On a recent blog trip to Coworth Park, I took advantage of the exceptional Equestrian centre by riding for a couple of hours one morning through the glorious Ascot woodlands. It’s something I used to do every day growing up in the Swedish countryside; the way it made me feel, both physically (my poor adductors) and mentally (the endorphin release) reminded me strongly of the reasons I used to do it so much – there are so many health benefits of horse riding; this post was an inevitable formality… ☺️
Growing up in Sweden, horse riding was a big part of my life. I used to spend hours in the stables grooming horses, cleaning out their boxes and riding. I fell off countless times and it never really phased me, but when I was 14, I took a pretty untrained horse out into the forest with my cousin, and it suddenly went into ‘mischief mode’, and I ended up on the motorway, speeding head-first into oncoming traffic, in the driving rain at night! I saw a curve coming up and realised on a slippery dark road that traffic probably wouldn’t see me in time; I let go of the reins, hung on to the horse’s neck, counted to 3 and just let go! I was OK if not seriously shaken, but the horse shortly afterwards stopped turned around looked at me and sort of said ‘aren’t you coming?’
Getting on Oscar (my horse for the morning) at Coworth was my first time in a long time. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it, but I’m so happy to say I absolutely loved it. My guide Kate was incredible – she completely helped me to relax and put me at ease, helping me to trust myself on a horse again. It’s one of the most invigorating sports you can ever try. You feel exhilaratingly close to nature, with a wonderful sense of freedom! Galloping, with the wind blowing in your face is such an epic adrenaline kick. Likewise, just trotting along in the sunshine is a natural endorphin release …
… It’s also one of the few sports where you can’t be selfish; you have to listen to another living being, interpret its body language and movements, and be respectful, yet authoritative. When you make that connection with such a beautiful, powerful animal it’s truly humbling. I’m such an animal person, and I think when you really get to know a horse you develop a strong bond and friendship the same way you would with a treasured pet.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF HORSE RIDING???
I’ve heard people say horse riding isn’t a workout. Nonsense. Try getting on powerful horse and controlling its mind and body with inferior strength and see how you get on. There are some serious strength gains to be had as well as coordination, balance and core stability. After having been riding for a mere 2 hours, I felt the physical effects on my muscles, and the following day my body ached in places it hadn’t for years. I constantly train, but horse riding reminded me it’s pretty hardcore in an unusual way. Though it won’t get you into your bikini body, it’s a great complement to your normal fitness regime – my inner thighs were outrageously sore, solely from clenching on to the horse’s body. My abs and obliques were fatigued from galloping. Below is my 5-point analysis of this wonderful activity…
1) CORE STRENGTH:
The core band of muscles are in overdrive to stabilise you upper body on a unpredictable animal, and on unusual terrain at random pitches. You cannot slouch or hyper-extend, as poor posture will hinder your control of the horse. When the horse pulls to the right you cannot go with him because you’ll end up on the ground, so you adopt a stabilising contrary motion. Your centre-of-gravity and bodyweight is constantly shifting, yet you’re having to maintain the same upright position. If you’re looking for the ultimate six pack, the horse will have you targeting your obliques, rectus abdominis, and your serratus anterior. Whether you’re trying to or not, you do engage all the right muscles. This will also translate across to other fitness activities, and yield improved balance and stability.
2) SHOULDERS & ARMS
When you’re on the horse, your arms never really get the opportunity to rest at any point; they’re either in a static raised position (which in itself is tiring after a while) or pulling at the reins, helping to navigate the direction for the horse. This sounds easy, but over a long period of time, it very quickly becomes exhausting!
When you’re trotting along, you’re basically squatting on a continuous basis – up and down on the horse. When you’re galloping, you’re clenching your thighs across the horse, pushing your body into the seat whilst rolling with the horses movement. Those adductors (the inner thigh muscles) will take a beating that’s for sure! The quads, hamstrings, and glutes all support the work of the adductors, and all get a piece of the action for the squat motion too!
Whilst this is partly technique and something you learn over time, there’s a lot of multitasking; try skipping in every plane on a moving surface whilst someone is pulling at your rope. There’s also an element of learning to ‘feel’ your way. I remember growing up and seeing a lot of therapeutic riding for blind children. It’s a great way to help develop better coordination skills – purely learning through feel. Having interviewed many athletes they often speak about the right ‘feel’ I think referring to body awareness; with horse riding there’s the added bonus where you’re having to understand your own body awareness as well as the horses. That’s what makes a fantastic horse rider when they truly communicate and listen to their horse. It’s a team effort!
In terms of flexibility, you can’t be stiff-as-a-board and expect to ride well. Tight hamstrings or glutes will hinder you from squatting into the classic horse-riding position. Super-tight adductors, as you can imagine, are a bit of a disaster too as you use these muscles a lot to stabilise yourself on the horse. Improved flexibility as with all sports will help range of motion and decrease the risk of injury. So stretch out, before and after!
Finally like anything it adds variety to your fitness regime and its so much fun! If you haven’t tried it I couldn’t recommend it more