Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Ride to Exercise, or Exercise to Ride?

Before I say anything at all, I'm including this video of Jean-Francois Pignon and his mustangs doing impossible things on a beach.  If you're wondering what my answer to the question is, this is a hint:

I won't touch on the amazing training that this man is capable of since I can't begin to fathom how he did this.  Just try to imagine hauling your saggy butt over your horse's head and onto its back.  Any questions?

I'm just resting up from a random act of exercise
Regardless of your chosen riding discipline or training method, one thing remains constant:  Horseback riding is an athletic event.  According to NutriStrategy’s “benefits of exercise” chart, simply sitting on a horse that’s walking around aimlessly burns 148 calories per hour off a 130 pound human.  That’s roughly equivalent to pushing a baby in a stroller.  Trot the horse, and you’re up to 384 calories.  Gallop, and  you’re burning 472 calories, the same as playing lacrosse or rock climbing.  Add more weight to the rider, and the exercise value increases accordingly.  According to Dr. Pamela Peeke (Body for Life for Women), the calorie count is even higher—5 calories per pound of body weight at the walk and more at higher speeds. All of that makes riding an exercise worth the effort and works as an effective strategy when you’re explaining to your family why the mortgage payment is busy chewing hay at a high-priced boarding establishment down the road.

At the same time, look closely at the comparison between riding at a gallop and playing lacrosse or rock climbing.  Odds are you would never consider doing either of those other sports without considerable advance conditioning.  You would probably begin hitting the treadmill on a regular basis if you knew you’d be running flat-out for an hour with a big stick in your hand or hauling your body weight up a climbing wall.  Even the most glib weekend warrior will admit that to skip the conditioning would be to sign on for pain and suffering and possibly long-term recovery from injury.  Unless your sport of choice is Traction, think carefully before you leap.

Every day random folks in no kind of condition hop aboard a horse without a second thought.  Is it any surprise that most falls off horses occur at the walk?  That’s the speed at which beginners ride, and it’s such an easy, comfortable feeling that often sudden movements by the horse are startling enough to send a rider tumbling. 

If that isn’t argument enough for getting in shape before you ride, consider the fact that more and more companies are producing exercise equipment and regimens created specifically for riders.  America’s riders are aging, and manufacturers certainly know a cash cow when they see one, even if the cow's wearing breeches and riding horseback. 

The simplest way to start getting into shape for riding is to walk (on your own, not on your horse).  Riding makes demands on your legs and your “core”—abdominal and lower back muscles—and walking will begin to strengthen those areas.  In addition, walking will build the aerobic stamina necessary for the posting trot, which can be a very difficult thing to master and requires that you be able to do knee-bends at a rapid pace for a prolonged period. 

If you are not interested in walking or don’t have a satisfactory location or have time constraints that prevent it, there are machines available that can help.  The treadmill is the most obvious.  Choose one with pre-programmed routines to keep you interested.  Or you may opt for either of the latest machines geared for core work:  the iJoy “iBoard”—an electronic mechanized snowboard—or the iGallop, which purports to move like a horse, has a saddle-inspired seat, and sports about double the price tag of the board (around $1000).  This is the iGallop.  I chose this video as the others had a certain....prurient quality to them.   But you'll get the idea.  

A much-cheaper balance board (check will do the same job, just be sure you're capable of balancing on your own because it's far less forgiving than the more-expensive alternatives. 

Once you are in some semblance of shape and have begun riding in earnest, you will discover other muscle groups screaming for attention.  This is when a gym membership to a place with Nautilus™ machines will be a gift worth begging for.  In order to build strength and endurance without bulking up, keep increasing the number of repetitions rather than the weight.  Focus on the ad/abductor muscles (inner and outer thighs), lower back, abs and shoulders. 

Of all the exercise programs available for riders right now, perhaps the most rewarding is the yoga type.  Yoga will lengthen and strengthen all your muscle groups with the added benefit of a huge improvement in your balance and your body awareness.  Being aware of all of your body parts is essential to giving appropriate signals (and avoiding giving unwanted ones) on horseback.  Yoga for Riders is an excellent place to start. 

In addition to these suggestions and resources, I would like to mention that the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS) offers the following advice to beginner riders:

  • Stay alert
  • Wear an approved helmet
  • Do not ride if you are tired, under the influence of alcohol, or medicated

They report that in 2004 alone, over 200,000 riding injuries were reported.  That includes only those that required medical treatment, not the hundreds of thousands more that are less traumatic such as pulled muscles, soreness, sprains, and general bumps and bruises, and the ones we won't admit to out of embarrassment.  Most insurance companies consider riding to be an extreme sport, and they’ve been lobbying for years to be absolved of the responsibility of paying for riding injuries.  That’s a good indication of the level of danger you are facing and how vital it is that you approach the sport as you would lacrosse, rock climbing, or any other athletic endeavor.

Ride to exercise, but exercise before you start so that you will have many happy miles in the saddle pain- and injury-free. 

1 comment:

Susan Schreyer said...

Excellent discussion of riding as exercise, Joanne! Nice to get the calorie count, too :) I've been known to (on very cold days when I teach), get on a student's horse for some non-essential demonstration just to warm up. Canter works best -- and your calorie report proves me out :) Love Jean F... (can't spell in French!). I've seen videos of him and some of his horses before, and I have to marvel that his horses would rather play with him than run off and eat!