Far and ride

Exploring the fitness of horseback riding.


Horseback riding — it’s not like the movies where you can jump on the animal’s back, say ‘giddyup,’ and away you go. The sport is time consuming and physically demanding. If you’re feeling brave — tell a horseback rider the horse is doing all of the work.

Maddy Alley, 20, has been riding horses for about 10 years. The Times caught up with her at Blue Tic Farm in West Tisbury. She was taking Bailey, a chestnut-colored Irish Sport owned by Charlotte and Scott Caskey, for a quick spin around the fields. To get him ready to go she estimated she’d spent about half an hour getting him tacked up. This includes brushing him down, cleaning his hooves, checking for any injuries, and putting on his saddle and bridle.

After the ride, she’ll do the same thing, but in reverse. Barn work takes up the majority of time the rider spends with the horse. It includes feeding, cleaning, bathing, and mucking out stalls. It’s not a normal workout with sprints or weight lifting, but it requires stamina. Hauling hay and saddles around all day builds arm strength, and moving from task to task requires endurance. “I’m on my feet eight hours a day,” Alley said. In addition to riding horses at Blue Tic, she teaches lessons at Red Pony Farm and rides other privately owned horses.

Margaret Oliveira of Oak Bluffs agreed. She was unable to ride for most of the summer due to an un-horse-related injury. “I miss the stamina,” she said. “It just keeps you always going. You have 1,800 pounds of animal in your hands.”

When a rider actually gets on a horse, there’s a lot going on between the two that is difficult for the outside observer to pick up on. Riding exercises muscles in your legs that most other workouts don’t call for. Jess Benjamin of Chilmark has been riding for about 40 years, however, she says if she goes on vacation, even if she’s doing something active like skiing, she’ll feel her legs when she gets back in the saddle.

To control the direction of the horse, the rider shifts his or her bodyweight. Ideally, a rider wouldn’t need to have any control over the reigns to direct the horse. “I can make a tiny shift that you probably wouldn’t see,” said Alley, “and it would make all the difference to the horse.” Because of this, it’s imperative that riders have awareness of their body.

Core strength is also important when riding. As with any other sport, horseback riders have to exercise outside of riding in order to maintain their stamina and build core strength. Whether it’s pilates, running, or weights, what matters is maintaining a level of fitness.

Riding time is often spent with an end-goal in mind. Benjamin has been training horses for 15 years. She currently works at Red Pony Farm and trains horses for dressage competitions. “You’re really developing them to be your dance partner,” she said. When working with so many horses like Benjamin and Alley do, it’s important to build a working relationship with all of them. “As the rider, it’s important to be the person that really knows the horse. Getting him ready, his turnout, and doing more things than riding him in the ring,” said Benjamin. “It’s about building bonds of trust. Horses are flight animals so it’s incredible to build that bond and that trust from such a large animal.”

Alley owned a horse before she went to college, and said that training other people’s horses has been a learning experience for her. “I’ve had to learn how to ride [Bailey], train him, and to make him better for his owner,” she said. When she leased or owned her own horse, she was training them to compete with her in dressage shows, however, when riding Bailey, she’s training him to be a more steady horse to ride recreationally.  

This human-animal bond makes horseback riding different from many other sports. “This is every day,” said Oliveira. “It’s like having a child,” Alley agreed. Alley reflected on when she owned her own horse, and how she always kept her phone on in case something happened.

Oliveira said because of her injury, “I’ve been so bummed lately, not being able to ride.” Horseback riding is the kind of sport that people can continue into old age.

“I have good friends in their 70s who are still riding,” Benjamin said.  “They don’t have any physical problems at all.”