When you watch an experienced rider seem to balance lightly and effortlessly on a cantering horse’s back, you’d be forgiven for thinking that horse riding is easy. This is far from the case, and horseback riding most certainly is a sport!
Humans have used horses in sport for a long time — horse racing, for example, is said to date back to 4500 BC. When we think back to medieval times, we think about jousting, which dates back to 1400 CE. Since then, a multitude of games and horse sports have evolved.
Additionally, horse owners can reap a variety of health benefits simply by riding in their own paddock. Let’s explore horseback riding as a sport in more depth.
Why Can Horseback Riding Be Considered a Sport?
Today, horseback riding is a popular Olympic sport. In addition to this, sporting events involving horses take place on a daily basis in the horse world. Dressage, showjumping, and endurance riding are three common horsing events. Team sports involving horses include horse soccer, equestrian drill team, and, probably the most famous of all — polo.
Let’s unpack a few of the most common horse sports and events.
The word “dressage” is French and is translated as “to train”. As an event, dressage is basically a series of tests for the rider and the horse. The rider will have already trained with the horse and knows which moves they must perform together. A panel of judges then scores them from 1-10.
The movements can range from the basic paces like trot, canter, and walk to more complex, elegant moves like passage and piaffe. It can take years to professionally train a horse for dressage and requires a great deal of endurance and persistence. If we take into account also that the rider’s sole teammate is a horse with its own personality and attitude, it truly puts how difficult dressage can be into perspective.
Showjumping is a sport in which the rider and horse must jump over a number of obstacles in a set amount of time. The competitor is judged on factors like the number of faults (did the horse knock any poles off the fence?), their level of skill, and the time it took to complete the course. If two competitors are tied, judges determine the winner by the length of time taken.
If you are considering training your horse for show jumping, event rider Caroline Moore recommends 40 minutes of showjumping training per day. This is to be “broken up by short bursts of intense activity”. An article by Horseandcountry.tv recommends starting with low fences and gradually building up.
If you imagine running a marathon, this is kind of what endurance riding is like for a horse. It’s pretty simple to get your head around — it basically involves racing a long-distance course. The first to cross the finish line is the winner. Vets are on hand at various checkpoints to make sure the horse is fit to continue.
It goes without saying that endurance riding requires a great deal of both mental and physical stamina for the rider and horse. Horses must be in absolute tip-top physical condition to safely compete. Owners must be prepared to train regularly with their horses to prepare them properly for the event.
The owner must be vigilant and check for changes in their horse’s physical state consistently to ensure that continuing training is a good idea, as with any other sporting event. Matchyhorsey.co.uk’s beginner’s guide to endurance riding mentions that health checks should include the following:
- How is the horse’s pulse? (30-44bmp is considered normal)
- Is there any mouth bruising from the bit?
- Are there any signs of muscle soreness or back issues?
- Any symptoms of sweat rash?
- How high is the horse’s temperature (38C/101F is normal)?
- Are there any new lumps and bumps on the body?
- Is the respiration rate normal (“between 8 and 14 breaths per minute at rest.”?
- Is the horse dehydrated? You can pinch the skin to check for dehydration.
The goal of horse soccer is simple — get a (very large) ball through a set of goalposts. You got it — it’s pretty much soccer for horses. The great thing about horse soccer is there’s no set number of players — player numbers range from 2-8. Due to the relaxed rules of horse soccer, it is often played simply for fun.
Equestrian Drill Team
Equestrian drill team is a sport involving a team of riders performing a synchronized, choreographed routine. It’s pretty stunning to watch and is a fantastic teamwork sport because each rider and horse has an important role in the performance. Horse communities sometimes form their own drill teams, so look out for drill teams in your local area!
Ah, Polo — the sport that conjures up images of mallets flying here, there, and everywhere, watched by tea-sipping aristocrats. The point of Polo is to hit a ball through a goalpost using a mallet — this is how points are scored. There are four players to a team and the teams switch sides after each goal.
Ben Johnson, in his article “The Origins of Polo” explains that Polo was played in the middle ages as a part of cavalry training. He also mentions the possibility of Polo being the oldest team sport. Polo is a sport that requires building up a lot of strength, particularly in the arms.
Can I Take Up Horseback Riding as a Sport?
The fact that official, recognized sporting events using horses take place is not the only reason why horseback riding is a sport. If you’re a beginner rider and have dismounted feeling a bit jittery and battered, you’ll no doubt have felt great respect for those who have trained for long, long years to become expert riders. People who ride horses spend a long time developing their muscles and flexibility. It stands to reason that they also reap a lot of health benefits from doing this.
So, yes — you can most certainly take up horseback riding as a great form of exercise.
The Physical Health Benefits of Horseback Riding
It’s widely known that sport is good for us. The good news is that you don’t need to be a professional equestrian or dressage champion to reap the health benefits of horseback riding. Whether you ride competitively or simply because you love it, The British Horse Society(BHS) recommends riding for both physical and mental health benefits.
A study commissioned by BHS found that riding at a trot burns up to 600 calories. They also mention that even without riding your horse, you’re still burning calories by completing horse-related tasks like mucking out, shoveling, and general stable work.
“Studies have proven this can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by up to 35%.” (The British Horse Society)
When you learn to ride a horse, you also learn correct posture and balance to ride effectively. This is what works your core muscles and helps develop those rock-hard thigh muscles that riders often have. So, it seems that horseback riding both as a sport and as a hobby can help keep you physically fit and healthy.
The Mental Health Benefits of Horseback Riding
The British horse society also mentioned improved mental health as a benefit. If you own a horse, you know that it’s impossible to not be active as they require a lot of special care, from cleaning out stables to exercising, brushing, and washing. The list of requirements for horse owners is pretty huge.
Owning a horse forces you to stay active even if you don’t want to, which can be beneficial to your mental and emotional state. Doing something you love, like going for a ride, can help clear your mind and reduce stress. Horses can also provide comfort and companionship to those going through difficult times. Read more in our article on the ways horses show affection!
- Horseback riding is most definitely a sport. There are several sports involving horses and many require lengthy training, sometimes over a period of years. This is just like any other athlete in any other sport involving only humans.
- Horseback riding as a sport has a long history that dates back thousands of years.
- Common events involving horses are dressage, show jumping and endurance riding. Common games include Polo, horse soccer and equestrian drill team.
- Sports involving horses have rules, just like any other sport.
- Horseback riding, though made to look effortless by experienced riders, takes a lot of practice to be able to do properly.
- Riders become stronger, more flexible and learn better coordination due to the nature of riding.
- You can get a full physical workout not only by riding, but also by attending to your horse’s general needs. This includes exercising your horse.
Researching horse ownership can truly give us a whole new level of respect for the horse community! The years of training both themselves and a horse — whether that is to compete or for personal enjoyment — must take a commendable amount of mental and physical fortitude.
In terms of the games themselves, as long as the competing horses are healthy, happy and well-cared for, there’s no reason not to enjoy horseback riding events. The health and welfare of both the horse and the rider must always come first.
If you are interested in joining a horse sports team or taking up riding, be sure to check out what’s going on in your local area. You never know what you might find!