Gripes about football weight room, soccer pacer tests and lacrosse sprints waft through the breezeway every day in jumbled waves. Heads nod throughout the crowd to signal their accordance with the grumblings. But when I join in, murmuring that my calves burn and my core aches, all heads turn towards me with puzzled looks.
I hear calls of “it’s not a sport,” or “you just sit there, so how could you be sore?” or “doesn’t the horse do all the work?” I used to say nothing, because of the difficulty in describing the hours of blood, sweat and tears us equestrians put into this so-called “not a sport.” But really, horseback riding should not only qualify as a sport, but also as one of the most dangerous and hardest sports to master.
People often underestimate the pure athleticism that is required of horseback riders. All sports require their players to build fitness such as muscle strength, balance, flexibility and body awareness. Horseback riders surpass this requirement because we must use a purely physical presence of voice, rein, leg and seat aids in order to navigate a 1,200-pound animal. A lot of strength is required of a 100 pound person to move those lazy beasts around, as if it were their choice, they would not move. Us equestrians cannot explain to horses what to do with words, we must explain with our body strength.
Not only is strength required of equestrians to give cues with horses, but also to physically hold ourselves in the saddle. If a horse throws a buck and their rider fails to lock their calves tightly or push their heels down, then that rider will find themselves flying off of a six feet tall moving creature. All a rider can do in that moment is pray to not get stepped on or kicked by four flying hooves. Falling into that hard arena dirt surely causes bruises and scrapes, but equestrians prove our fearlessness by always getting back on our horses.
Using so much strength makes riding a tough workout. A 150 lb person riding a walking horse burns 171 calories per hour, which is identical to walking on foot at a pace of 2 mph. For an hour of trotting, a person burns 441 calories, and for an hour of galloping, a person burns 549 calories, according to healthstatus.com. Because horseback riding involves another animal, riders also burn calories when taking care of these animals, such as grooming, stall cleaning, carrying hay bales, moving jumps and cleaning tack.
Horseback riding relies on skill, strategy, reasoning, memory and confidence in order to control such large horses. Memorizing how to ride a jumping course and/or specific cues for a flat work move are everyday intense mental exercises for riders. Equestrians must be mentally flexible and always be aware of what our non-English speaking horses are thinking, in order to make split-second decisions. If our horses misbehave or spook. Not only do equestrians need to be mentally focused, but also our horses must be attentive and cooperative. Just like any other teammate, horses have good days, bad days, and days that they just do not want to practice. It takes a lot of mental perseverance for both horses and riders to work effectively on those harder days.
Because horseback riding is so refined, people often fail to believe it is a sport. A horse’s movements are the only motion that should be seen, since the better riders become, the less obvious our cues are to our horses. More experienced riders have such strong muscles and aids that their cues to their horses become much more direct and effective, yet harder to see. When I see a horse cantering around with perfect form and it looks as if their rider is doing nothing, then I know that the rider is very skilled. However, inexperienced individuals often do not know this, so when they watch professionals in the Olympics or in grand prixs on television, they think riding is effortless and easy. What the television does not show is the years of practice, sore muscles and mental obstacles, as well as the years of being thrown, kicked, dragged or fallen on top of.
After inexperienced individuals walk around on bomb-proof horses during beach vacations, they think they have become experts in horseback riding, and can agree with the statement that riders “just sit there.” And yes, in these cases, those vacationers did just sit there and walk on the beach. But if sitting on a horse makes those people equestrians, then if I hold a lacrosse stick on Witter Field it makes me a “lax bro.”
Equestrians are athletes. Horses are athletes. Not one of us works harder than the other. It is the epitome of teamwork and trust between man and animal. Horses must trust their riders to give them correct cues and guide them safely. Riders must trust their horses to respond to the cues we give them and carry us safely. Riders put blood, sweat, tears, strength, muscle, work and time into being a successful horseback rider, but in the end it is all worth it. No other sport pays off more for such perseverance and practice. No other sport causes the same intense, adrenaline rush. No other sport creates the same connection between two teammates. No other sport is like horseback riding, yet horseback riding is still a sport. So next time we are in the breezeway and I complain about the soreness in my calves from when my 1,200 pound, six foot tall teammate bucked me off, maybe instead just nod in agreement.