If you’re looking for a non-traditional way to strengthen your core, horseback riding may be just the exercise you need.
“Horseback riding really works the core muscles that stabilize the trunk: the abdominal, back, and pelvic muscles,” explains Alison Stout, DO, of EvergreenHealth Sport & Spine Care. “It’s not just about the strength of the core, but the coordination and stability of it as well. The more you ride, the more the body learns to move with the horse.”
Dr. Stout should know. She’s ridden since she was nine years old.
She also enjoys running, biking, and swimming. Horseback riding, though, remains her special love — and the one physical activity she’d choose over all others for its physical and mental benefits.
“Horseback riding is a great way to exercise different parts of the body,” she says. “And it can be challenging and calming at the same time.”
Dr. Stout says horseback riding offers the following health benefits:
Core Strength: “Horseback riding is an isometric exercise, which means it uses specific muscles to stay in certain positions, in this case, keeping balanced on the horse,” Dr. Stout explains. “As a result, postural strength becomes very important in horseback riding.”
Balance and Coordination: “Staying balanced becomes more challenging the faster and more quickly the horse moves,” she says. Cantering or galloping and jumping, for example, are much more difficult than a simple jog or trot. The rider must develop coordination skills to move the body with the horse in order to help the horse stay balanced.
Muscle Tone and Flexibility: Along with the core muscles, the inner thighs and pelvic muscles get the biggest workout as a rider positions himself or herself. This exercise helps with good overall muscle tone and flexibility.
In fact, Dr. Stout says the muscle strengthening can be as effective as a typical weight-bearing exercise. The arms and shoulders get a work out as well as they have to constantly gently communicate with the horses mouth, similar to dancing with a partner.
Cardiovascular Exercise: Depending on the type of riding and the speed and agility of the horse, horseback riding can require more effort, energy, and cardiovascular capacity.
Mental exercise: “There are many mental benefits to horseback riding,” Dr. Stout adds. “There’s a confidence that comes from learning how to handle and interact with this huge animal. You really learn about yourself as you experience time on a horse.”
Additionally, she finds horseback riding to be a very relaxing and calming experience. “Horseback riding grounds me. It takes me away from any other worries or issues because, for the time being, the only focus is on riding and staying on the horse. While horseback riding is a great exercise, the real benefit I get now is the connection with the horse and the peace of mind that comes with every ride,” she says.
Riding is not the only way this activity gives the body a workout. Working in a barn and taking care of a horse strengthens muscles and increases cardiovascular capacity.
“Lifting 50-pound bags of feed, hauling hay, shoveling and leading horses in and out of the barn are all part of daily care at a barn,” says Dr. Stout, who began doing jobs around the stable at age 11 to earn money for riding lessons. “These are not light tasks and require a fair amount of strength and endurance.”
Dr. Stout says every rider — regardless of age or experience — should wear a helmet. Head injuries account for approximately 60 percent of deaths resulting from equestrian accidents. Properly fitted helmets can prevent death and reduce the severity of head injuries sustained while riding.
“The number one reason people don’t want to wear helmets is because they think they are experienced enough to know how to control the horse,” says Dr. Stout, “but horses can be unpredictable and all it takes is one time of the horse getting spooked in an unexpected way to trigger serious fall.”
Visit our Healthiest Best Exercise homepage for more great ideas to work activity into your daily routine.