something busy parents may simply not be able to accommodate in their schedules.
Generally, there are two options that are budget and time-friendly: investing in beautiful play horses, or visiting low-cost locales.
Toy Horses: The Next Best Thing
While it’s not the real deal, children absolutely benefit from “horseplay.” That's probably why toy horses for girls and boys are as popular today as ever.
Most kids put themselves into the horse’s position, making hoof noises and neighing as they gallop their steeds around the room. This type of lesson is a great way for children to explore empathy.
Toy horses also encourage free-form, almost limitless creativity due to the imagery they conjure. Horses move; they go forward. To a child, that generally means an adventure, one she’ll dream up in her expanding imagination.
Kids also love pretend-grooming with play horses. This is one responsibility most children are eager to do.
Visiting Real Horses
Owning a horse isn’t practical for everyone. Yet being near and touching real horses is a great experience. What many families don’t know is that there are often free or low-cost options. A few examples include:
· A horse sanctuary that encourages visitors.
· A “one free lesson” or “get one free ride” promotion at a nearby stable.
· A walk-through farm or petting zoo. (These are often seasonal or may crop up at fairs).
· A day trip with a stop at a location that allows visits with horses. This can be great for people who live in urban areas or other places that don’t have stables.
· A one-lesson ticket as a birthday or holiday gift.
Play, responsibility and a boosted brain all come from exposure to these amazing animals. Best of all, it’s learning through fun. And while nothing can replace the real thing, toys can get a youngster's gears turning too.
Play and real riding are both great options to help a child reach that potential that’s just waiting to gallop out. Giddyap, kid – you’re definitely going places!