“The horse does all the work doesn’t it?” Most horseback riders have heard this phrase, probably from someone who has never sat on the back of a horse. These questions are usually answered with a quick remark somewhere along the lines of, “Well, why don’t you try it?” While horseback riders feel like they are working hard when riding, they can reply with little else since, from a scientific standpoint, there is little research to back up their claim.
While I was a graduate student at Texas A&M I became interested in understanding the physical demands of horseback riding and what it can do for the health of the equestrian athlete. While horseback riding has been used as transportation and recreation for years, it is rarely mentioned as a form of exercise. Over the last fifty years the knowledge associated with and importance of exercise for personal health has grown exponentially, but the research on horseback riding’s contribution failed to grow with it. In fact, only a handful of studies have been completed on horseback riding, and the few in existence only feature a limited assortment of riders and disciplines with little focus on energy expenditure itself.
The two parameters most often used for energy expenditure prediction and actual measurement are heart rate (HR) and oxygen consumption. Heart rate in exercise has often been used as a way to measure the intensity of an activity, with higher heart rates indicating more intensity. Horseback riding seems to be no exception, as evidenced by previous work. Heart rate has been shown to increase as the intensity of gait increases, which means that as the horse and rider progressed from walk, to trot to canter the HR of the rider increased.
Heart rate has been shown to increase as the intensity of gait increases, which means that as the horse and rider progressed from walk, to trot to canter the HR of the rider increased.
Research in the sport of eventing showed that HR also increased as the intensity of the discipline increased. This study found that riders showed the lowest average HR during dressage and had the highest average HR during cross country jumping (184 beats per min), with show jumping having an average HR in-between the two. The activation of certain muscle groups (muscle recruitment requirements) to perform actions such as jumping and galloping in show jumping and cross country jumping have been implicated as a possible cause of these increased heart rates. Kinematic studies (studies of movement) of horseback riders have supported this idea with evidence that much of the muscle recruitment required in horseback riding is from the core and hip area, and this demand is increased during the higher intensity gaits. There is also indication, especially with the competition simulation, that HR may increase due to stress or anticipation.
Picture by Julia Chain
Many of the previous studies also measured oxygen consumption. When gaging how hard a person is exercising the term “moderate intensity” is often used to indicate health standards for exercise and aerobic conditioning. This term refers specifically and most accurately to the oxygen consumption needed to attain the specific level promoting health benefits and training effects. This is measured in metabolic equivalents of task (MET) which is a measurement that takes into consideration the oxygen consumed by a person per kilogram of body weight. Intensity can also be estimated through HR with a percentage of maximum HR which can be estimated using 220-age.
While oxygen consumption estimates for riding at the walk appear to be lower than the desired “moderate intensity,” oxygen consumption estimates for the higher gaits could be considered moderate intensity, indicating the possibility of health benefits. Additionally, the oxygen consumption observed in canter and the higher intensity sports of show jumping and cross country jumping indicated a use of between 60-90% of maximal aerobic effort, well within the range for aerobic conditioning. However, problematically, these studies also report that the higher intensity gaits and activities are not sustained for long enough periods of time to elicit aerobic conditioning or health benefits.
“Why should we care?”
So this begs the question, “why should we care?” Whether you are a professional or an amateur, the answer is your health. There is a proven link between exercise and serious disease risks like cardiovascular disease and cancer. If horseback riding can be shown to reach the levels of intensity necessary to be considered “health benefiting exercise” then horseback riding is not only an enjoyable activity, but also a healthy one.
This is where the interest for research at Texas A&M came to life. Not only did the team consisting of Dr. Dennis Sigler, Dr. Martha Vogelsang , Dr. James Fluckey, Dr. Jason Sawyer and myself want to confirm and expand upon the previous research’s findings on oxygen consumption and heart rate data, we also wanted to provide novel data for western disciplines. All this, as well as the exploration of calories expended in these disciples, was explored in hopes of understanding what riding can do physically for the equestrian athlete. What we found was quite exciting with calorie expenditures as well as intensity measures high enough to elicit health benefits, which contradicted previous research findings. Tune in to the next segment to see what our research discovered!