by Judy Van Put
It’s been a very different year for us as far as our daily schedule, with various unexpected appointments and new activities, but recently, I had a rare morning free of obligations and decided to take advantage of it to do one of the things I love most – riding Morgan, my Morgan mare.
It was a glorious sunny morning with a gentle breeze to keep things cool. Morgan was just as eager as I was to go for a ride, and after I mounted up and we left the barn, she was high stepping along the trail. As it had been some time since we had last ridden, I made sure to keep her at a normal pace to warm up her muscles and get all the kinks out. We often begin our rides in the riding ring, where there are buckets and cones set out, and started off with our usual warmups – circles first one way, then the other, then weaving around half the buckets and cones in each direction, followed by tighter circles and stopping and starting in various places around the ring. She was anxious to move into a trot, which we both enjoy, and we continued our warmup patterns at that pace. Afterward, we moved out of the ring and into the pastures to finish our ride.
It felt so good to be back in the saddle out in the countryside. Morgan was relaxed but upbeat and seemed to enjoy the scenery as much as I did; when she’s in the pasture during the day most of her time is spent eating or finding the best shady spots to stand on sunny days, rather than exploring all the countryside has to offer, including wild turkeys and white-tailed deer (and an occasional fawn). Sitting on the back of my horse was therapeutic after all the bustle of these past weeks, and I felt a great sense of freedom and letting go of all the tension that had built up. Concentrating on nothing but enjoying the beautiful day, the companionship and responsiveness of my horse, the creak of the saddle, the sounds of the songbirds chirping and the fragrance of the multiflora rose. It’s no wonder that horseback riding is considered beneficial to your health!
Recently I did a little research on the benefits of riding, for both horse and human, and was impressed with the number of articles and information that is available on the subject. Even the American Heart Association published a report on six health benefits to be gained from horseback riding. According to the AHA, horses can influence both your physical and mental health in ways you might not realize, from increasing your cardiovascular health to helping you relax.
Beginning with your cardiovascular health, they stated findings of a study that showed that even just a half-hour of riding is considered moderate exercise, which fits in with the AHA’s recommendations of doing at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous anaerobic activity (or a combination of both), such as trotting, which exerts more energy than playing badminton! Exercise is one of the best ways to keep your body both physically and mentally healthy.
Horseback riding also increases your muscle tone and core strength, which is necessary for balance and posture while you’re in the saddle. Maintaining the proper posture for riding engages your core, back and chest muscles to stay balanced and keep your body in the correct position. An added bonus is that proper posture reduces stress on your back. Even a leisurely ride demands that you sit tall in the saddle and use your legs to squeeze the horse’s sides as you communicate; more difficult moves and maneuvers require more core strength. Non-equestrians may believe that you are simply sitting in the saddle enjoying the ride, but actually you’re using and exercising almost all of your muscles. From your core to your inner thighs and arms, you are building strength by continually adjusting your movements to accommodate those of your horse. The natural rhythm of the horse’s motion promotes healthy circulation and can stretch tight muscles and increase the range of motion in the joints.
Of course, the energy required to care for your horse, whether moving/lifting bales of hay, feeding/carrying water buckets, grooming/saddling up or cleaning stalls, all burn calories. Riding a horse for 45 minutes at a walk, trot and canter will increase your heart rate and can burn up to 200 calories. During a more strenuous ride or other equine disciplines such as reining, barrels, dressage or jumping, you can burn hundreds of calories. Staying active, in addition to burning calories, can help you think more clearly, sleep more soundly and feel better in general while improving your quality of life overall.
In addition to the obvious physical exercise involved with riding, there is a good amount of time spent on making decisions – in essence, exercising your brain. We don’t always attribute our actions while riding – such as speeding up, slowing down, taking a new path to avoid an obstacle or keeping your horse engaged – as making important choices, but according to the AHA, this decision-making process can help with making other choices in life.
Horseback riding as a regular exercise can help lower your blood pressure. Caring for a horse and general barn work, along with just being around a horse, has been shown to improve blood pressure, according to studies conducted by the AHA. Knowing your blood pressure numbers and managing high blood pressure are important in preventing heart disease and stroke.
A contributing factor of high blood pressure is stress – fortunately, one of the major benefits of horseback riding is that it is relaxing, can reduce stress and provides at least a temporary break from the everyday worries of life. Spending time with your horse can also causes your body to release serotonin, a mood-enhancing hormone. The natural movements of the horse can have a calming effect on the rider, and communicating your cues with your horse and having it respond while riding can create a sense of happiness and relaxation that can last far longer than the end of your ride. The study done by the AHA shows that recreational riders enjoy a higher sense of happiness and overall well-being than those who do not spend time around animals. They tend to have better eating and sleeping habits too.
Horses can bring out the best in us and add to our quality of life. Riding is good for the body and soul, and spending time on horseback out in the fresh air and sunshine is a welcome escape from stresses and worries of every day. Schedule some extra time to spend in the great outdoors with your horse and go riding!