Staying Healthy: Why Horse Riding Can Be Such A Great Workout

Every year sees a new fitness craze that is ‘100% guaranteed‘ to help you lose weight but the vast majority of these flash in the pan ways only work for the celebrities who swear by them. The ‘crazes’ that involve exercise are far more likely to work which brings me back to the question of ‘Is horse riding a good exercise?’. I could easily just say yes and leave it at that but doing that isn’t really answering the question I don’t think or at least is a lazy way of answering it. Of course, it’s a good exercise to lose weight (most exercise is good for losing weight) but what is it that makes horse riding such a good all-round form of exercise?

Does horse riding count as exercise? Just because horse riding is great fun doesn’t mean that it doesn’t count as exercise. The dictionary definition of exercise is ‘an activity that requires physical effort and is carried out to sustain or improve health and fitness‘ which means that horse riding most definitely does count as exercise.

Not only does horse riding count as exercise it’s also a really good all-round form of physical activity. Before you’ve even started to move you’ve already engaged a range of different muscles. To keep your balance you’ll use your legs, thighs, and abdominal muscles as well as your core strength. Then to keep yourself sat upright you’ll use your core strength as well as various muscles in your back and stomach.

A recent study by the British Horse Society found that riding uses enough energy to be classed as moderate-intensity exercise. This means that an hour spent trotting will burn around 350 calories – that’s the same as spending an hour in a Zumba class or doing aerobics.

Is riding a horse good exercise?

Exercise doesn’t have to be boring or something that you don’t enjoy but have to do. This is one of the reasons why horse riding is such a good form of exercise, not just for losing weight but for your general health too. What makes horse riding such a good form of exercise is the wide range of muscles you’re using without feeling as if you are. 

When talking about the benefits of any exercise we always focus on the physical benefits and the mental benefits are often overlooked. All exercise can increase the number of endorphins (natural feel-good chemicals released by our brain) in the brain which will lift your mood. Being in the open air and around animals has also been proven to improve your mental wellbeing so horse riding is not only good physical exercise it’s also great for your mental health too.

How many calories do you burn riding a horse?

Due to age, height, weight, and fitness levels, we all burn calories at different rates so the number of calories you burn while riding will differ from how many somebody else burns. That said though an ‘average’ (if there is such a thing) rider of an intermediate riding level will burn approximately 200kcal during half an hour’s riding on the flat (walk, trot, and canter). That number can drastically increase if you’re doing something more strenuous such as cutting or showjumping. And when I say drastically I mean seriously drastic – it can increase to over 550kcal for 60 minutes of exercise, depending on how strenuous the riding is.

This doesn’t even take into account the number of calories you’ll burn doing various other tasks around the yard such as mucking out which can burn over 150kcal per stall. Even grooming a horse can burn anywhere from 210kcal to 420kcal depending on how energetically you’re grooming a horse.

Nutristrategy recently published a list of activities and the number of calories the average 155lb person could burn. To give you an idea I’ve listed thirty of those activities below but you can see the full list here.

ActivityNumber of calories
Roller blading844
Rock climbing774
Martial arts704
Cycling (BMX, mountain bike)598
Circuit training563
Running (5 mph)563
Cycling (stationary – moderate)493
Rowing machine (moderate)493
Hiking (with backpack)493
Canoeing (moderate)493
Horse riding457
Horse grooming422
Swimming (leisure)422
Ballroom dancing (fast)387
Tai chi281
Weight lifting (light)211
Number of calories the average 155lb person will burn

Just as an example of how many calories you can burn while horse riding I decided to get a workout on a recent trail ride. I started the workout just after I left the barn and didn’t stop it until I dismounted. The ride was mainly in open country although there we did ride down a few roads with minimal traffic. It lasted for just over two hours and most of it was at a slowish walk with a few minutes (ten at the very most) of jogging.

As you can see from the workout I burnt 500 active calories (burning 655kcal in total) and had an average heart rate of 110. While this is obviously different for everybody it gives a rough idea of how many calories you can burn while riding.

Is horse riding good for losing weight?

Horse riding is excellent for losing weight, not only will you burn a lot of calories (in excess of 200kcal) it’ll take far less effort than something like running or weight lifting. An added bonus of horse riding is that it’s kinder on your joints, this is because you’re not causing any sudden impacts and are instead moving them freely.

Another reason why horse riding is so beneficial to weight loss is that it’s more than just riding that will burn calories. If you go to the gym or go for a swim you won’t burn any calories driving there but with horse riding, there’s a lot to do both before and after the ride. For example, you’ll need to catch the horse, groom them, and tack them up before you ride while after you may have to walk them around to cool them down if they’re particularly hot.

Does horse riding tone your body?

You might be surprised to know that as well as exercising your legs, thighs, and arms horse riding also helps to exercise and tone a wide range of muscle groups. In addition to toning muscles, horse riding will also help to improve your core strength which includes muscles in your lower back as well as your abdominal and oblique (the side abdominal muscles that allow you to bend from the side or twist your torso) muscles.

So how does horse riding help to tone your body?

