As a dedicated dressage rider, I cannot tell you how many times people have told me, “But you just sit there, the horse does all the work…” or some other variation. Over the years, I have learned to grit my teeth and school my face into a pleasant expression of bland indifference; it continues to both boggle my mind and test my temper. However, after being told by my doctor that I was not allowed to exercise for two months, I was more than happy to agree with all the people that claimed horse riding was not exercise. At this point, it will be more than clear that my opinion is hardly unbiased, but what do the scientists say? Is horse riding and exercise, and if so, what type of exercise is it, and how many calories does it burn?
The rider’s calorie consumption is dependent on the type of riding done, duration & frequency, the rider’s relative fitness, gender, age & health status. For example, a 76kg female riding for 1hr will burn between 142 calories for a walking hack and 709 calories for cross-country jumping.
Every year, there is the “No Stirrups November” challenge. Word to the wise, if your instructor says they want you to participate, RUN! The sadistic month of torture will convince any naysayer that horse riding is truly an exercise as they curl into a pitiful ball of burning abs and tortured thighs. If that’s not enough, thousands of riders across the globe joined the Your Horse 1000 mile hacking challenge 1 or the Myhackathon 2 endorsed by Charlotte Dujardin. But, while riders might dutifully rack up hundreds and thousands of miles hacking their horses out, is the horse the only one burning calories, or is the rider feeling the burn as well?
The American Heart Associations Guidelines For Exercise
The increasing levels of urbanization of first world populations have seen a concurrent decrease in activity levels and an increase in many lifestyle exacerbated diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
Exercise Recommendations For Adults
The American Heart Association 3 recommends that adults between the ages of 18 years and 65 years adhere to the following minimum requirements:
- Increase the quantity and intensity of training gradually over time to avoid exercise-related injuries
- Exercise for a minimum of 150 minutes per week doing moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise or 75 minutes per week doing high-intensity cardiovascular workouts. It is much safer and more beneficial to spread out the exercise sessions over a couple of days, allowing you to exercise for a short time every day or every second day.
- Do moderate to high-intensity strength training at least twice a week for 30 minutes per session.
- Where possible, leverage your lifestyle to allow you to be more mobile and less sedentary, e.g., taking the stairs instead of the elevators or parking further away from the shops and right next to the shop entrance.
- Always work with a biokineticist or other health professional if you have comorbidities such as joint or heart problems. These health professionals will ensure that you build your fitness in a safe, systematic manner. After all, you’re trying to get healthy, not kill yourself!
Exercise Recommendations For Children
The exercise recommendations for kids vary slightly from adults.
- Young children under the age of six should be encouraged to participate in physical play. This allows them to develop not only coordination and social skills but also aids them in developing healthy fitness habits while young.
- By associating exercise with play, children will learn to have a positive association with exercise. Most adults learn to hate exercise because it’s difficult and tedious, and painful. Children bypass that negativity and learn to embrace the fun side of physical activity.
- Children between 6 and 17 years should engage in 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise every day.
- The majority of the exercise should be aerobic-based with little to no weight training or high-impact exercise unless working with an experienced coach. This is because children can easily damage their joints and growth plates in the bone, especially during growth spurts when muscles and ligaments become soft and loose to allow the bones to grow.
- Developing good habits during childhood will pay dividends as an adult, especially as time becomes a premium and it becomes harder to prioritize and learn healthy living habits like regular exercise.
How Many Calories Do You Burn in The Different Riding Disciplines?
Numerous studies have proven the benefits of exercise. These studies have been used as the foundation for determining the prescribed minimum exercise requirements as outlined by various health organizations, including the American Heart Association. The recommendations for physical activity typically reference light -, moderate-, and high intensity-exercise levels, but which category does horse riding fall into? Is horse riding aerobic exercise or strength training? Is riding light, moderate, or high-intensity exercise?
