Horseback riding is not only fun, it's surprisingly good exercise, too.

Horseback Riding: Fun Summertime Fitness for the Whole Family

Have you always wanted to ride a horse, but never had a chance? Or maybe you rode horses as a child, but haven’t been astride one in years. Either way, summer is the perfect time to get (back) in the saddle. Whether you want to take lessons and learn to ride, or just want the experience of going on a trail ride, it’s not as hard as you might think to find a ranch that offers riding.

Horseback Riding Is Good Fitness

Horseback riding is all about fun, for sure, but it’s a good form of exercise, too.  The horse may be doing the walking (or trotting, or galloping), but you’re working hard too, both to stay on and to let the horse know what you want her to do. Horseback riding requires you to grip with your thighs, press down into the stirrups to rise up, and kick to let your mount know to pick up the pace. No wonder your thighs feel so sore after a ride! Your upper body gets a workout as well, since you’re using your arms, shoulders and upper back to control the reins and your core to maintain good riding posture.

In fact, depending on how fast you ride, horseback riding can be an equal workout to golf, badminton, or even squash. In particular, horseback riding builds strength in the quadriceps and hamstring muscles. One study found that preteen and teenage girls who rode regularly had significantly stronger leg muscles than girls in the same age group who didn’t ride.

And if you need more convincing, just think about the fact that equestrian events were included in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

How to Get Started

You don’t have to live close to a ranch to take riding lessons; public stables can be found in city parks, at colleges and universities, and in many suburban communities. You can also sign up for a trail ride or pack trip with a guide service; these are easy to find in areas known for their natural beauty such as national and state parks and out in the countryside.

The best way to find riding lessons in your area is simply to ask around – chances are, someone you know will have heard of a local stable or riding club that offers lessons. If that doesn’t work, check Craigslist, Yelp, or other local search service websites for recommendations.

Choosing a Riding Style

Western or English, polo or dressage? There are many ways to ride a horse, and many types of training. Some will have you trotting in a lesson or two, others involve a complex set of skills and a much bigger commitment. But the short answer to the question of which to choose? It really doesn’t matter, all styles of horseback riding are fun, healthy, and help build muscle and stamina. Try several types of riding and see what suits you.

How Much Exercise Am I Getting?

The Compendium of Physical Activities measures the energy used by sports and other activities in  METS, which are units that measure the amount of metabolic activity. According to this guideline, the METS used in horseback riding vary according to how fast you’re riding.  Walking a horse uses 3.8 METS – the equivalent of bowling – while a full-out gallop uses 7.3 METS, similar to that burned in roller blading. In between these two, a moderate ride uses 5.8 METS, the equivalent of a round of golf.

Melanie Haiken writes about health, wellness and fitness for national magazines and websites. She specializes in discovering and reporting the latest research on diet, nutrition, fitness, weight loss and other health-related topics. Her award-winning stories have appeared in Fitness, Shape, Health, Forbes, and other respected magazines. She also contributes health stories to numerous Kaiser Permanente newsletters and other publications.