When you think of horseback riding, you might picture a group of friends or family members going for a trail ride just for fun. However, if you live in a horseback riding community or otherwise know about this activity, you know it offers many more benefits than fun. It might explain why many are signing up for this activity. Join us now as we explore the many scientifically backed-up benefits of horseback riding.
What Is Horseback Riding?
As the name implies, it is the skill of riding a horse with control over its movement, direction, and speed. One kind of this activity is equestrianism. Long ago people performed this activity for enjoyment only.
In recent years, more have been embracing the activity as a form of exercise. Yes, you heard it right. Horseback riding is also considered a form of exercise due to its physical and mental benefits (2).
Health Benefits Of Horseback Riding
Research conducted over the years has shown that horseback riding can give you significant health benefits. The good news is that you do not have to be an experienced rider to reap any of these benefits. That said, you still must do horseback riding exercises correctly. Here are the therapeutic, psychological, and physical benefits of horseback riding:
Horseback riding requires balance. As horses readjust themselves, you have to find your balance to avoid falling. Due to this, the possibility of losing balance is very high.
Of course if this were to happen you would fall and could get injured. To avoid this, you need to improve your balance when on top of the horse. You can achieve this by doing the following (1):
- Sitting deeply and in the lowest part of the saddle so that you are better positioned to find your balance.
- Align your body using your feet in the stirrups.
- Distributing your body weight evenly instead of just resting it on your tail bones.
- Keep your back straight, engage your core throughout the movement, and brake your shoulders.
Building Muscle Mass And Strength
From the outside looking in, you perhaps only see a rider just sitting on the horse doing nothing. Their work is merely to enjoy the ride and perhaps also direct the horse. But contrary to this notion, horseback riding requires and builds muscle mass and strength.
Yes, a rider can build their muscles during such an activity. This is because they actively engage all their muscles, such as their core, arms, and inner thighs (1). Core muscles are activated as you continuously contract and relax them during the ride to maintain your balance.
That is to say, the more you ride while keeping your balance, the more you engage your abdominal muscles. Additionally, the more you are riding, the more your muscles are engaged to help you stay positioned correctly on the horse’s back.
Coordination is paramount while horseback riding. As a rider, you have to coordinate your movements with those of the horse. This means paying attention and adjusting your position or posture as needed (1).
For example, you may have to readjust your position and posture while riding up a hill or on rocky terrain. Additionally, coordination is fundamental to getting the desired response from the horse.
Providing You With Health Benefits Because Of The Form Of Exercise
Horseback riding is a cardiovascular activity. This would cause you to burn some calories during the activity. The British Horse Society reveals that horse-related activities such as mucking out can torch up to 600 calories per ride for half an hour (1).
Additionally, horseback riding is considered an exercise because your heart rate and blood oxygen levels increase based on how intense your horse is working. Therefore, you will tend to work harder to maintain your posture and balance when your horse moves faster.
Similarly, you will work harder to stay in the saddle while your horse is executing a complicated pattern or walking over rough terrain. Additionally, you also burn more calories when not horseback riding but doing other related activities to horseback riding. These include grooming the horse, lifting the saddles, and moving hay bales (1).
Toning Your Body
Horseback riding also helps tone your body muscles. As mentioned, this activity tones your core muscles. These are actively used to help maintain balance while on the horse and prevent you from bouncing around in the saddle.
Additionally, your inner thighs and pelvic muscles are also targeted as they hold you in place for balance and good posture (1). So, yes, horseback riding can be considered a cardiovascular activity. However, talking to your doctor and trainer would be best before adding this activity to your workout plan.
Increasing Mental Alertness
One of the mental health benefits of horseback riding is increased mental alertness. The activity improves your mental alertness by keeping you alert with full attention paid to the horse’s speed and direction. The alertness allows you to react quickly when for example, the horse goes in the wrong direction or increases its speed (5).
Horseback riding also affects your brain by triggering the release of the feel-good hormones known as endorphins. These hormones make you feel good and keep stress at bay. In other words, you end up having fun and feeling better, even if you were afraid or paranoid at first.
