Mankind’s history with horses goes back thousands of years. We have used the power and strength of these majestic creatures in our agriculture, transport, warfare and more recently entertainment and exercise. You might imagine that riding requires the horse to do all the hard work, but the rider’s energy expenditure is considerable. In addition to this exertion, there are many other physical and psychological benefits to be gained from equestrian exercise.
There is a common misconception that riding a horse is a sedentary activity. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth — the movement and control required during horse riding is significant. There are many muscles engaged during riding and those who are new to this activity find their stomach, leg and arm muscles aching after their first sessions. It takes a while to condition the body to this physically demanding sport.
Depending on the speed and duration of your rides it can be both a cardiovascular and endurance exercise. Arizona University concluded that gentle riding uses as much energy as a game of badminton or dancing — expending 5.5 METs (Metabolic Equivalent Tasks). Galloping requires 7.3 METs, the same as playing squash, while jumping requires a massive 9 METs, which is more than football or basketball. Taking care of your horse’s needs with grooming, cleaning and harnessing expends 4.5 METs — simply having a horse is good exercise!
Strength and Balance
One of the main aims of horse riding is to stay on the horse! The muscles engaged during horse riding are activated constantly, making it an isometric exercise: strength training that contracts a specific group of muscles. A study by Miami University demonstrated that isometric exercise lowers resting blood pressure, making horse riding beneficial for anyone who could benefit from decreasing theirs.
Just like Pilates, riding is excellent for toning your core (abdominal and pelvic muscles) and strengthening the muscles of your legs (quadriceps and hamstrings). However, since the horse is bearing all your weight, riding does not increase bone density. Because time spent in the saddle will typically make your muscles ache, beginners should limit their first few adventures in equine exercise.
Mastering staying on the horse also requires balance, increasing in exertion as the horse speeds up! Jumping builds up the skill and strength required to get both you and the horse over obstacles — developing strong arms and shoulders as you hang on to the reins and ‘steer’ the horse.
Mental Health and Wellbeing
Learning to control and take charge of an animal as magnificent and huge as a horse is an extremely rewarding experience. The act of caring for a horse, feeding it, walking with it and grooming it, is a great way to feel good about yourself, and develop self-esteem and interpersonal skills. Horses are social animals and as such spending time with them is an opportunity to develop your own social skills; this can be highly beneficial to individuals with mental health disorders.
A short-term study was conducted by New Mexico State University on the effects of Equine-assisted Psychotherapy on children who had witnessed violence in their family. These children were at risk of mental health disorders and behavioral problems. All the children in the study showed improvements in social and psychological functioning thanks to this therapy.
The sheer size of the animal allows patients undergoing Equine Therapy to evoke feelings of vulnerability, which can be felt in a safe environment. Being around horses helps people feel more comfortable about being around other humans because they can improve communication skills and develop empathy.
Coupled with spending time outdoors in nature practicing an enjoyable activity, horse riding is a great contributor to mental wellbeing. A study by the British Horse Society on the psychological effects of horse riding found that over 80 percent of participants felt considerably more ‘cheerful’, ‘relaxed’ or ‘active.’ They also found that participants could experience psychological benefits without horse riding on a regular basis.
Along with its many benefits to health, horse riding has its own inherent dangers. According to the Hughston clinic, horse riding results in more injuries every year than driving a motorcycle. Christopher Reeve, the actor who played Superman, was famously paralyzed from the neck down for life after falling off his horse. Here are some important things to remember to keep yourself safe:
Wear a helmet — the majority of injuries incurred when the rider falls off the horse involve the head. Wearing a properly fitted hard shell helmet is a necessary precaution for every rider. This protects against accidents that can, in worst-case scenarios, prove fatal.
Have the right boot-stirrup combination — many injuries caused during riding result from having improperly fitted boots, which can in turn cause the rider to be dragged by the foot along the ground, should he fall off the horse.
Take it seriously — riders should not play around when on horseback. Horses are huge animals with incredible strength and power and need to be treated with respect.
A Ride with Salman Alemadi
We asked Salman Alemadi about his experience with horse riding. He said his family’s ownership of horses had first attracted him to the sport, which he began practicing at the young age of 11. Breed and musculature are the mark of a good racehorse; they are loyal and brave creatures, he said. When questioned on the skills associated with horse riding, Mr Alemadi said he’d learned to be patient and to work hard, and mentioned that the sport offers the opportunity to meet new people, and experience other cultures whilst competing internationally. His advice to aspiring riders: ”Give each level the right amount of time and the right amount of practice before you move to the next level”.
Hippotherapy is a form of physical therapy centered on the movements of the horse during riding. It is used by physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech therapists for patients with physical and mental impairments and disabilities, and for people who have undergone traumatic experiences in childhood. Used in conjunction with other therapies, hippotherapy is a fun yet challenging form of exercise with many valuable benefits:
- Improves neurologic functioning and sensory processing.
- Improves self competence and feelings of social acceptance.
- Improves balance.
- Improves posture.
- Improves self-esteem.
- Improves muscle tone.
Horse Riding — Yay or Neigh?
Horse riding is a wonderful activity with a myriad of mental and physical benefits. Take up this sport with an equestrian counterpart to improve your health, connect with a beautiful animal and spend more time outdoors. Qatar has a well-known history of horsemanship that continues to this day. There are many places you can visit in Qatar to take up this amazing activity. As the Arabian proverb says: “The air of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears.”References