Horseback riding for fitness
Alison is a recent grad school grad and a wanna-be archivist. In her free time, she rides horses, reads books, and knits. She very randomly blogs at confiance.blogspot.com. If you have any questions about riding and horses, feel free to ask her at confiance AT gmail DOT com.
A couple times a week, I put on skin-tight pants and pull on some knee socks and go spend an hour or so sitting on my butt.
That hour tends to be one of the hardest work-outs I’ve come up with yet.
I ride horses. I’ve been riding for 15 years now and have tried a variety of different types of exercise – running, rock climbing, gymnastics, aerobic classes at the gym, weight lifting, and tai chi.
While the pants don’t leave much to the imagination (and can be a bit pricey – $60 on average) and you’ll typically leave the barn covered in hair and dirt, riding is the exercise that I keep doing because I love it. I don’t need to motivate myself to get up off the couch and to the barn – I have to force myself to go home after a ride. The fact that I get a work-out from it is just icing on the cake. Riding at a trot is said to burn 457 calories an hour for a 155lb person. Grooming a horse would be 422 calories an hour. (For comparison, jogging comes in at around 493 for the same person.) And riding is much more fun than jogging.
While it may look like you’re just sitting along for the ride while the horse does the hard work of carting your butt around, think again. Riding uses your shoulders, triceps, biceps, abdominal, back, inner and outer thighs, and calf muscle groups. All at the same time.
You need balance to stay on a moving animal, so your core muscles work to hold you upright and in the saddle. You need to drop your heels down, stretching out your calves. At the trot, since a two-beat gait that can be ungodly uncomfortable, many riders post—one beat spent with your butt in the saddle, one beat standing up in the stirrups. Up, down, up, down, up, down.
You need to encourage the horse to move forward with your seat, or to slow down a bit with your knees and thighs. Your shoulders should be back, and some horses may lean into the bridle, forcing you to hold them up. I had the best arm muscles of my life while riding a horse who hated to slow down and loved to lean into the bridle.
When jumping and/or galloping, you’ll want to be up out of the saddle, holding yourself up. Go ahead and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Now bend your knees and hips, so that your center of balance is above your feet. Your knees shouldn’t go over your toes and your butt should be way out behind you. Now try holding that position for 30 seconds. And imagine doing that for 10 minutes while on a moving animal so your balance keeps changing.
Of course, there’s quite a bit of work to do before and after your ride as well. If your horse is out in the field when you arrive, odds are pretty good he’s gonna be in the farthest corner of his field and will have no interest in coming to the gate for you even if you DO have his favorite treat, forcing you to walk alllll the way out to him. Tack—the bridle, saddle, and girth— can weigh a good bit as you lug them to and from the horse. Plus, you’ll have to groom the horse—typically you’ll use a curry comb to loosen all the dirt and hair and a brush or two to knock all that loose stuff off of him again. Imagine rubbing a hard rubber brush over the sides and back of a horse—you need to put some muscle into it. You’ll need to pick out the horse’s feet, holding each one up in turn. And after your ride, you need to do the whole thing in reverse.
Full water buckets are heavy, as is a bale of hay – about 65lbs, I think. A wheelbarrow full of dirty bedding from a stall is hard to push and of course, the muck pile is uphill. Feed tends to come in 40-50lb bags and a horse can eat a lot in a single day. I used to help run a training barn in the summers, and between walking everywhere to turn out and bring in some 25 horses a day, cleaning 18 stalls, feeding, making sure everyone had hay and water, and riding, I was always in the best shape at the end of the summer.
I still work out in other methods—currently, I’m trying to run 2 miles 3-4 days a week and weight lift the other days. The better your fitness level, the better your riding and vice versa. After a tough lesson, I know I’m not running or lifting the following day, because my body needs the chance to forget about those muscles I wasn’t aware I had.
It also helps that riding can be a fairly low-impact sport—you aren’t pounding your legs into the pavement, and there are all sorts of different disciplines to try. Barrel racing might not be for you, but you might love a long trail ride on a Saturday morning. A friend of mine once started riding again three days after breaking her ankle, she just removed her stirrups from her saddle. (Being told, by the way, to drop your stirrups in a riding lesson is a way of the instructor saying “let’s start the torture session.”) Also, every ride will be different, which helps prevent boredom sneaking in and ruining your workout.
Riding is a middle-aged and beyond friendly sport. Many people are in their 30s before they can afford the expense and time riding requires. In the 2008 Olympics, the oldest competitor was 67 and rode dressage for the Japanese equestrian team. Bruce Davidson is 60 and has been competing in three day eventing since 1971.
It’s true that riding can be a very dangerous form of exercise. Even just working with horses on the ground is dangerous: you might get kicked, bitten, knocked over, or stepped on. And at about 1000lbs, that can leave quite the (hoof-shaped) bruise. However, if you’re smart and careful about it and find a good trainer, you can greatly minimize the risks. Wear a helmet. If the barn doesn’t have a rule about it, wear one anyway. (And maybe consider finding a different barn.)
If riding sounds like a fun sort of exercise, try it out. If nothing else, you’ll have a reason to be walking funny. Find a good trainer that makes you feel comfortable and have a few lessons.