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4 Ways To Harness The Fitness Benefits Of Horseback Riding

If you don't think riding a horse can shape you up, you've probably never saddled up before. Try it and your own fitness will rise to thoroughbred status!

As a horseback rider, I've heard those snarky comments about how riding isn't really a workout and how the horse does all the work. But straddling a large, powerful animal with a mind and agenda of its own is a full-body workout that will engage muscles you didn't know existed. There's a reason guys check out female riders, and why women chase around those big buckles and denim backsides. Riders have swag.

Riding horses regularly will test your preconceived notions of fitness and strength. You'll feel uncoordinated while you're in the saddle and sore and tight after you're done. This challenge isn't a quest to make you feel inadequate; there are some serious benefits to gain from going out for a horseback ride through the hills. If you're up to it, saddle up. Here are four fitness benefits to horseback riding!

Saddle Up For Fitness

Balance and Stability ///

If you're out water skiing with friends, you don't want to be that guy who face-plants in the water as soon as you say, "Hit it." Stability is essential to transfer energy into effort for any activity, riding included.

When riding on an unstable "surface" like the back of a horse, balance is critical. It sounds pretty easy when the horse is hand-walked by your Uncle Jim, but it can get messy quickly when speed and maneuvers are added. If the horse dives left, you don't dive left also, but stay upright to maintain balance. This may mean transferring your weight to the right to stay stable in the saddle. To make this even more difficult, your legs and arms must be free to cue the horse, and that's impossible if they're latched desperately around the horse's belly and neck.

If you're already experienced, try riding bareback, but not just to and from the pasture—actually work your horse bareback. You'll be surprised how poor your balance is sans saddle. If you or the horse isn't up for that, try some in-saddle exercises: While trotting, (this is the bouncy gait slightly faster than a walk), take your feet in and out of the stirrups. Without the stirrups, there is no crutch to keep you in place.

Horseback riding, expert level or no, can improve your balance. This will carry over to other areas of your fitness and life.

Coordination ///

First time riders quickly realize that riding is tougher than it looks. A lot needs to happen simultaneously to get a horse to pick up speed or even walk in a circle without wandering off. This requires coordinating leg pressure, rein pressure, and body position all at once. Try to rub your stomach, pat your head, and skip all at once and let me know how that goes. Similar chaos can happen on a horse.

Ride a couple hours per week to see improved coordination. You'll be more aware of the movements needed to produce a desired result, like making the horse go left like you want it to. After awhile, you will master the simultaneous, but independent movement of your hands, body, and legs. This has great carryover to other sports.

Therapeutic riding programs for the sight-impaired have had a lot of success developing better coordination. Without the aid of a cane or other instrument to guide them, they learn to ride just by feel. This "feel" is the same type of coordination that separates the good athlete from the best. If an athlete has great body awareness, their movements will be more automatic, quick, and effective.

Saddle Up For Fitness

Thighs of Steel ///

Prepare for leg, core, and arm soreness after a day of riding. Unless you prop yourself up against the fence with your horse half-asleep, there is no passive sitting in this sport. There is just no way to ride unless you engage your legs, especially the adductors. A rider has to "squeeze" these muscles to stay put in the saddle. The core must also engage to protect the spine and keep the rider upright.

The quads, hamstrings, and glutes all support the work of the adductors. They are also involved with the forward, backward, and lateral leg movement used to cue the horse. The glutes flex and tighten when you roll your hips down and forward to cue the horse to stop. Keep riding and you'll have a strong enough leg grip to straddle a jet ski or the mechanical bull at your friend's 21st birthday party. You're welcome.

Move into faster gaits and the jarring increases. To compensate and alleviate stress on the spine and hips, you flex. When the horse changes direction you're forced to engage the obliques and transverse abdominals to stay upright. Driving your horse forward will tax the erector spinae and lats. If nothing else, hop on a horse to build a stronger back.

Believe it or not, riding can also help your physique. Muscle tone is created by constant tension, so the flexing and contracting you do while riding will help you look better. Outside of Hoss on Gunsmoke, you don't see many obese cowboys, do you?

Flexibility ///

Even if you can get away without stretching in your normal routine, you can't hope to get on a horse without flexibility. If you have tight hamstrings or glutes, other areas might help compensate to get you through a squat, but there is nothing to help your hips, adductors, or hamstrings when you're awkwardly straddled over a horse's back. Sit in that position long enough and your flexibility will improve. Better flexibility means better range of motion, which equates to improved, heavier lifts. Your calves will also get a good stretch when you ride in the correct position: feet in line with the knee, heels down, back straight. Improved flexibility and reduced tension will lessen the chance of injury when you play a sport or lift.

Saddle Up For Fitness

More than anything, riding can help improve weaknesses. Whether the problem is coordination or flexibility, you'll see progression and reap major benefits in sports, hobbies, and daily life. So saddle up!


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About The Author

Alexis is a former track athlete, writer, and has a passion for horseback riding.

