You most often hear this little bit of dirty junk come out of the mouths of people who have never ridden a horse, or their only horse experience is sitting like a sack of flour on a deadbroke trail horse for an hour:
"Well, horseback riding isn't really exercise. I mean, all you really do is sit there and the horse does all the work. You don't even sweat when you ride horses!"
Anyone who has actually ridden a horse for any amount of time and, you know, actually attempted to make the horse do things besides just walk in a line with their nose stuck up the tail of the horse ahead of them knows. You sweat, you hurt, sometimes you even cramp up.
All one needs to do is type "Horseback riding as exercise" into a Google search string and you come up with a multitude of "Horseback Riding Machines", that proclaim you can get a great, toned core muscle group "without doing any work"! Obviously, someone has caught on!
I was very curious about this one, because I know, especially with green horses, my heart rate does go up, I do sweat, and I am usually sore the day after. Between keeping myself in the saddle and guiding the horse to do what I am requesting, there is an entire aerobic workout up there... for ME.
I am very fortunate to have a family doctor who is also an avid horseback rider. She doesn't just pay someone to ride once in a while, she owns several horses of her own and regularly competes in jumping and dressage. I think she secretly likes to see me coming because we get chatting about horses and it's a bright spot in her day.
Anyways - I had to go in for a followup with her anyways, so I decided to ask her medical opinion on horseback riding as exercise. We can all speculate all we want (some of us have bodies to prove it!), but I like to try and provide some hard, scientific fact (haha!).
Her general consensus was that horseback riding is GREAT exercise - depending on your metabolism. For me, as out of shape as I am, my metabolism is much lower. I get a much more beneficial workout out of riding than someone who is in better shape. She also suggested that posting trot and canter are much more effective energy burners than a dawdling walk, and recommended dressage and jumping as the most effective energy burning horseback activities that you can do.
(Sidenote: When she discovered that I had no indoor facility to ride at and had never ridden a dressage horse before, she invited me to come ride her big GP level dressage horse on Sunday. I am both excited at the opportunity and terrified to look like a total fool! I even called a "piaffe" a "passage" in my vlog, I am so wired up!)
She then proceeded to remind me that we should be doing core exercises to help our riding, such as crunches and pelvic lifts (which she then got down on the floor and demonstrated, just in case I didn't know what they were!). Needless to say, in preparation for riding her horse, I have been doing 100 crunches per night!
So in the words of my doctor - it is kind of a "yes and no" answer. Sitting on a horse isn't going to do much if you're relatively fit. WORKING a horse and using your body to work that horse is much better. However, if you're as unfit as I am, just walking around CAN be beneficial. And hey, it's something we love, and it gets us out in the fresh air and works our thighs and abs - it can't HURT even if we're not getting our heart rates high enough for it to qualify as aerobic exercise!
Personally, I have been doing some other aerobic stuff besides riding (nevermind that I haven't ridden much for the last month or so because of the icky white stuff covering the ground), and then some core muscle and upper body strengthening to get myself where I want to be for riding. I am still a far way off, I am sure, but getting there!
I think the next time someone throws a little "horseback riding isn't REAL exercise!" into your face, you should invite them over for a ride. And not a trail ride. Really get them working your horse, give them a basic lesson, and then give them a call in the morning and see how they feel? Take pictures of them sweaty and out of breath to email them the next day. And pat yourself on the back because you know the real answer!
As a side note, here are a few pictures of Bronwyn and I yesterday after about a month and a half off. We were breaking a path in the snow so we didn't do too much and I was trying out my english saddle for only the second or third time since I got it.