Optimal Fitness for Equestrians

Does horse riding offer equestrians a fitness challenge?

by Robin Levine

Riding fitness

Frequently, I hear fellow riders discussing the physical benefits of riding. Mistakenly, many believe that riding alone is an optimal form of exercise. However, nothing could be further from the truth!

You may feel winded after a lengthy canter, sore after a long day in the saddle, or fatigued after a tough lesson. Although, horseback riding simply does not elicit an effective training response.

This article will tackle many common exercise myths pertaining to riding, as well as, explore optimal fitness. and the importance of its three components; endurance, muscular strength and flexibility. I will also explore the benefits of starting an exercise program, and hopefully, convince you to begin, reevaluate, and/or improve your current fitness program now that spring is around the corner!

What is Optimal Fitness?

I am often asked, “Does riding challenge the cardiovascular system? Increase strength and flexibility?  Improve balance?  How will engaging in an exercise program improve my riding?”

These are all vitally important questions but before answering them we must first define optimal fitness.  Optimal fitness “is the condition resulting in a lifestyle that leads to the development of an optimal level of cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, and flexibility, as well as, the achievement and maintenance of ideal body weight.”

Therefore, in order to develop an optimal level of fitness in all three domains, cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, and flexibility, one must “train for specificity.”  For example, cardiovascular training is any weight bearing, rhythmic exercise such as running, jogging, or biking, to name just a few.  These types of exercises target your heart and lungs, and when done regularly, and at a proper intensity, result in optimal aerobic fitness.

The same principle applies to strength and flexibility training.  Weightlifting targets muscular strength and stretching exercises target flexibility.  Specificity training, if done properly, results in increased aerobic, stamina, muscular strength and suppleness.  So when asked, “Does riding, in and of itself, promote optimal fitness?” the answer is a resounding “no.”  Riding does not specifically target the three components of fitness.  It does not, and will not, effectively challenge your cardiovascular system, increase muscular strength or improve flexibility.  While riding ask yourself, “Who is the one engaging in weight bearing, rhythmic exercise?  Who is working in their target heart range? The answer is your horse!  In this case, your horse is the one truly engaged in aerobic exercise.  Unless you get on a treadmill, step machine, or engage in some other form of cardiorespiratory exercise, you will not adequately improve your aerobic capacity.  The same principle applies to strength and flexibility training.  Improvements only occur when each component is addressed individually.

Does Riding Burn Many Calories?

Equestrians, from all disciplines, frequently ask me if riding burns a lot of calories.  Many of these people are misinformed and are under the assumption that riding utilizes a significant amount of energy.  Surprisingly, riding, even for long periods of time, does not burn that many calories!  Riding actually amounts to moderate physical exertion.  According to The American Medical Equestrian Association, posting expends 420 calories/hour, sitting trot 450 calories/ hour and cantering comes in at 514 calories/ hour.  How many riders post, trot or canter for a full hour? Even mucking stalls is considered moderate physical exertion burning 550 calories/ hour.

What are Isometric Contractions?

So, one may ask, what causes us to perspire, feel sore, or out of breathing during/after our lesson?  Riding primarily elicits isometric muscle contractions whereby muscles exert force but do not change in length, do not visibly move, and any/all resistance matches muscular tension.  Resistance can originate from many sources such as gravity, weights, and/or opposing muscle groups. Depending on the relationship between the muscles, and the degree of resistance, muscles may, or may not physically move.  Isometric contractions occur when muscular forces are equivalent to resistive ones. For example, while executing a push-up, the instant we hold ourselves off the floor, our muscles contract without visibly moving.  When we use our calves to hold onto our horse’s side, maintain a neutral spine by tightening our abdominal muscles, position ourselves over jumps, sit an extended trot or even leg yield we are actively contracting our muscles, exerting enough energy to make us sweat, breathe heavy and feel fatigued.

What are Concentric Contractions?

Our muscles also shorten and lengthen.  Concentric contractions occur when muscular forces overpower resistive forces, and eccentric contractions occur when resistive forces overpower muscular ones.   When riding, for instance, posting requires the rider to bend at the hip/knee/ankle joint, respectively.  These types of muscular contractions exert energy as well and contribute to overall calorie burn. Incredibly, our muscles work very hard while riding whether or not we see them move but do not, unfortunately, help us to optimize our fitness level.
Achieving Optimal Fitness
As previously mentioned, the three components of fitness include cardiovascular exercise, strength training & flexibility. Optimal fitness is achieved when we incorporate all three into our exercise program.