  • Upper body and arms – Steering a horse uses more muscles than you might think, especially if you have a headstrong horse or one that drops his head a lot. When your instructor tells you to ‘lift the horse’s head’ they’re telling you to use your upper body strength to bring their head up.
  • Thighs – Take your stirrups away and you’ll quickly realize how much you use your thighs to stay in the saddle. Even with stirrups, you’re still using your thighs, whether it’s to control your horse’s speed or keep yourself in the saddle your thighs are getting a good workout.
  • Legs – When riding you don’t just hang your legs down, you use them to keep your position which means that you’re engaging your leg muscles with every second spent in the saddle.
  • Core strength – Horse riding strengthens your core because you need to use balance and coordination to stay in the saddle. Yes, the saddle and stirrups will help inexperienced riders stay in the saddle but even with that, you’ll still need to use your balance to stay upright and not bounce out of the saddle.

Does horse riding count as cardiovascular exercise?

Some people argue that horse riding isn’t cardiovascular exercise (any exercise that increases your pulse and gets your adrenaline flowing) at all and while they may be right sometimes they’re certainly not right all of the time. If you’re just walking at a slow pace then no it’s not going to count as a cardio workout at all. On the other hand, if you’re going through more paces then it will count as a cardio workout, even if you’re just walking, trotting, and cantering on the flat without any jumping or racing. When you add activities such as cutting or dressage into your riding then your cardio workout is even greater.

Do you need to be fit to ride a horse?

Just because you never see an overweight professional rider it doesn’t mean to say that you have to be fit before you can learn to ride, although it does help if you have at least some level of fitness.

One of the reasons why horse riding offers such an incredible full-bodied workout is because it uses such a wide range of different muscle groups. If you’re completely out of shape you’ll find horse riding extremely tiring and physically draining, making it less likely you’ll want to continue. With this in mind, I’d at least try and make sure you have a little bit of core strength. This will help you to maintain a good posture and therefore keep your balance which will mean you’re not over-stressing your muscles in order to make sure you remain seated in the saddle.

What are the other benefits of horse riding?

The benefits of horse riding go far beyond just that of exercise, it can be extremely therapeutic too. Studies have shown that being around animals can not only positively boost your mood but can also help to relax you and lower your heart rate. 

As well as the benefits to your health and mood horse riding also has a number of other advantages too, after all as Sir Winston Churchill once said “no hour of life is lost that’s spent in the saddle”. Some of the other benefits of horse riding include:

  • Posture – We’re always told that if you don’t have good posture you won’t be in full control of your horse, nor have proper balance but sitting in the saddle with a good position also reduces lower back pain as well as tension in your shoulders and neck. What you might not realize though is that good posture in the saddle leads to good posture out of it too.
  • Coordination – Horse riders are great at multitasking, and I’m not talking about riding, talking on the phone, and munching on a candy bar. I mean their ability to not only use a range of aids (such as hands, legs, voice, seat, etc) at any one time but to also use them in varying degrees depending on the situation at hand.
  • Reflexes – Horses can be unpredictable, especially when you start to relax, so the rider needs to be able to react straightaway to the horse’s behavior. This often needs to be done before the brain has had a chance to work out what’s happening, so the rider needs to rely on their instincts and reflexes.
  • Problem-solving – Riders need to learn to problem solve and make decisions quickly, after all, if your horse is showing signs of rearing or is getting anxious about something in front of them you’ll need to act quickly and safely, for the sake of both you and your horse.
  • Socialization – The horse community is a very social one, everybody helps everybody out and many a friend is made for life.

No hour of life is lost that’s spent in the saddle

Sir Winston S. Churchill

What is the weight limit for riding a horse?

If you’re worried that you won’t be able to go horse riding because of your weight you probably don’t need to worry. Horses are generally very strong and can carry a lot more weight than you might think. As with all people, all horses are different so just because you can ride one horse it doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to ride every horse. 

Before you start riding you might want to check out this article I wrote recently about what size horse you should be riding.

What’s the best form of horse riding for losing weight?

Everybody’s different and we all burn calories at different rates from each other but the chart below will act as a guide to the number of calories the ‘average’ person might burn per hour. 

Type of horse ridingNumber of calories burnt
Number of calories burnt during various types of horse riding

Can you ride a horse too much?

I know it sounds like I’m being evasive when I say how long you can ride a horse for is a bit like asking how long a piece of string is but there are too many variables to be able to give a definitive, one size fits all, answer. 

How old the horse is, how fit he is (as well as how fit you are), what his workload is, and even what the weather’s like can all play a role in how often (and even long) you can ride a horse. If your horse is fit and recovers quickly from exercise then there’s no reason why you couldn’t ride your horse every day, as long as you vary the workload.

I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.

Recommended products 

Over the years I have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.

  • Horse Knots by Reference Ready – If you’re like me and enjoy pocket reference guides then you’ll love this knot tying guide. These handy cards can easily fit in your pocket or attach to the saddle for quick reference. They’re waterproof, durable and are color coded to make them easy to follow.
  • Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them from getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
  • TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
  • Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
  • Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.
  • Rectal thermometer – I know this isn’t glamourous at all but it’s vital for your horse’s well-being to be able to check their temperature and a rectal thermometer is the easiest way of doing this which is why I’ve added it to the list.

Shopping lists

I’ve also put together a few shopping lists of essential items that I’ve found helpful over the years. I’ve broken the lists down into different categories rather than put everything in one massive list 😉

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