Finding Fitness on the Back of a Horse
Following my joy in the stables has allowed me to reap more health benefits than going to the gym ever could.
I hate going to the gym. I loathe it.
BLASPHEMY, I know. Especially coming from a physical therapist. Take my license away.
I don’t hate working out, though, or getting exercise, or being healthy and fit, or being outside. I just really don’t like boring, gym-based, exercise routines.
So what’s a girl to do? Well, get creative, I guess. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from years of treating patients who promise to do their PT homework but don’t follow through, it’s this: If exercise doesn’t excite you, you won’t do it — and you definitely won’t stick with it long term.
My chosen fitness routine might surprise you, but there’s only one activity that keeps me coming back for more — even after a 20-year hiatus.
Ever since I was a young, carefree, wild child, I’ve had a profound and deep love of horses.
I feel a connection to them, and I love everything about them: the way they look, how they smell, the sound of leather and buckles, the clip-clop of horse hooves on the ground, the sounds of hay munching, soft nose kisses, and the rhythmic motion of brushing them.
After a 20-year break to get married, get my doctorate, finish residency, have kids, and move all over this country for work, I finally have found myself back in the saddle at almost 40 years young.
During that 20 years, I tried to replace riding with other activities. Yoga, Pilates, running, triathlon, and spinning were all short-lived experiences for me. I enjoyed them and felt good doing them, but something was missing.
Looking back, I think I was trying to convince myself to love them. And we all know the truth comes out in the wash. Nothing was able to fill the void until I got on the back of a horse.
The barn is my happy place, and I am able to fill my figurative cup just by being there. I would rather spend my day at the hot (or freezing), dirty, smelly barn, mucking out stalls, cleaning water buckets, sweeping up barn aisles, oiling my saddle and bridle, hauling rocks out of pastures, and caring for my horse than spending time at a gym. Any day.
Aside from finding joy and being able to participate in something that is just for me (which is SO important as a mom), riding provides fitness benefits that most people never realize.
This is clear if you’ve ever taken a 20-year hiatus and then tried to walk around Target the day after your first ride back. Cue the Bambi on ice scene.
I have been told over the years, by non-riders, that riding is “easy” and that “you just sit there,” but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The best riders make it look easy and effortless, have beautiful riding posture, and steady hands and legs.
They look soft, strong, and perfectly balanced. You know how they do it? Years of practice, hours upon hours in the saddle, and a remarkably strong core.
Horses respond to “contact” or “aides.” The slightest shift in weight, a gentle tap on the reins with one finger, moving your leg a centimeter behind the girth, or moving your seat all tell the horse what you want them to do.
Now imagine doing all of that on a moving animal, at different speeds, while steering, navigating obstacles, and staying balanced, without holding your breath, for hours at a time.
The best attributes of all sports can be gained on the back of a horse: strength, balance, coordination, flexibility (ever try to get on a horse from the ground?), mental toughness, endurance, cardiovascular fitness, a clear mind, and trust.
Riding requires an unbelievable amount of core strength, coupled with a high level of cardiovascular endurance. It has also been shown to increase both static and dynamic balance (1,
Studies have shown that healthy adults and older adults, who are not experienced riders, see an improvement in balance, coordination, and strength after participating in riding programs (
These improvements can decrease the risk of falls, which we know can be serious for older adults (
But the research shows that the benefits of equestrian activities extend into mental health, too (
Children with cerebral palsy, adults recovering from stroke, patients with psychiatric disabilities, and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) all experience decreased stress and anxiety, improved balance and strength, and report improved quality of life through hippotherapy (11,
Studies have also shown improvement in mood and concentration in adults and children with schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD (
These benefits align with what I feel on a horse, too. I get so much more out of riding for an hour than I do at the gym, both physically and mentally.
I leave the barn dripping in sweat, sore, exhausted, starving, and HAPPY. And I keep coming back for more, day in and day out, rain or shine.
Horses, and the connection they provide, are magical. There just isn’t another word for it. Sharon Ralls Lemon said, “The essential joy of being with horses is that it brings us in contact with the rare elements of grace, beauty, spirit, and fire.”
I feel this in my bones when I ride my horse. When I’m riding, I feel truly free and truly my own. I get lost in my thoughts while cleaning out a stall. The entire experience is meditative and joy-inducing, and I can’t get enough.
As a result, I am stronger, happier, more patient, and WAY more fit than I was just 2 years ago. I have hay in my car, dirt under my nails, white horse hair stuck to my clothes, and mud on my boots. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Marcy is a board certified women’s health physical therapist and has a passion to change the way women are cared for during and after their pregnancies. She’s the proud mama bear to two boys, drives a mini van shamelessly, and loves the ocean, horses, and a good glass of wine. Follow her on Instagram to learn more than you want to know about vaginas, and to find links to podcasts, blog posts, and other publications related to pelvic floor health.