Improving Your Breathing
Of course, horseback riding is an outdoor activity. The activity allows you to go outside and enjoy the fresh air. As your horse increases its speed, you breathe more intensely to get more oxygen to your muscles (1).
Most horseback instructors urge riders not to hold their breath. Instead, they recommend breathing slowly and deeply due to its relaxing sensation (1). Remember that when you are relaxed, you relax your muscles, especially in the case of your legs holding onto the saddle. Believe it or not, this also helps calm the horse.
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Giving Therapeutic Benefits
Several studies show that equine-assisted therapies like therapeutic riding and hippotherapy have therapeutic effects on individuals with developmental, neuromotor, and physical disabilities (6).
A 2017 study revealed that one of the benefits of therapeutic horseback riding for patients with balance, gait, and psychomotor disorders were positive for physical and emotional functioning (6). The results were associated with better balance, improved pelvic movement, muscle symmetry, psychosocial parameters, motor function, gait, and the patients’ overall quality of life (6).
Literature then shows that therapeutic horseback riding and hippotherapy are viable intervention options for individuals with neuromotor, developmental, and physical disabilities.
Is It Safe To Do Horseback Riding?
Of course, you may be paranoid about performing this activity, especially if it is your first time. Before you embark on this activity, it is essential to note several risks of horseback riding.
A 2015 study revealed that some horse riders are injured, killed, and hospitalized each year due to horse-related injuries and accidents (2). Although there have been technological advancements in equestrian safety equipment, the risk of horse-related injuries is still high.
Note that horseback riding is classified with other dangerous activities like motorcycling, rugby, skiing, and football (2). Below are some of the protective measures proposed to minimize these risks (2):
- Training with a well-trained instructor who understands the particular horse’s behavior.
- Wearing adequate protective equipment, including boots, helmets, gloves, and body protectors.
- Horseback riding only when the weather is favorable, for example, when the sun is shining instead of when it is raining. Remember that ground footing for the horse is paramount for your safety.
- Riding in an area without unfamiliar objects, people, or animals that may alarm the horse and cause it to react aggressively.
Can A Woman Ride A Horse?
Back in the day there were several debates about women participating in horseback riding. Most of the discussions originated from a cultural standpoint, with restricting women from riding a horse.
Of course it’s been quite some time since it’s been acceptable for women to ride a horse. That said, women are still advised to talk to your doctor if they are pregnant and interested in horseback riding.
Evidence shows that horseback riding while pregnant is associated with many risks. For one, it is considered a high-risk activity and pregnant women are advised to avoid activities with a high risk of falling or causing abdominal trauma (4).
Additionally, hormonal changes during pregnancy can lead to joint laxity and hypermobility and affect your riding ability (4).
The jarring motion of horseback riding can also put the pregnancy at risk by causing placental abruption, where the placenta separates from the uterus (4). So, it would be best to avoid horseback riding when you are pregnant.
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The Bottom Line
Current research shows that horseback riding is not only an activity to perform for fun but other health benefits. Some of the benefits of horseback riding include improved core strength, coordination, balance, muscle mass, mental alertness, and breathing.
This activity also has therapeutic benefits for individuals with neuromotor, developmental, and physical disabilities. However, for safety purposes, you are advised to perform this activity with the help of a trained and experienced trainer. In addition, pregnant women are advised to avoid the activity due to its high risk of pregnant-related injuries and harm.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- 6 Reasons why horse riding is great for your health (2019, bhs.org.uk)
- A Critical Review of Horse-Related Risk: A Research Agenda for Safer Mounts, Riders and Equestrian Cultures (2015, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Can horseback riding help with symptoms of multiple sclerosis? (2021, medicalnewstoday.com)
- Horse riding while pregnant (2022, inside.fei.org)
- Perceived Benefits for Mental and Physical Health and Barriers to Horseback Riding Participation. The Analysis among Professional and Amateur Athletes (2020, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Therapeutic Effects of Horseback Riding Interventions: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis (2017, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)