Scientific Evidence of Calorie Consumption in Horse Riding
A study conducted by Colleen o’ Reilly and her team 4 in 2015, investigated the rider’s energy expenditure when participating in high-intensity horse activities. They limited their investigation to riders participating in cutting, reining patterns, and a 45 minutes walk, trot and canter ride. Using a telemetric gas analyzer, they investigated the effects of the different riding exercises on total energy expenditure, mean and peak metabolic equivalents of the task, heart rate, respiratory frequency, relative oxygen consumption, and respiratory exchange ratio were assessed.
Metabolic equivalent tasks (METS) are a unit of measure used to describe the number of calories burned or energy expenditure required to keep a body functioning while sitting doing nothing else except existing, i.e., 1 MET is equivalent to burning 1 calorie per hour for every 2.2 pounds or 1 kg of body weight for most adults. Thus 2.5 METS are equivalent to your body is burning 2.5 times more calories (i.e., energy expenditure) than it would be doing if you were sitting still.
Colleen and her team found that short bursts of high-intensity activity characterized both cutting and reining; the walk, trot, canter pattern required sustained effort at a slightly lower intensity. Additionally, they found that while the walk, trot, and canter patterns burned the most calories due to the long, sustained effort required that cutting and reining had higher peak intensities. However, the high peak intensities in reining and cutting were undermined by the long periods of standing still as required in competition environments resulting in a lowered overall calorie consumption.
The riders participating in the test burned on average 194.72 ± 3.8 kcal when performing the 45-minute walk, trot, canter test. These riders could realistically achieve the recommended 1000kcal consumption per week if they rode for 45 minutes six days a week. They could increase the energy expenditure by spending more time in trot and canter than in walk.
Riders participating in cutting and reining could theoretically burn more calories than those completing the 45-minute riding pattern if they increased the time duration of riding effort. However, the strenuous effort required from the cutting and reining horses could result in injury to the horse if they were required to sustain the effort for long periods.
|Type of Riding||Effort Required||Mean METS||Equivalent Exercise|
|Cutting||Short bursts of high intensity||4.53 ± 0.16 MET||Rugby|
|Reining||Short bursts of high intensity||6.12 ± 0.16 MET||Soccer or Football|
|45-minute walk, trot, canter pattern||Long sustained moderate intensity (walk)||2.01 ± 0.21 MET (Walk)||Walking|
|Long sustained moderate intensity (trot)||6.19 ± 0.21 MET (Trot)||Jogging or soccer|
|Long sustained moderate intensity (canter)||5.95 ± 0.21 MET (Canter)||Jogging|
Non-Scientific Reports from Real-Life Riders
The riders on the Horse and Hound forum 5 posted a question about calorie consumption in horse riders. Most of these riders found that flatwork lessons burned approximately 400 calories per hour if the lesson featured more trotting and cantering, and walking.
One rider said that on one particularly memorable day of very fast hunting characterized by more terror-induced adrenaline than she would have liked, she burned 754 calories with a maximum heart rate of 179 bpm and an average heart rate of 134 bpm as measured on her Garmin watch.
A Summary of Calorie Consumption in Different Riding Disciplines
Your level of physical fitness, individual metabolism, age, gender, and other health parameters will all affect how many calories you burn; however, a helpful formula to give you an approximate idea of the number of calories burned is:
Calories burned per minute = (MET x body weight in Kg x 3.5) ÷ 200
An adult female weighing 167,5 pounds (76 kgs) riding for one hour will burn the following number of calories according to the MET parameters for these riding activities.
