Horseback Riding Basics & Health Benefits

There’s nothing like the thrill of horseback riding – at least for most of us. Just looking at a healthy horse makes us think of: speed, strength, and freedom. If you are already an experienced rider, this article is probably not for you. I wanted to address those who have never ridden or whose experience is very basic. I think horseback riding is a sport that we often forget about when thinking of a fun way to spend the day off, or even a new means of exercise, so I want to address those of you who don’t horseback regularly and explain (or remind you) how horseback riding can provide not only an enjoyable past time but a healthy one as well.

Health Benefits

You may have never thought of horseback riding as a fitness program, but it is in fact, a remarkable full-body workout for those of all fitness levels. Just an hour horseback riding will leave you sore and feeling muscles you didn’t even know were there! We tend to forget about the fitness aspects of horseback riding probably because it is so much fun that it doesn’t feel like a workout, but take a look at just a few of the health and fitness benefits of horseback riding:

  • Balance and Stability
    • Horse-riding requires excellent balance to stay upright on the horse while running, turning and even walking your horse (if you’re a beginner).  As you perfect your balance horseback riding, you will see an increase in your balancing abilities. You’ll be able to snow or water ski, surfboard, and more with little effort.
  • Coordination
    • Most sports and even fitness programs require coordination. Coordination comes naturally for some, but for most it is a learned skill. Horseback riding can help you develop this skill as you learn to coordinate leg pressure, rein pressure and body position, which novice riders quickly learn is harder than it looks!
  • Muscle Workout
    • Horseback riding engages all the muscles of the body, but especially the legs – specifically, the adductors. To support the adductors, the quads, hamstrings, and glutes all have to work hard. Speaking of glutes, they get an amazing workout every time you tell the horse to stop. In addition, all the aforementioned muscles are involved even just telling the horse where to go, when to stop and how fast to run! Remember that muscle tone is created by constant tension, so all that flexing and contracting your muscles do while riding can keep you lean and in great shape.
  • Improve Back Strength!
    • Riding a horse can actually improve your back strength and alleviate a lot of that back pain we experience. With many of us, the low back pain we feel is due to lack of support of our spine and lower lumbar regions because the proper muscles are not developed. When running your horse faster, you’ll be using obliques and transverse abdominals, as well as erector spinae and lats to help strengthen those important core muscles!
  • Flexibility
    • Just sitting on a horse, mounting and dismounting will improve your flexibility. These are difficult things to do if you’re not flexible, and the more you do it the more you’ll improve. Your calves also get a good stretch when riding in the correct position. Flexibility will help in everyday things that you do as well as help avoid injuries when playing sports or exercising.

It’s quite amazing the complete body workout that you can get from just an hour of horseback riding.

Riding Basics

There’s a lot more to riding a horse than knowing how to mount, dismount and just stay upright in the saddle. You have to consider things like safety (for both you and the horse), as well as knowing how to tack up (putting the bridle and saddle on properly, etc.). Here we’ll cover all the basics you need to know to get started.

  • Approaching your horse is, of course, the first step and even this aspect deserves consideration. If you approach a horse with fear, the horse will sense that and will have much more attitude when you try to mount and ride. The horse will be able to tell whether you’re an experienced rider or not, but that is not as much a concern to the horse as whether you are afraid or not. It’s almost as if they have a disrespect of you if you are scared, and will not behave when you try to ride them. That being said, it is important that you work out whatever fear you have toward horses before ever mounting one. Spend time standing by the horse, petting it or brushing it, or just walking it around by a lead. Once you become comfortable with your horse and no longer fear him, you can move on to mounting.
  • The first thing you’ll want to do is be sure the stirrups are set properly for your height. Use your arm to measure the length of the stirrup as that will be the perfect length for your legs as well, for most people.
  • If the horse is much taller than you and you are an inexperienced rider, you may want to consider standing on a block or barrel to assist you in mounting the horse. Properly mounting the horse will go a long way in getting the horse to trust you.
    • Stand on the left side of the horse and hold on to both the reins and the horse’s mane in your left hand (if you’re inexperienced, have someone hold the horse steady for you).
    • Place your left foot into the stirrup while holding it parallel to the horse with your right hand.
    • Grab the back of the saddle with your right hand, and push up with your right foot until you are standing straight up, both legs parallel, and your left foot still in the stirrup.
    • Swing your right leg over the horse (removing your right hand from the back of the saddle at the same time), and slowly lower yourself into the saddle. You want to do this slowly as to put your weight on the horse as gently as possible.
    • Place your right foot into the right saddle and settle yourself comfortably on the horse with your weight evenly distributed. Try not to sit too stiffly on the horse; you need flexibility to maintain your balance but try to keep good posture at all times. NOTE: You shouldn’t need to use the saddle horn to maintain your balance. Use your posture and balance instead.
    • Your knees should now be resting against the saddle. The balls of your feet should be in the stirrup with your heels angled down. This is very important because if the horse should throw you, you want to be sure you actually get thrown. That might sound funny, but it’s a drastic improvement over being dragged by the horse if your foot should get caught in the stirrups.
    • Hold the reins loosely but firmly. This is enough for now but just keep in mind that your use of the reins is going to change as you learn to ride.

Whew… all of that and you are only now just sitting on the horse! It should be clear by now that I would need an entire book to continue with explaining exact steps for walking the horse, steering the horse, and stopping your horse. These are all essential to know, of course, and a personal horse trainer can help you learn how to do it all correctly. Learning wrong and then trying to change bad habits is very hard – for both you and the horse.

There’s a lot to horseback riding, as you’re starting to see I’m sure. Even considering what you wear is important. You want to make sure you don’t wear anything that hangs or would flap while riding. This is imperative for the safety of both you and the horse. Try to wear snug fitting clothes and keep the jewelry at home. If you have long hair, pull it back into a ponytail or bun. Wear long pants, something sturdy like jeans, to protect your legs. Perhaps the most important thing is your shoes. Cowboys and cowgirls wear boots for a reason! The heel helps avoid your foot from slipping forward in the stirrup (which could lead to you being dragged by the horse if thrown), the sides protect your ankles and calves, and they are usually sturdier than other footwear which might help if the horse accidentally steps on your foot!

Think about hiring a personal horse trainer to show you the basics and keep you safe while you first learn to ride your horse. If you live in the UK, I can personally recommend one that is extremely personable, talented and knowledgeable: Ruth Parke of Gaits and Traits. She taught me everything I know and was patient, friendly, and affordable. I also got a lot of good information, and valuable insights from “Horse Riding Lessons: Training Yourself to Ride a Horse”. This EBook includes video instructions and lots of bonus material for only $27.

I hope that I’ve spurred some interest for you in utilizing horseback riding as a means of great fun and exercise. You now know the very basics and can learn more by hiring a personal trainer. I’m off to give Sundance and myself some exercise… It’s beautiful outside and I can’t think of any better way to get my exercise in this morning than to ride with the wind in my hair and the sun on my face. See you guys soon!

Have questions or comments about this article? Want to share your own horse riding experience? Please leave us a note below!