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As you can guess, the subject of obesity among riders is not one that can be discussed easily without a cloud of controversy. I don’t wish to stir an argument but simply share my thoughts on the matters of riding fitness and weight issues from a riding instructor point of view. I’ll start with looking at horse riding as a fitness routine and then share my thoughts on using it for weight loss.
RIDING FOR FITNESS
In my view, on average, there are really only two stages in which the rider truly and fully appreciates the requirement of own balance, mental focus, muscular effort and core stability needed for good riding. First one is the early lessons stage on the lunge or otherwise when postural habits and behaviours are explained and taught: staying in harmony with the motion, first rising trot, first sitting trot, first canter. Second stage is when a rider first learns about their share of responsibility for the balance of the horse.
Outside of these two stages or if the rider never experiences proper tuition at the time, it is somewhat easy to overlook the element of own fitness in horse riding at lower levels.
Travelling on horseback vs horse riding
For the purpose of Aspire riding courses I divide horse enthusiasts into two groups:
1) ‘Passengers’ – riders who get on a horse to travel. They expect no effort, the horse should have a go and stop and turn buttons, comfortable saddle and should be unaffected by either rider’s posture, weight or riding abilities. Riders in this group might be of any level, from beginners through occasional riders to competition riders. Attitude is irrelevant of experience I find.
2) ‘Riders’ – riders of any level who want to improve own skills to pursue preferred way of riding be it hacking, dressage, jumping, general schooling etc and who have minimal to extensive understanding that horse riding, whether done as a recreation or amateur sport, requires muscular, mental and cardiovascular effort to various degrees.
The main difference between the two, especially at lower levels, is earlier mentioned attitude and perception of the horse’s “job”.
Travelling on horseback rarely has any real fitness benefits for the ‘passenger’ and it’s the horse who does 99% of the work with the rider just choosing the way to go (sometimes just following another horse). Here is also where many rider’s strains and problems can occur like back pain, joint pain or muscle cramps due to the ‘passenger”s relative lack of responsibility for own posture. Sadly, these issues are then said to be the problems of horse riding in general.
I am personally the happiest in my job when focusing on the group number two. It doesn’t matter whether riders want to ultimately be happy hackers, never compete or whether they dream of Olympic medals one day. It’s the drive to be the best they can be for their horses or horses they ride at a riding school whilst enjoying the level of riding they find most suited to them – teaching these kind of riders is what drives me in my work. The kind of training or lessons they do is also where to me, riding can be a fantastic way for active, fit and healthy lifestyle.
I would like to share with you an interesting fact…I have taught quite a few riders over the 20 years of my teaching journey and observed that horses don’t go better or remain healthier for riders who love them more or who know more about them but for those who respect them more…What I mean by this is that if a rider has a respect for the horse they ride, they do all they can to carry themselves in own self-carriage. And the process of acquiring such self-carriage is the most amazing fitness and wellness routine out there…
Having said that, I disagree with the notion of using horses as gym equipment, they are more of a master-motivator, challenger, maintainer and a condition tester 😉 We ride and we discover which of our motor skills need working on, which emotions need attention, which behaviours need improvement.
Then we need to find ways to improve those areas and so a supplementary plan of action is put in place. We might need to move more and sit less, we might need to address certain areas of our diet, perhaps we need to stretch something and strengthen something else. Maybe we need to learn to be calmer, less aggressive or more assertive and energetic. Perhaps our overall body balance needs attention, or our posture, or attitude to others. Before we know it, we can have a nice little wellness routine going so we are a partner not a burden for our horse(s).
Horse riding, when treated as a progressive learning process of certain skills rather than as a “sit on a horse, pull here, kick there and off you go” will maintain and improve your fitness, I have absolutely no doubt about it.
On so many levels…
You know that feeling you get hacking through the narrow green lanes between stubble fields with sun adding so much contrast to the colours around you that you have to squint your eyes to look? The scent of leaves, the sound of bird songs? Or the absolute focus on minute movements in your dressage lessons? Adrenaline rush approaching a cross country jump? The studious precision with which you make your transition to canter so you can get the perfect amount of impulsion and control at the take off to your jump? Or the evening after work when you walk on the yard and your horse’s head looks out of the door, looks at you? How do you feel?
At times I see horse riding as the multi-disciplinary therapy which, when utilised in the right way, can enrich our lives beyond our expectations.
RIDING FOR WEIGHT LOSS
Now, since riding can be so beneficial for ones health and since obesity is currently one of the biggest health issues in the UK, the crucial question is – should we promote horse riding for weight loss?
The way I see it, horse industry is so diverse that people of all shapes and sizes can get involved in various equine activities. If a person is too heavy or unfit to ride a horse, they can slowly work their way into a weight that doesn’t compromise horse’s welfare.
What’s too heavy though?
When it comes to riding I personally would not teach any obese adult and would assess case by case when it comes to overweight novice to experienced riders. If you click on the underlined words above you can read the exact definition of both based on BMI (body mass index) formula.
