It is said that horses were first ridden over 6,500 years ago, and since that day when the first man rode astride a horse, our knowledge of and bond with these magnificent creatures has only grown and grown. What used to be a simple mode of transport or weapon of war has become a form of art, and equally, a very significant sport.
Anyone who rides horses will have heard a million people sneer that ‘horse riding isn’t a sport because the horse does all the work.’ Those of us who ride know that is so far from the truth, it’s laughable. Whenever I go back home and spend a whole day riding in the beautiful mountains of Spain, I spend the next 3 days limping like a bandy legged cowboy and muscles that most people have never dreamed of will ache. The reality is that horse riding is much, much more physically demanding than any other sport I know. Not only do you have a 500kg animal between your legs but you have to stay mentally switched on at all times – for your horse has a mind of its own!
Horse riding is my favourite way to stay both physically and emotionally fit, so I thought I’d highlight some of the health benefits of riding:
1) Core strength
Even if you’ve never sat on a horse before and have no riding skills, there’s no such thing as ‘passive sitting’. Abdominal, back and pelvic muscles are all used to keep the trunk of the body stabilised and upright in the saddle. The constant tension from flexing and contracting your muscles helps your physique by building up muscle tone. For more advanced riders, activities such as riding bareback can further improve core strength for without a stirrup and saddle, the muscles have to work even harder to keep a good seat!
Any rider knows that the horse has a mind of it’s own. As well as learning to balance on a horse while it’s doing what you ask and expect it to do, you also have to learn to balance when it doesn’t. Your horse may refuse a jump, spook at a plastic bag blowing in the wind or just generally decide to change direction. There are a many number of unforeseen things that could happen – and a good rider will not falter. The trick is to learn to become an extension of the horse and its movement so the two of you are working with each other instead of the rider trying to bend the horse to his or her will.
You may have learned to balance on your horse but you’ll still be nowhere without good coordination. Some riders rely on physical as well as verbal aides when riding – that means that not only are you talking (or whistling) to your horse, but you’re also using your reins, your legs and subtle weight changes to explain to your horse what you want. Depending on what you’re trying to achieve, some riders will also use a whip too! Coordinating all these at once is (unsurprisingly) pretty hard – especially when you’re already at a fast pace such as a canter!
5) Overall muscle tone
It’s not just the core muscles that get a work out while riding – the rest of the body works pretty hard too! If you think of rising (English) trot in your head, it’s essentially a never ending series of squats! And you’ll learn just how much work your arm muscles do when you’re riding a feisty hot blooded stallion or training a new colt. Trying to get them ‘under the rein’ is no easy feat! Don’t forget that riding doesn’t just include the part when you’re on your horse! Most riders also take a very active part in stable life, and whether you’re hauling your tack across the yard (and believe me saddles are heavy), mucking out stalls or grooming, it’s a hard days work.
A number of scientific studies have shown that horseriding (and interaction with horses) improves a persons psychological state. Whether this is because of the benefit of being outdoors with nature, the feeling of escape or the bond created with the horse, horse riding undoubtedly makes riders feel happier. It’s no wonder that horses are used as therapy animals in EAT (Equine Assisted Psychotherapy). As it is a form of exercise, horse riding has been shown to promote a release of serotonin which leads to a sense of well-being.
There you have it – 6 great reasons to start riding!
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