Who works harder, the human or the horse?

“Horseback riding isn’t really exercise. The horse does all the work.”

Oh, boy. If I had a nickel for every time I heard that, I could probably cover my horse’s monthly board.

The horse definitely carries the weight, packing the rider and the saddle and tack around. He walks and trots and canters (or walks and jogs and lopes) circles in the arena or miles on the trail. He leaps over jumps, zips around barrels, or stomps through streams.

But the rider gets a workout too.

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Sure, the most advanced and polished equestrians make horseback riding look effortless. They pilot their athletic mounts as if by mind control alone. The cream of the crop makes it look easy.

But it’s not. If you ride horses, you know better. Those folks are working overtime up there. It’s just imperceptible to the casual observer.

“You’re working too hard,” my own trainer has said (more than once). Curiously, that usually happens when I am already tired, so my riding form and technique is sort of falling apart. At such times, I know in my head how I should be riding, but it doesn’t seem to translate to my extremities. (Maybe you’ve been there.)

Horseback riding does get simpler with practice, but it still takes effort.

It’s not only a matter of improved fitness (in both horse and human), although that’s certainly important.

Most definitely, a rank beginner displays a lot more physical exertion atop the horse, thumping and bumping and bouncing and maybe even hollering in the process. Don’t all of us tend to exaggerate cues when we first practice them? Eventually, as we and our horses build stronger and more sensitive partnerships, we find we can tone things down a bit. A slight seat shift, a soft squeeze of the legs, a harder step in one stirrup, or a gentle tickling of the rein can accomplish much – once we reach that point.

But the rider never checks out.

More than a few veteran trainers have instructed mounted students to “ride every step.” Some of us have high-energy horses that require plenty of half-halts or lots of gait transitions and riding patterns, just to keep their attention. Others have equines that need frequent nudges forward to maintain  forward impulsion and encourage collection. It all counts.

And any seasoned equestrian keeps his or her guard up, even during the most relaxing ride. Anything is possible. (Some of us have emergency room bills to prove it.)

That’s why they call it sport.

And as far as exercise is concerned, a real equestrian exerts plenty while fetching the horse from the pasture, cleaning off all that mud and dust, combing out his mane and tail, lifting and picking out hooves, lugging and putting on the saddle and tack, and performing all sorts of other related tasks. That is, unless the horse happens to reside in a fancy full-service stable, where the equestrian simply pays the bill and rides the polished horse. (Don’t get me started on that.)

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