Horseback Riding: Is It a Sport?

rider galloping
Riding requires strength, balance and skill and can be very competitive. Image:Evelyn Steinweg/Getty Images

Horseback riding is not a sport! After all, all you do is sit there and the horse does all the work, right? Anyone can ride a horse!

It is statements like this that make riders roll their eyes and wish they could plunk the questioner on a horse, point them at a jump, hand them a dressage test, or send them down a fifty-mile trail and see what the answer would be once they were finished their ride.

Horseback riding is a sport. There is no question about that. It's one of the oldest sports and fulfills every definition of sport. Why do people think it is so easy? Because often, the only exposure they've had to equestrianism are professionals on television, whose riding is so skilled they make it look effortless, or dude-string type horses, who are saintly enough to carry unbalanced, unskilled human cargo. What the average non-rider doesn't see are the hours of practice, the sore muscles, bruising, and chafing not to mention the mental challenge that riders undergo to make it all look easy.

The Australian Sports Commission defines a sport as: “a human activity capable of achieving a result requiring physical exertion and/or physical skill, which, by its nature and organization, is competitive and is generally accepted as being a sport.” So, by that definition, there is no doubt that horseback riding is a sport. Let’s look at how it fulfills that definition.

Competition

Sport often means there is a competitive side to an activity. And horseback riding definitely provides the opportunity for that. Even if it appears that the horse is being judged, the horse is rarely better than the trainer or rider who prepared it. So it still takes hours of human physical activity until a horse is competition ready. There is a huge list of competitive disciplines in the horse world, and success in one doesn't mean a rider will be good in another, any more than a downhill skier could automatically expect to be equally skilled in cross-country skiing. However, all require a level of fitness and skill.

Athleticism

Sports require and build fitness: muscle strength, balance, flexibility, agility and overall body awareness. Even after a short ride, non-riders will notice certain muscles will be quite sore. Riding requires a few muscles that aren't often used in other sports. The control it takes to use rein, leg and seat aids to influence a horse requires refined body awareness somewhat similar to a gymnast. While it's not necessary to be a bodybuilder to ride, dealing with an animal many times larger than yourself does require some physical presence.

Mental Exercise

Skill, strategy, reasoning, memory and confidence are required in most sports, and it is no different for riding. Memorizing dressage tests and jump courses, following trail maps, choosing the safest route on a trail ride, deciding the most effective way to handle a horse that is acting up (that sometimes requires split-second timing) and always being aware of what your horse is thinking is a mental exercise. Football players may spend weeks memorizing a play. Riders also memorize how they will ride a particular course or cue a horse for a specific move, often within minutes of competing. However, they also need to be mentally flexible enough to change course instantaneously if the horse misbehaves, spooks or somehow the 'playing field' suddenly changes.

Aerobics and Calorie Burning

Trot a few circles and you'll also find that horseback riding is an aerobic and calorie burning activity as well. According to healthstatus.com, a 150 lb person riding a horse at a walk would burn 171 calories per hour, which is almost identical to walking on foot 2 miles per hour.  While trotting 441 calories are burned in an hour, and 549 calories are burned in an hour of galloping. Compare this to an hour of golf, carrying your clubs at 414 calories, or running at 7mph at 783 calories. Very few riders just ride and grooming, stall cleaning, carrying hay bales and feed bags means not only is the activity of riding aerobic, but the activities required to prepare to ride are also cardio building and fat burning.

Rules and Regulations

Sports are often governed by strict rules and may be played at an amateur or professional level. Open the rule book of any equestrian discipline and you'll likely find a very strict set of regulations that not only outline the 'rules of the game' but may include rules about clothing, saddlery, bits, the size or type of horse and many other details.

Try This At Home

If you're still not convinced horseback riding is a sport, you should take a riding lesson with a coach who understands your opinion. After a very short time, you might agree that horseback riding does indeed fulfill the definition of a sport.