Cardiovascular Endurance

The first, cardiovascular training (endurance) conditions the heart, lungs and circulatory system and includes any weight bearing rhythmic exercise such as running, biking, cycling or step aerobics.  Both horse and rider require cardiorespiratory endurance to sustain activity for prolonged periods of time.  Riders, and horses with adequate aerobic capacity generally have more stamina, less fatigue and sustain fewer injuries.  Aerobic exercise also helps reduce high blood pressure, prevents heart disease and obesity, aids in weight loss, increases HDL cholesterol levels and lowers the risk of diabetes.

Strength Training

The second component of fitness, strength training, conditions our muscles by lifting progressively heavier weights for the purpose of strengthening the musculoskeletal system.  The benefits of weight lifting include a strong core, toned arms and legs, increased strength of tendons/ligaments and back muscles, prevention of osteoporosis and arthritis, depression, mental fatigue and it also decreases the risk of injury.  If done regularly, and correctly, riders will quickly notice improvements in their core strength, posture, balance, and coordination.


The last component of fitness, flexibility is defined as the range of motion (ROM) within a joint.  Flexibility training consists of stretching all muscle groups for 30-60 seconds, repeatedly. Stretching contributes to muscular relaxation, suppleness, improved ROM, muscular balance, enhanced speed of movement, injury reduction, improved joint structure, and enhanced sports performance.  Riders will benefit from stretching in many ways, including increased flexibility, fluidity in motion and suppleness while riding.

Remember, exercise programs that include all three components of fitness lead to an optimally fit athlete. Neglecting any one area will be detrimental to improving one’s overall riding performance. Today there are many different exercise programs specifically marketed for equestrians.  Beware! Not all of them are created equal.  Many focus strictly on stretching, and gentle strengthening, and omit any aerobic component. This is where low impact exercises such as yoga, and pilates, fall short, as neither adequately targets the cardiovascular system.  However, these types of exercise modalities are excellent adjuncts to a comprehensive exercise program.

Benefits from Optimal Fitness

There are many reasons why equestrians of any age and fitness level, can benefit from beginning an exercise program.  Incentives include; increased strength, stamina, endurance, flexibility, balance, mental awareness, reduced fatigue, and body refinement/control.
Ask yourself, “Can I canter for long periods of time without losing my breath? Are my arms and legs exhausted after a challenging lesson? Can I easily follow my trainer’s instructions? (sit up straight, shoulders back, chest out, heels down, toes in, hip angle open).  Has it been years since you engaged in a proper conditioning program geared toward riding?  Or perhaps, you are you an unfit, elderly, or overweight rider who would benefit from starting an exercise program?

Unfit riders frequently suffer from recurring injuries. They also endure muscle soreness due to lack of muscular strength and flexibility and often need frequent breaks to catch their breath because they don’t engage in regular aerobic exercise.  Interestingly, musculoskeletal injuries are now the number one reason for seeking medical care in the United States. Clearly, starting a fitness routine would have a myriad of benefits for the unfit rider, as it would for older riders.  According to the United States Dressage Federation, 90% of its members are adults, and 66% are over the age of 41 years.

Elderly riders commonly lose range of motion as they age, suffer from arthritis, muscle atrophy, aches, and pains, have a harder time balancing and incur frequent injuries. Statistically, one out of three adults over the age of 65 incurs serious falls. Fortunately, it has been repeatedly proven that balance can be preserved and regained with regular exercise. Undoubtedly, specificity training focusing on weight lifting and flexibility would vastly improve many of the physical struggles that challenge older riders.

Similarly, overweight riders, who constantly struggle with weight loss issues, also confront many challenges. For instance, they can inadvertently hurt their horse’s back because they are overweight, can have difficulty getting on/off their horse, endangering themselves in emergency situations, and may have trouble balancing due to postural/balance challenges. It’s a well-known rule of thumb that a riding horse can safely carry 20% of its weight (upper limit) and that weight includes both rider and tack. Thus, overweight riders have many reasons to begin a fitness program focusing specifically on weight loss.

Every rider should strive for optimal fitness. Clearly, it plays a significant role in enhancing one’s riding performance, as well as, improving one’s general health and physical condition.  The benefits of starting an exercise program are numerous for riders of any age.

And because riding, alone, does not provide an adequate training response, equestrians must engage in a formal exercise program, that addresses all three components of fitness to reap the many benefits. So spring into action! Begin an exercise program, or make improvements to an already existing one! You won’t regret it, and neither will your horse.