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|Type of Activity||MET||Calories Burned||Equivalent Exercises||Exercise Category|
|Horse cart, driving, standing, or sitting||1.8||142||Walking slowly or playing a musical instrument like drums||Light|
|Horseback riding, walking||3.8||299||Walking briskly||Moderate|
|Horse racing, walking||3.8||299||Walking briskly||Moderate|
|Rodeo sports, general, light effort||4||315||Bicycling light effort (10 – 12 mph)||Moderate|
|Horse chores (feeding, watering, cleaning stalls)||4.3||339||Heavy cleaning/household chores, e.g., mopping, cleaning windows, scrubbing, etc.||Moderate|
|Saddling, cleaning, grooming, harnessing, and unharnessing||4.5||354||Mowing the lawn or Bicycling light effort (10 – 12 mph)||Moderate|
|Horseback riding, general||5.5||433||Recreational Badminton||Moderate/ High|
|Rodeo sports, general, moderate effort||5.5||433||Recreational Badminton||Moderate/ High|
|Horseback riding, trotting||5.8||457||A competitive game of tennis doubles||Moderate/ High|
|Horse racing, trotting||5.8||457||A competitive game of tennis doubles||Moderate/ High|
|Rodeo sports, general, vigorous effort||7||551||Hiking or jogging at 6 mph||High|
|Horseback riding, canter, or gallop||7.3||575||Jogging at 6 mph or Bicycling fast (14 – 16 mph)||High|
|Horse grooming||7.3||575||Jogging at 6 mph or Bicycling fast (14 – 16 mph)||High|
|Horse racing, galloping||7.3||575||Jogging at 6 mph or Bicycling fast (14 – 16 mph)||High|
|Polo, on horseback||8||630||Basketball game||High (Very Vigorous)|
|Horseback riding, jumping||9||709||High-intensity soccer game or competitive tennis singles||High (Very Vigorous)|
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If mathematics is not your forte and you want to find out how many calories you are burning while riding, click here to access Captain Calculator 6, an online calorie counter that does the hard work for you!
This table demonstrates that the energy expenditure and consequent calorie consumption vary enormously between various riding activities. Thus riding can easily be classified as light, moderate, and high-intensity exercise depending on the type of riding you do!
The greater the duration, intensity, and frequency of riding, the greater the cumulative effect and the more calories you will burn!
Do Professional Riders Burn More Calories Than Amateur Riders?
We know horse riding burns calories but does the rider’s expertise affect the energy expenditure and the number of calories burned? Bong-Ju Sung and the team 7 aimed to answer. The classified amateur riders were riders with less than one year of riding experience, while riders with more than three years of riding experience were classified as elite.
While the likes of Carl Hester, Charlotte Dujardin, and Ludger Beerbaum may argue with Bong-Ju Sung’s requirements for “Elite” riders, that is how the study was structured.
The researchers measured several parameters relating to fitness and calorie consumption during off-horse exercises and an on-horse showjumping exercise.
They found the elite riders scored significantly better in physical strength and fitness tests with lower heart rates, faster recovery times, and calorie consumption. On average amateur, riders consumed 0.84 kilocalories per minute than the elite riders. These findings showed that horse riding effectively improves aerobic (cardiovascular) fitness and strength (resistance) fitness. Not only was riding shown to improve a rider’s on-horse fitness it was also found to improve the rider’s off-horse fitness and strength.
|Physical Fitness Comparison Between Amateur and Elite Riders when Performing Off-Horse Exercises|
|Exercise Type||Amateur Rider||Elite Rider|
|Grip Strength (Right) (Kgs)||42.71 ± 6.01||48.94 ± 3.07|
|Grip Strength (Left) (Kgs)||45.40 ± 7.64||48.31 ± 4.97|
|Back Strength (Kgs)||112.43 ± 21.79||136.57 ± 21.10|
|Push-ups (number per minute)||33.57 ± 12.45||40.00 ± 11.11|
|Sit-ups (number per minute)||38.86 ± 10.90||45.14 ± 13.28|
|Sit and reach (cm)||12.09 ± 10.17||19.31 ± 10.14|
|Side steps (number per 20 seconds)||38.14 ± 3.13||38.71 ± 5.09|
|Standing on one leg with eyes closed (seconds)||27.74 ± 16.01||58.29 ± 27.54|
|VO2max (mL/kg/min)||46.68 ± 9.78||50.64 ± 8.15|
All the riders participating in this study did no other exercise except horse riding; thus, the results obtained are due solely to the effect of horse riding on physical fitness. If this is what three years of riding does for you, can you imagine what the fitness of the truly “elite” riders is, the ones that train all day riding multiple horses at a very high level of intensity? No wonder professional rider’s often have a slim, streamlined physique!
