Why the hard yards of horse ownership are key to your wellbeing.
Why do you own a horse?
Most people would say: ‘I enjoy riding’, or ‘I grew up with them’ or ‘I just love the lifestyle’: but do you really love all of it?
Between freezing mornings, soggy late nights, an ever de- pleting life savings, and a de-prioritised social life, it’s not all sunshine and ‘rein-bows’ (sorry- had to).
Why do we do something that, on balance, entails just as much hard work as it does pleasure, joy, and ease? Surely, I’m not the only one who’s asked this question on a late- night feed while my girlfriends are sipping rosé at their local.
It turns out we’re not masochists. In fact, wellbeing researchers (Maslow, 1968; Seligman, 2002; Deci & Ryan, 2006) and ancient philosophers alike have identified a very good explanation for not only why we stick it out, but the hidden wellbeing benefits of being a horse person: eudaimonic wellbeing.
Coined by Aristotle himself, and subsequently studied by positive psychologists over the past two decades, eudaimonic wellbeing refers to ‘the life well lived’, or the ‘virtuous life’.
The good news? Despite its lofty origins, it’s something that is available to all of us. It lives in the moments that we choose challenge over comfort, consistency over flakiness, or consider others outside of ourselves. It’s choosing to be and do good: to live with purpose and pursue a goal and vision that matters to us beyond the discomfort it may create in that moment. It’s skipping your favourite trash TV to drive through the dark at 9pm and rug up your shivering horse.
In many ways, it’s the opposite of its naughty cousin, hedonic wellbeing (i.e.hedonism), which centres around the pursuit of immediate pleasure and abject avoidance of pain.
So, is eudaimonic wellbeing reserved for horse riders? No, not at all. But in a society that is increasingly focused on fast fixes, working from home in your undies, and ordering Uber Eats instead of learning a new recipe, the opportunities for cultivating eudaimonic wellbeing- consistently doing some- thing hard because it matters to us- are dwindling fast.
What do we get for choosing to live this more virtuous life? What’s the pay-off beyond, you know, feeling virtuous?
As it turns out, leading a life that is rich in eudaimonic well- being (one of service and in alignment with our values) is conducive to a heightened sense of meaning and motivation (Kozusznik, 2019). But what is meaning? Luckily, researchers (Steger; Peterson; Seligman) have been hard at work studying and describing this concept that has been simmering in the back of humankind’s hive mind since the Stoics.
Their key findings? Unsurprisingly, as humans, we want to know what our lives are all about; how we fit into the grand scheme of things and the world around us.
“When we talk about meaning in life, we are referring to the feeling that people have that their lives and experience make sense and matter,” meaning researcher, Professor Mike Steger, explains. “People who feel this way, who have a sense of meaning in life, also report feeling more happy, more satisfied with their lives, less depressed and anxious, and more satisfied with their jobs.”
More than this, experiencing a sense of meaning and living in alignment with one’s values has been linked to better health outcomes over time, with studies showing that those who believe their lives have meaning as having a better immune system and buffer against stress, as well as living longer in general (Steger, 2009). Yes, keeping up that childhood love of horse riding might just be the thing that keeps you alive long enough to encourage your great grandkids to do the same.
So, how do we lean into the larger sense of meaning when we’re trudging through the mud or being whipped by our hair in the morning breeze? How can we create even more opportunities for eudaimonic wellbeing as we live this hardy, horsey life?
1. Know your purpose: Before you freak out- we’re not asking you to have any idea about the grand design of your life (or your horse’s life, for that matter). But research does show that we not only do better, but feel better, when we have an idea about what we’re aiming for and why it matters (Locke & Latham, 1990). In short- meaningful goals matter. Not a competitive rider with clear success markers (e.g. numbers of ‘faults’ or fence heights)? No worries. The nature of our goals can vary us much as our fingerprints. Perhaps the purpose of your ‘horse life’ is to reconnect to your inner kid. Maybe it’s to feel that sense of pride and responsibility for keeping such a beautiful animal happy and healthy? It could be that your ‘horse life’ is a chance to escape the complexities of modern living and connect to a sense of joy and peace… Whatever sense of ‘purpose’ you land on, studies show that simply by iden- tifying it, you’re likely to increase your sense of meaning, satisfaction in life, and boost your resilience for those harder days in the arena.
2. Discover your strengths:
Did you know that you’re actually good at a lot of things?
In fact, you have a unique set of ‘character strengths’- those things that you’re good at, energised by, and enjoy doing (McQuaid & Lawn, 2014)- that have shaped and enriched every step of your life so far. So how do these contribute to our sense of eudaimonic wellbeing? It turns out that the more we can consciously identify and utilise our strengths
to make a difference in life, the higher sense of significance (believing that we matter) we feel (Steger, 2016). The good news? You can uncover and learn to apply your unique strengths by visiting www.viacharacter.org. Discover how to leverage your strength of humour to get you through a hard ride, or your strength of appreciation to bask in the beauty of your stable baby as she comes trotting towards you in the morning sun. It’s free and your de-identified results contribute to a growing body of strengths research. What secret strength might you discover?
3. Savour the sweet moments:
It turns out all those annoying people who told you to ‘stop and smell the roses’ were onto something. In fact the practice of ‘savouring’ has been linked to a wide range of benefits, including: enhanced mood and self-esteem, increased life satisfaction, as well as decreased symptoms in those experiencing depression, anxiety, and even obsessive compulsive disorder (Bryant, 2003; Eisner, Johnson, & Carver, 2009). Researchers (Bryant & Veroff, 2007) define savouring as noticing, appreciating, and enhancing positive experiences that occur in one’s life and there are three key ways that we can practice it:
○ Savouring the past, also known as reminiscence: For example, reflecting on your favourite ride, the first time you met your horse, or your funniest fall (we’ve all had them).
○ Savouring the present or savouring the moment: For instance, appreciating the often rushed process of grooming, drawing your attention to the feel of your horse’s sun-kissed coat, or the smell of a new shampoo.
○ Savouring the future, also referred to as anticipation. For example, visualising the peaceful trail ride you have planned for next week, or imagining the clear round you hope to jump at your next competition.
So the next time you’re heading out for a ride, braiding your horse’s hair, or getting ready to hit the hay, consider how you might incorporate a moment of savouring into your day.
Photo by EKphotography
4. Keep learning:
As humans, our brains evolved to release dopamine and other feel-good chemicals when we encounter new things. Whether you’re an artist or an accountant, if you’re a human being you are literally designed to be a lifelong learner. Unfortunately, many of us have fall- en for the myth that learning stops when we finish school, our latest short course, or university. But in doing so, we cut ourselves off from the many benefits that ongoing learning and development entails (e.g. heightened positive emo- tions, lowered levels of anxiety, increased life satisfaction, improved empathy and more (Kashdan et al., 2010; Kashdan & Roberts, 2005). The good news? Circling back to our first point, when we have meaningful goals or a more defined purpose, we’re more likely to identify and pursue growth in areas that matter to us (e.g. watching a YouTube video on running braids to get full presentation points at our next rally; enlisting a new dressage instructor to perfect your new routine; or even reading up on basic equine massage to help heal your elderly horse’s old knees).
The key to any of these eudaimonia-boosters is to tailor them to you, your lifestyle, and your unique way of seeing and showing up in the world. The invitation is one of playful experimentation, not scientific intervention: If all you do is savour the sunrise as you throw the hay over the fence, or ask a few more curious questions to your jumping coach, then you’re well on your way. EM
Naomi Hill (MAPP) is a positive psychologist, wellbeing coach and word-weaver who never grew out of the horse phase.
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