Can you just ride to keep fit?

Riding is a great exercise that elevates your heart rate, makes you breathe deeper and requires your muscles work hard to maintain balance and rhythm. However should you only ride to maintain your fitness? Or look to include additional work to improve riding performance and health?

From the journals and books I have read they rightly encourage riding as an excellent way to reduce body fat and improve fitness. Maximum heart rate and the ability to use oxygen improve through riding, this is particularly relevant given that the performance of competitive riders is influenced by their aerobic capacity (how well they transport and use oxygen). Despite this most riding is predominately walking and trotting, but this can obviously vary depending on the standard of the rider and what the rider is training for. It’s not surprising that energy and oxygen demands are higher during jumping sessions than dressage and over time fatigue in the rider will occur. Check out the table below, I was impressed and surprised to see such high heart rates for ‘just riding’.

HR (mean and SD)
Walk 106 ± 15
Trot 131 ± 20
Canter 144 ± 18
Jump 176 ± 24
Devienne and Guezennec, 2000

Fatigue will impact performance, a lack of strength will greatly reduce control and balance, a lack of aerobic endurance can impede your concentration, decision making and, during high intensity riding such as jumping, could lead to significant mistakes. Different riding gaits (the pattern of steps of a horse) require increasing efforts from the rider as they have to maintain their balance. Interestingly, research has shown that movement from the rider can increase the horse’s work rate too. As always riding is a two way relationship and let’s not forget the personality traits of the horse too. A horse that needs to be pushed will ultimately require more effort from the rider!

Whilst it may seem plausible to think that just riding is enough, it is in most circumstances unlikely. Whilst riding can improve a riders aerobic capacity there are two things I would like you to consider. One, if your riding is predominately walking and trotting then it’s probably not high enough effort/intensity to keep/get you fit. And two, if you are riding at high intensities this inherently comes with bigger demand and risks, so why play it safe?

Key take home message

  • Additional aerobic training (running, biking, rowing etc.) should be included to a riders training plan to help complement riding performance.
  • Strength training should also be introduced given the large demands placed on the legs, hips and back. This will also help reduce the chance of injury.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Marcel Niessen says:

    Our “measurements” according heart rate of rider and horse showed that while jumping there seams to be a relation between horse and rider. According to aerobic capacity yet there seemed to be large differences.
    We Think that riders can not “survive” without training.
    One of the most astonishing “facts” was that there are a lot of horses who aren’t trained properly if looking at their condition.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. nickubruce says:

    Cool point of view! As a teen riding was “enough”…not so much as an adult!!!! I believe we should take as good care of ourselves as we do our horses. Many owners are borderline obsessive over their horses training schedule, chirp, massage, lessons (aka horse personal trainers, haha), we spend hundreds a month on the best feed and supplements. Imagine the results if we treated our bodies with that much care?


    1. Thanks you your comment, I could not agree more!


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