Horse riding is not for everyone, but for those who become equestrians, the sport comes with a whole range of benefits. Some are rather obvious, such as improved health and fitness, while others are less apparent benefits linked to mental health and personal development.
Maybe you are considering venturing into horse riding yourself and wondering what benefits does horse riding really have? Or maybe you are asking yourself if it’s the right activity for your child? Perhaps you are trying to convince a friend or partner to join you or you have lost motivation and simply need a reminder of all the wonderful things riding and being around horses brings to your life.
Well, let us help you out with that!
‘Why are you so sweaty? I mean, you’re just sitting there.’ Does anyone else agree that this phrase is like waving a red flag in front of a bull? Anyone who has ever tried to sit the trot on a big moving horse or canter on a lazy one knows this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Let’s debunk this myth right away and get into the physical benefits of horseback riding.
Balance and Coordination
What keeps a rider in the saddle is first and foremost the ability to balance. With each step the horse takes, a rider needs to make slight adjustments to remain in the seat with the correct form. On top of that, she must coordinate the use of all aids at any given time to send the correct signals to the horse. And let’s be clear, we are not just talking about which aids to use, but also the level of pressure applied, the duration and constantly considering which ‘mix and dosage’ of aids is going to achieve the optimal result. It’s part physical, part science really!
Core and Leg Strength
Staying on a horse in movement requires, in addition to balance and coordination, the help and activation of a whole range of muscles. For anyone who has gone riding for the first time or getting back in the saddle after a break, you will be intimately familiar with the aches and pains that can occur in the weirdest of places.
In particular, the leg and core muscles are highly engaged as the seat and posture of a rider is greatly supported by the core muscles, and the legs both grip the saddle but are also as an essential aid for communicating with the horse.
If you are looking to strengthen these areas for horse riding, check out the Horse Learner Exercise Program to get you started.
While some horses are more physically challenging to ride than others, no one can claim that an intensive riding session in the arena does not get your heart beating faster. Beginner horses can actually be more tiring to ride than advanced level horses, as it is often the responsiveness (or lack thereof) to the rider’s aids that to a large degree stipulates the level of strength and effort that needs to be put in by a rider. That said, the horse’s stride and gaits also play an important role. A horse with a smooth and rolling canter can be easier to balance on than a short and bumpy pony trot.
If there is ever a time to be arrogant, it’s when riding a horse. An upright, correct posture and neutral spine is important in any equestrian sport and helps ensure the rider is correctly positioned in the saddle. A poor posture will place strain on your neck and upper back as well as having an influence on the posture of the horse. Riding with incorrect posture over time can result in back pain and injury.
Of course, maintaining good posture is important for life in general and should be a focus at all times. Horse riding can help make you more aware of how you hold your upper body so you can take steps to correct it, both on and off the horse.
Horses are generally of the unpredictable type. You know, like the friend that just shows up at your door without warning or the partner that decided it was a good idea to move laundry day from Tuesday to Friday..
Ok, maybe not exactly like that. The point is, sometimes horses can throw you curve balls and when they do, you will have about a split second to decide how to react. That means your brain will likely not be heavily involved so it is your instincts and reflexes that call the shots. Rinse and repeat throughout an equestrian career and chances are your reflexes are pretty on point.
Strength through ‘Horse Chores’
Riding is one thing, but that’s just a fraction of the activities that fill the days of equestrians. Mucking out stalls, loading huge bags of pellets into storage containers, lifting the saddle back onto that annoyingly high tack room wall rack and carrying around piles of wet and thick rugs all the while trying to peek over said pile checking for treacherous obstacles in our way. Whether you realize it or not, barn chores and activities require some real muscle strength.
A horse is not a shrink (and neither am I), but I firmly believe that horses can positively contribute to anyone’s mental health. Not only does being around horses mean spending time outside and being physically active, but it also offers experiences and insights, unlike any other sport or leisure activity.
Bonding and Companionship with a Horse
There are few feelings that compare to the feeling of making a real connection with an animal that you cannot verbally communicate with. I vividly remember that low and friendly nicker from Tornado’s stall (the Shetland pony I started my riding career on), every morning when I came to see him. Or Loke blowing warm air down my back and gently nuzzling my neck with his upper lip during a grooming session. If that doesn’t make your day, I don’t know what will!
Building a relationship with a horse takes time, just like it does with humans. But with mutual trust and respect as well as a series of positive experiences together, usually, a bond will develop, and it will contribute to your overall happiness.
Teaches Patience and Perseverance
As we discussed in our article Is Horse Riding Easy to Learn, there is a lot that goes into becoming a good rider. One key ingredient, and something pretty much every equestrian I have ever met struggles with at some point, is patience. Teaching ourselves and the horse new skills is not done overnight and often requires a lot of repetition and practice. Sometimes the progress we do make is so incremental that we don’t even realize when things are moving in the right direction unless we consistently track it and take the time to look back to where we started.
