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After a full day of horseback riding, my neighbor complained about sore muscles and said his body felt like it does after playing a strenuous sport. His tone implied that he doesn’t consider horseback riding a sport, and I felt stung by his words. But is he right?
Horseback riding is a sport; it requires physical strength, skill, balance, and endurance. However, there are times when horseback riding is leisure, relaxing, and enjoying nature, and of course, this isn’t a sporting event.
Some horse owners enjoy riding a calm horse around their farm, but most are involved in equine sporting events. Competitive horseback riding events are sports, and it takes more than just physical talent to succeed.
Why horseback riding is a sport
One of the unassailable arguments that horseback riding is a sport is their inclusion in the Olympic games, the world’s largest sporting event.
Horseback riding typically involves balancing on the back of animals six feet off the ground while running more than 30 mph. The rider must retain mental sharpness during their ride to control a horse weighing over 1,500 pounds.
To accomplish this feat requires balance, muscle control, and mental sharpness. Horseback riding is a sport; it’s competitive and requires both rider and animal to have athletic ability.
Sports involve competition and athletic ability. But who is the competitor in horseback riding, the animal or the human? The answer is both.
A horse doesn’t train or guide itself, and the human, although coaxing the animal, doesn’t jump the hurdles or run the race. Horseback riding is a team sport, and both participants need to be at their peak to win.
Have you ever noticed that competitive horse riders are typically very physically fit? That’s because horseback riding requires core muscle strength and balance.
I know a woman who volunteers to ride horses every time she thinks she is putting on a few extra pounds. Riding is her favorite weight control method.
The reason horseback riding helps riders stay in shape is that it requires using a wide variety of muscles. Equestrians use their legs, arms, and core muscles to control and guide horses. Working these large muscle groups burns calories and increase fitness levels.
In all equine events, the rider has a strategy. In horseracing, the jockey has to decide if his horse does better running off the pace or breaking early and moving to the front.
In showjumping, barrel racing, and other horseback riding events, the rider has to know their horse and plan a strategy before the competition begins. And often, they have to be flexible and willing to adjust on the fly.
Many riders watch the film of their competitions so they can work on problems and get better. They practice moves and try different training techniques and often work with their animals six days a week.
When horseback riding is a hobby and not a sport.
Not all horseback riding is a sport. Just like many other athletic activities, sometimes it’s an outlet to relax. My kids played baseball, and often we would grab our gloves and toss the ball back and forth in the yard.
We used the time to talk and relax; pleasure riding is similar. Sometimes we saddle up and ride down some familiar paths, chit chat, take breaks, and ride home.
Horseback riding sports
“The sport of kings,” this athletic competition has been around since horses were domesticated, some 6,000 years ago. Jockeys average just over 125 pounds, guide horses running down tracks.
The men and women who ride the horses are some of the fittest athletes in all sports. They have strength, agility, and keen minds. Only the best riders in the world make it to the professional level.
If you’re interested in reading more about these fantastic athletes, check out one of my articles: How Do Jockeys Make Horses Go Faster? Where do Most Jockeys Come From or How Tall Are Jockeys, and How Much Do Jockeys Weigh?
Barrel racing is a timed event; it requires sprinting a horse around three barrels set in a cloverleaf pattern. The riders push their horse as fast as possible to each barrel, coax it to make a quick circle around it, and explode to the next.
This sport requires excellent balance, coordination, quick decision-making skills, and bravery. To read more about this amazing sport, you can click on my article: Barrel Racing: What is the Best Horse Breed for You?
Endurance racing is the marathoner of horse sports. The animal and rider travel hundreds of miles at incredible speeds. The sport requires both riders and horses to be in top physical and mental condition.
Endurance racers typically travel 100 miles per day, and the world record for a horse and rider to cover 100 miles is 5:45:44 seconds. In my article How Far Can a Horse Travel in a Day? Plus Fastest 100 Miles, I cover some of the training and requirements needed to compete in endurance racing.
Showjumping is a timed event that requires a horse and rider to clear a specific number of hurdles set in a pattern. The team that clears the obstacles the fastest in the correct order wins the competition.
There are different levels of showjumping competitions. The classes are determined by the height of the hurdles in the pattern. Showjumping is a team event that takes skill, athletic ability, and mental awareness.
A good rider knows how to put the horse in the right lead, adjust the horse’s stride, and when to cue their horse to jump. Showjumping is an exciting sport that takes a lot of hard work and practice to be good. The best showjumpers compete in the Grand Prix and Olympic games.
If you’re interested in reading about the best showjumping horse breeds, check out this article: The Best Horse Breeds for Dressage and Jumping. Top 5
In the sport of dressage, the team, horse, and rider are judged as one. They are required to complete a series of established movements.
The team is graded on well they perform their task. The rider must stay in control and cue the horse with the slightest action. They should move together fluidly.
There are many dressage levels, and to advance from level 1 to Grand Prix typically takes years of training both for the horse and rider. Dressage is a horseback riding sport included in the Olympic games.
Some people are concerned dressage training is too intense and is cruel. I did some research on the topic and wrote this article: Is Dressage Cruel to Horses? the Sport and Training Examined
Eventing is a collection of three horseback riding competitions, dressage, showjumping, and cross-country. Most eventing competitions are held over four days, but some are completed in one day.
The horses and riders who compete in eventing must have athletic ability, stamina, and discipline to succeed. I’ve previously described two contests in eventing, dressage, and showjumping; the remaining one is cross-country.
Cross country is typically the second phase of the competition following dressage. It requires a horse and rider to jump a series of obstacles designed in a natural state, such as creeks, stone fences, and logs.
Cross country is a timed event, and there are variations in the distances and courses, some competitions include endurance racing. Eventing is an Olympic sport.
Gymkhana is another horseback riding competition that involves multiple events. The activities are timed events and typically include barrel racing, pole bending, buddy pickup, and goat tying.
It is a fun activity, but successful participants are athletic and fearless. For example, buddy pickup involves a horse and rider racing to a person standing on a barrel in the middle of an arena.
The person on the barrel jumps on the horse’s back while they circle the barrel, and the three rush back to the starting line. The fastest time wins this phase of the competition. Gymkhana varies significantly by region and is sometimes included in county fair competitions and at rodeos.
Horseback riding is a sport but, why does it matter how it’s classified. Many riders who’ve worked hard and trained their horses are insulted when others don’t acknowledge their athletic ability.
But individuals who think that horseback riders aren’t part of the team competing are uninformed or antagonistic. Regardless, knowledgeable fans appreciate the athletic ability of those who are successful in horseback riding competitions.
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I love animals! Especially horses, I’ve been around them most of my life but I am always learning more and enjoy sharing with others. I have bought, sold, and broke racehorse yearlings. I have raised some winning horses and had some that didn’t make it as racehorses, so we trained them in other disciplines.