Getting Fit for Riding
While riding may get you fit, riders, like other athletes, benefit from cross-training. Cross-training allows us to address the areas that may become weak or tight due to riding and purposefully target the muscles needed to maximize our riding capabilities.
Almost all off-horse equestrian exercises will focus on four key areas:
- Strength: Stability and control in the saddle are primarily due to a strong core that allows riders to move their arms and legs independently of the torso. One of the primary maxims of any dressage master or elite equestrian athlete is the importance of an independent seat. It is impossible to have an independent seat if you rely on your hands and legs to stay balanced; instead, your balance must come from muscular support and dynamic stabilization of the pelvis and spine.
- Balance: While strength does aid in balance, that is not all that is required to remain balanced on a moving horse. Training your body to adapt and continually make subtle changes in response to balance challenges will make riding feel effortless and look elegant.
- Body awareness: Proprioception is our ability to recognize where our body is in space. While this may seem silly and intuitive, it is not as easy as it sounds. Many riding instructors have asked a rider to move their leg back or relax the hip only for there to be zero response. Most of us have developed habitually asymmetrical patterns of moving that have been normalized in our brains; in short, our brains can no longer recognize when we are standing, sitting, or moving skew. Adding a horse to the equation often makes the whole process even harder. One of the primary aspects a good fitness plan will focus on is making you aware of where your body is, what it’s doing and how to move symmetrically. Learning how to isolate and move different body parts independently is key to improving your riding!
- Flexibility: We all have muscles, ligaments, and tendons that have grown tight. When riding, these tight muscles can cause pain and compensatory movements that negatively impact your riding. For example, tight hip flexors will cause you to arch your back, tilt forward and ride with a “closed” hip to compensate for tight hip flexors. This position will increase the impact on your hips and lower back and destabilize your seat, making you ineffective as a rider.
Horse riding burns calories. The number of calories burnt depends on the type of riding done, the duration, and frequency. High-intensity exercises like cantering, showjumping, and cutting burn more calories than low-intensity exercises such as doing a mostly walking outride or carriage ride. Regardless of the type of activity you are doing, the longer your ride and the more frequently you ride, the more calories you will burn.
The cumulative effects of riding at a moderate intensity 4 to 6 times a week will be more than sufficient to achieve the minimum exercise requirements as set out by the American Heart Association. Riding will also improve both your strength and cardiovascular fitness on and off the horse.
- Your Horse. 2021. Hack 1000 Miles | Your Horse. [online] Available at: <https://www.yourhorse.co.uk/hacking/> [Accessed 15 June 2021].
- Fundraise.thebrooke.org. 2021. Brooke’s MyHackathon 2021 : Home. [online] Available at: <https://fundraise.thebrooke.org/my-hackathon-2021> [Accessed 15 June 2021].
- www.heart.org. 2021. American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids. [online] Available at: <https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/aha-recs-for-physical-activity-in-adults> [Accessed 15 June 2021].
- O’Reilly, C., Zoller, J., Sigler, D., Vogelsang, M., Sawyer, J. and Fluckey, J., 2021. Rider Energy Expenditure During High Intensity Horse Activity. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 102, p.103463.
- Forum, H., Room, T. and Verian, H., 2021. Calories burnt in dressage training?. [online] Horse and Hound Forum. Available at: <https://forums.horseandhound.co.uk/threads/calories-burnt-in-dressage-training.758539/> [Accessed 15 June 2021].
- Captain Calculator. 2021. Calories Burned Horseback Riding | Calculator & Formula – Captain Calculator. [online] Available at: <https://captaincalculator.com/health/calorie/calories-burned-horseback-riding-calculator/> [Accessed 15 June 2021].
- Sung, B.J., Jeon, S.Y., Lim, S.R., Lee, K.E. and Jee, H., 2015. Equestrian expertise affecting physical fitness, body compositions, lactate, heart rate and calorie consumption of elite horse riding players. Journal of exercise rehabilitation, 11(3), p.175.