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refnotlooking

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refnotlooking

Hand firmly grasping the saddle horn in every picture...Where i come from only the absolute worst riders would grab it, completely throws off your balance. But good written article though :)

Aug 5, 2013 8:34pm | report
 
refnotlooking

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refnotlooking

To be fair...I suppose barrel racers would get the exception, and seeing as there is a barrel in one picture maybe i'll give her a break. However we still never took barrel racers seriously sooo lol

Aug 5, 2013 8:36pm | report
slicksully07

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slicksully07

My girlfriend has been barrel racing since she was little and she is an amazing rider. Even with a torn ACL at the moment. Barrel racing is a lot harder than it looks. But then again she also doesn't hold on to the saddle horn either. Unless trick riding. Lol All in all we ride horses for a living and I'll tell you it's a great workout and stretching is definitely vital if you plan on riding all day. It's nice seeing a post about riding which you would never had guessed to be on a bodybuilding website! Great article.

Aug 5, 2013 10:11pm | report
ambennett91

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ambennett91

Charmayne James-11 time World Champion barrel racer, only woman to wear the #1 back number at the WNFR
Dena Kirkpatrick-holds record as the only rider to win every round of the BFA Futurity, holds the record for money earned at the WNFR by horses she trained (including Lindsey Sears' horse "Martha")
Sherry Cervi-currently leading the WPRA standings in the barrel racing, set the arena record at T&M in 2010 on her horse Stingray
Mary Walker-2012 World Champion and Top Gun winner at the WNFR

...All of these women are professional saddle horn holders... :)

Aug 6, 2013 9:16am | report
NatAlt

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NatAlt

Nice article. First ride of the season be prepared for the most horrendous DOMS you've ever had. We practice natural horsemanship too, and often go stirrup-less, saddle-less, and with a bit-less bridle. Add that to the fact that the horse is out of shape and lazy after winter and you've got one hell of a workout.

Aug 6, 2013 2:43am | report
 
ainigma

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ainigma

Hahaha...funny article.... However, horseback riding is a waaay more expensive workout than a gym membership and a pair of running shoes. Lessons cost a fortune if you don't own a horse, and there are NOOOOO off days EVER when you do own a horse....and I really never knew anybody who just stopped at one.... I had 5 of them, and I know...and that's even more money......
As far as the diet goes, you can forget about cutting. Eat or you'll drop dead under a hay bale.....lol
Also, not all people are mentally able to take on the challenge of working with a 1200 lbs living being. If you can't hold it together in the gym, start throwing temper tantrums and dumbbells, you won't be anywhere near my horses....

Aug 6, 2013 6:52am | report
 
danielzu

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danielzu

I read the chick on "the big bang theory" penny (kaley cuoco) considers horse riding as a workout too. and the result......u have to see for yourself......its good.

Aug 6, 2013 8:35am | report
 
ugly85chevy

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ugly85chevy

Nice article. Riding will definitely teach you something about yourself. At least half mental...

Aug 6, 2013 8:54am | report
 
ainigma

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ainigma

For safety reasons only recommended on 'high carb' days.... If the rider is on-the-edge, the horse will be too...hahaha...

Aug 6, 2013 9:15am | report
DevonCallaway

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DevonCallaway

Horses are awesome. So is this article. Great work.

Aug 6, 2013 9:11am | report
 
cassie1162

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cassie1162

Alexis is even more awesomer!

Aug 6, 2013 10:39am | report
KiltedGoat

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KiltedGoat

I've been riding since I was 10 and showed English all through college. Not only did riding give me an AMAZING butt, strong thighs, and a strong core, my daily workouts in the gym were tailored to making me a better rider as well. Now I'm in the military and don't have nearly as much time for my horse, and I'm in nowhere near as good of shape as I was in college.

Aug 6, 2013 9:33am | report
 
LV2MODEL

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LV2MODEL

Wonderful article! I too am an avid horseback rider. Barrel raced and trained horses for a living. It is a lot tougher than it looks and barrel racing isn't for the faint at heart either! I used to practice barrel racing bareback to increase my balance. No matter how much you ride, my job required 6-8 hrs a day on 4 or more different horses, you will ALWAYS be sore somewhere!

Aug 6, 2013 10:23am | report
 
cesarmendoza84

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cesarmendoza84

I always feel it on my mid and upper back for sure when I ride my horse. It is one of the most awsome workouts. I also feel it helps the flexibility in my hip flexors. It really bothers me that now adays riding horses is associated with mostly women. Riding horses is a tough sport for both men or women. Loved youre article and like slicksully07 I never thought I would see a horse riding article at bodybuilding.com

Aug 6, 2013 1:43pm | report
 
andrewbealand

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andrewbealand

Wow just to imagine that horseback riding could build Balance and it could make you tuff this has been an interesting article thanks. :)

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Aug 24, 2013 8:32am | report
 
andrewbealand

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andrewbealand

I've got to try it out man!!!!!!

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Aug 24, 2013 8:33am | report
 
The Crush

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The Crush

Hope you are doing well Alexis! Just looked through this one again and remember my brief stint helping troubled kids take care of horses at a non-profit ranch. An incredible experience to say the least. I have the greatest respect for anyone who can care for these great animals, and to race them like that... well, you better be in shape or the horse will just stop and sit on it's butt in defiance. Hahaha!

Dec 17, 2013 12:28pm | report
 
Showing 1 - 17 of 17 Comments

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