If you want to get anywhere as a rider, perseverance is a skill you will inevitably need and something that is likely to serve you in other aspects of life as well. In our experience, people in the equestrian community are sometimes viewed as stubborn or pig-headed by others not familiar with our environment, but isn’t perhaps that perceived ‘stubbornness’ really more the ability of horse riders to persevere and see things through?
Mental Balance and Stress Management
Horse riding requires most of your attention to stay safe and guide the horse where he needs to go. An amazing side-effect of this is that riding allows you to disconnect from stress and worries in your life as you focus on the horse and your surroundings.
Sure, your problems will still be there when you get back in your car to drive home, but your mind has been given a break and your stress levels were reduced during the time when your mind was engaged elsewhere. Getting out of negative thought spirals, away from the source of stress and going outside in nature and fresh air can all do wonders for the mind.
Contributes to Happiness
Studies indicate that horse riding increases levels of the mood-enhancing hormone serotonin more than other types of exercise (source) and this probably comes as no surprise to experienced equestrians. Spending time at the stable and riding horses can often contribute to lift someone’s mood, both because you are being physically active but also because you are doing something you enjoy and something that helps you disconnect from negative thoughts or feelings of stress.
Personal Development Benefits
But wait, there’s more! Horse riding benefits do not end at the physical and psychological, it also contributes to developing skills and personal abilities. This is one of the reasons why we believe it is such a great activity for children – the horses teach them so many lessons, both directly and indirectly.
Maturity and Sense of Responsibility
Whether you own, lease or just occasionally take horse riding lessons, taking care of a horse requires a certain level of maturity. Having a horse ‘in your care’, even just for a few hours, is a big responsibility and means that you are in charge of the well-being of that horse during the time you spend with it. Especially for children and adolescents, this can be a humbling experience and a great lesson. I vividly remember my teenage years when I very reluctantly had to sacrifice time with friends on Saturday nights to head to the stable for night feeding. I certainly didn’t want to, but it was my responsibility to get it done.
Learning and Trying New Things
Horse Learner is not a randomly selected name. The fact is, no matter how much experience you have with horses, there is always more to learn and new perspectives to understand. This is one of the things I love about the equestrian sport. You are never truly done. One day you think you know something and the next you meet someone with an entirely different view or that uses very different techniques to your own. The best equestrians are often those who keep an open mind and who apply the best advice from various sources.
Expands the Social Circle and Builds Social Skills
Even though horse riding is primarily an individual sport, the activities around the riding typically involve a good bit of human interaction, especially if you take classes or ride a horse that is stabled at a local equestrian center.
In this context, you will spend countless hours in the same location as others who enjoy doing the exact same thing as you do. Even for an introvert (like myself), it would almost be an achievement if you didn’t make any new connections or friends.
For children and adolescents, this can be a golden opportunity to get to know others outside of their regular school activities and in our experience, the presence of horses tends to lighten the atmosphere and makes connection quite easy.
Competing – Dealing with Disappointment
After mastering basic horse riding skills an equestrian can choose to participate in competitions within his or her preferred discipline. Before the event, the rider will need to set goals, prepare both in terms of the riding and the logistics and probably deal with some level of stress and nervousness. After the event comes the time to process and analyze the results.
Because horse riding is an individual sport, dealing with disappointing outcomes of a competition can be harder than in team sports where team members support each other, and the loss is carried by everyone collectively. Building up a capacity to accept that things do not always go as we want and an ability to draw out lessons that are conducive for future growth and learning, is an important skill in order to maintain motivation and drive.
Fear is a feeling you are very likely to be encountered with as an equestrian. Whether you are afraid of horses and nervous about getting started with horse riding or you have been in an accident and gotten thrown off, facing fear is just one of those things you will need to confront and push through.
Stepping out of your comfort zone and into something new and uncertain is scary, but the rewards in are worth it (in my 100% not biased opinion) and helps you progress and build your self-confidence.
If you are considering trying horse riding but hesitant to start, check out our article ‘Is Horse Riding Scary’ where we discuss why some find horse riding intimidating, but also how to tackle the three most common dangerous situations on horseback.
Caring for horses means being thrown curveballs. On a continuous basis. Being a horse owner basically means you have an advanced degree in problem-solving. From DIY fixes around the stable to trying and failing and trying again to train horses in everything from groundwork to manners and complex movements in the arena. What worked for others may not always work for you and so equestrians tend to build up the ability to figure things out.
When combining all the points above it is clear how beneficial horse riding can be and how it can undoubtedly contribute to building character, mental resilience, and strength.
Frankly, we should all wear our superhero suits when we ride, but I suppose not all heroes need to wear capes!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute diagnosis, prognosis, treatment or any type of medical advice for humans or horses. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.