Most riding centres I have worked with have a weight limit of 14 stone (88.9kg / 196pounds) plus horse’s tack (which can add a stone), rarely 15 stone plus tack, which corresponds with type of horses they have and kind of lessons they do. As long as an overweight rider can be matched with a suitable horse (so rider + tack doesn’t exceed 15% of the horse’s normal weight) and is willing to work on oneself, I will teach with pleasure.
It’s easy for me to control the situation when dealing with riders without own horses but everything becomes much more complicated when teaching horse owners. I have not had an extreme experience yet which I heard or seen other instructors having to deal with.
Over the last 20 years I noticed a considerable shift in how riding establishments handle their weight limit policy. When I first worked at a yard for lessons at 14 no obese person would even ask to get on a horse. I doubt the understanding of horse’s welfare was greater than it is now but somehow people instinctively knew that if they struggle to maintain good balance on the ground due to their size or sometimes even simply walk well with a good posture, they should not inflict themselves on an animal to carry them. If they didn’t consider themselves obese and did enquire we simply said it was not possible for our horses to carry them in lesson environment.
Serious health issues aside, obesity is a reversible condition that requires discipline and commitment to tackle – two qualities that are also great attributes of any rider. From my experience of preparing heavily overweight people to ride, once they set their mind on the goal of riding, they are one of the most rewarding of pupils.
If you are too heavy to ride dear reader, and you are desperate to be around horses, you don’t have to wait until you lose enough weight to start learning. Here are my suggestions for a little game plan for obese of heavily overweight horse enthusiasts who want to get ready for riding lessons.
- find a riding school or a friend with horses if you already have some experience, where you can groom 3 to 5 horses per visit. Commit to come at least once a week and give all the horses very thorough groom doing it correctly i.e. changing hands when changing sides. Grooming is a great exercise for the rider-to-be: it builds trust and connection with the horse and it gives both sides of your body a steady, gentle but effective work out. If it hurts your back or knees to pick out feet leave it for now and focus on the rest of the horse. As you groom, you can learn about conformation, muscle development, injuries, back issues – in fact, I have done fairly comprehensive, practical lessons that didn’t involve any riding yet brought a lot of satisfaction and motivation to the person involved.
- address your diet – sooner the better. Find what works for you, be it Weight Watchers or other formal groups or simply own determination.
- get yourself in a pool regularly. Swimming is a great exercise for anyone carrying spare weight due to joint relief.
- try yoga. It focuses your mind and incredibly strengthens your whole body. It’s one of the best exercise routines for riders I discovered last year and now, after some months of practice I can really feel its benefits. Go yoga.
- book in-hand lessons: working with horses in-hand is like a power walk, intense riding theory and fresh oxygen mask in one. Keep them short to start with – 30 minutes is plenty. You will learn more about riding in two months of weekly in-hand lessons than in six months of weekly riding lessons…Trust me here 😉
As you gain fitness and lose pounds/kgs, keep your eyes open for a suitable horse to ride that can cope well with a larger rider without undue stress on own body. Search for:
- a horse of a breed traditionally bred as a riding/weight carrying horse: Norwegian Fjords, Iberian horses from older, bigger boned lines, Haflingers, Highlands, cobs and draft x (be watchful with lighter types of cobs and also draft horses as although seemingly massive the latter are often bred for pulling power not for carrying ability and can have surprisingly weak backs)
- a horse with a fairly wide, well muscled back and loin area
- go for a mature horse that is done with his skeletal development, check individual breeds for details but generally avoid horses younger than 6 years old,
- a horse whose shoulder and back conformation can accommodate a saddle in which you can comfortably sit in the right (centred) spot (without your seat pressing onto the back of the saddle)
I would personally prefer to see horse riding being strongly promoted as a prevention NOT cure for national obesity problem. Rather than riding being an outdoor gym for obese enthusiasts I would like to see it to be motivation to lose enough weight to be able to ride and further maintain own fitness.
P.S. There is a great national programme set up by BETA together with HOOF and British Equestrian Federation encouraging active and healthy lifestyle with horses, do check them out as often you can take part in very inexpensive lessons via participating centres.
Main Take Up The Reins website: http://www.takeupthereins.co.uk/
What do YOU think ? Please share your views whether you agree with me or not 🙂
Now, as we know our wonderfully legality obsessed world I must stress that although I have a huge interest in both human and equine fitness and physical education I am not a doctor and therefore any suggestions mentioned in this post must not be taken as a qualified advice. If you wish to follow anything I mentioned above, please first consult relevant specialists.
Review of “Evaluation of indicators of weight-carrying ability of light riding horses” by DM Powell, K Bennett-Wimbush, A Peeples, M Duthie, Ohio State University Agricultural Technical Institute, Wooster, Ohio
How Much Weight Can Horses Comfortably Carry? (very interesting study focused on use of Japanese native horses for therapeutic purposes)