My wife has become a dedicated horseback rider and she assures me that the rider produces a lot of muscular effort and burns a lot of calories in the riding process.
I have always felt that riding a bicycle is much better exercise than riding a motorcycle, and that riding a horse is a lot like riding a motorcycle. In other words, the horse does most of the work and gets most of the exercise benefit.
However, my wife has become a dedicated horseback rider and she assures me that this is not the case. Although she doesn’t debate that the horse is the more active partner, she insists that the rider produces a lot of muscular effort, and burns a lot of calories in the riding process.
While my personal style of horsemanship – hang on for dear life – scores relatively low on the energy-use continuum, a little study has convinced me that she is correct. I have watched my wife significantly improve her physical fitness since beginning her riding program. Perhaps part of the improvement is the result of caring for the horses and helping at the stable, but I believe much of the credit goes to her riding efforts.
Let’s start with posture. Sitting tall in the saddle is a requirement, and maintaining proper body position for an hour of riding is a tougher task than you may think. Most of the posterior torso muscles are activated when riding with good body position – your lower back, shoulders and neck muscles are all involved in riding tall.
Handling the reins is a major factor in directing the horse’s movements. Keeping the upper arms in proper position is the domain of the chest and upper back muscles. Holding the forearms and hands correctly uses the shoulder and upper arm muscles, and of course the forearm muscles are responsible for the hand and finger actions with the reins.
Without question, the legs play a prominent role in horseback riding. Accomplished riders press their heels down, which uses the muscles of the thighs and the shins. The squeeze-release action of the lower legs is accomplished by the calf muscles. Halting a horse is achieved by static contraction of the inner thigh muscles.
While the aforementioned muscles are always at work when riding, the real effort comes when trotting and galloping. To survive more than a few minutes of trotting, it is necessary to post in a coordinated rhythm with the horse. As I understand it, posting means lifting your hips off the saddle when the horse goes up and returning to the saddle gently when the horse goes down. Basically, your legs act as pistons and shock absorbers, which is good for your body and for the horse’s back. However, posting requires a lot of work from the quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteal muscles. Think of doing several minutes of bodyweight squats, and you will begin to appreciate the importance of leg strength when riding a trotting horse.
Galloping requires the rider to hold herself just above the saddle, which is not an easy task. This is accomplished by static contraction of the quadriceps, hamstrings gluteal, and calf muscles.
Did I mention fear? Actually, months of practice are prerequisite to riding properly and safely, ideally under the watchful eye of a qualified instructor. However, in my opinion a comprehensive physical conditioning program is of next greatest importance. There is no fitness regimen that will make you stronger than the horse, but you should be strong enough to be a compatible partner. Good muscle strength increases a rider’s competence and confidence and makes for a happy ride for both horse and rider.
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at Massachusetts' South Shore YMCA and author of 22 fitness books including “Get Stronger, Feel Younger.”