The Near Side: Rider Fitness Revisited

It Never Gets Easier

I’ve been thinking a lot about the topic of equestrian fitness lately as I’ve
been trying to improve my fitness out of the saddle. Plus, last weekend
was the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, where the top riders in one of
the most physically demanding disciplines offer a reminder of just how tough riding can be. It’s both inspiring and intimidating.

The last time I brought up the topic of equestrian fitness, I tried to make the point that although riding IS a sport, it takes more than just riding and barn chores to stay fit. I don’t think I did a great job of making that point, based on the comments on Facebook. My mistake was probably embedding a chart that showed a calorie count for various horse-related activities, which overshadowed whatever I wrote about it.

A few months ago, I got one of those fancy fitness bands that tracks your entire physical existence, from heart rate to steps taken to how many hours you sleep. It probably reads your mind and stores your darkest secrets somewhere. It uses all this info and calculates how many calories you burn throughout the day.

You can record a specific time period as a workout and find out what your average heart rate and calories burned were for that workout. Naturally, I decided to use this feature to find out how my calorie burn compared to the aforementioned calories-burned chart. I was surprised that my numbers were as close to that chart’s numbers as they are (with the exception of grooming, which was much lower for me.) I’ve included some non-equestrian activities for comparison’s sake.

ActivityCalories Burned per Hour
Sleeping/Doing Nothing66
Walking Dog Park332
Riding Snoopy (walk only)360
Riding Lesson Jumping420
Riding Lesson Flatwork540

A few disclaimers:

  • I couldn’t do a direct comparison since I don’t have a horse I can just ride at a single gait for an extended period, so I can’t say how much energy trot vs. canter takes.
  • The “Riding Lesson Flatwork” is primarily trotting (mostly posting, some sitting and some in two-point) and cantering with a few walk breaks. I stopped recording for any extended walk breaks.
  • Keep in mind that in a group lesson, a lot of the jumping component is waiting while the other riders complete the exercise or course, so while that appears as lower-intensity exercise, that’s because there is a lot more downtime.
  • “Riding Snoopy” is pretty much just me riding my old gelding bareback around the farm at a walk. It’s surprising that it had a higher estimated calorie expenditure than walking on my own two feet.
  • “Grooming” was recorded during mud season, which is also shedding season. Brushing on a dry summer day would likely be less of a workout.
  • Before and After Grooming
    This is the real before and after from a day where I recorded grooming as a workout. If this took me 15 minutes, that’s about 75 calories burned. Snoopy, however, lost 50 lbs in that time from mud and hair alone.
  • “Walking Dog Park” is what it sounds like. The dog park is a bit hilly, so it probably takes a little more effort than strolling on the sidewalk, but this was just an average walking pace. No power walking.
  • Obviously, energy expenditure varies a lot based on the individual’s fitness level, among other factors. So my numbers don’t really apply to anyone but me. Furthermore, a fitness trackers is a consumer-grade tool, not a scientific instrument, so even I can only take this as a general estimate of calories burned.

Okay, so with all that being said, I don’t think there are any huge surprises here. If we’re just touting the benefits of riding as exercise, this does show that riding (as long as you’re doing more than sitting on a walking horse) is significantly better than walking on foot for getting the blood pumping and burning the calories. It’s not as effective as running, but it is more fun.

Maybe that last point is why this whole discussion is sort of frivolous. Sure, running through the desert while carrying a backpack filled with rocks would probably be great exercise. But how likely are you to do it? Maybe riding’s best asset is that it’s fun. It’s compelling. You’re not going to feel tempted to skip a workout if that workout is riding. You’re not going to give it up a month after New Year’s.

But we should still cross train, equestrians. It’s just the smart thing to do.

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Leslie Potter is Sr. Associate Web Editor of Follow her on Twitter: @LeslieInLex.


  1. It makes sense to me that since I like to do different activities with my horse to keep him in shape and I do the same with myself. I walk, run, bike, and ride my horse.

  2. The thing about the FitBits that track your heart rate are A) they dont take into consideration cool down periods, so while you are at rest at a work out but your heart rate is still up, the fit bit is saying you are burning more calories than you actually are and B) when you wear the band riding, it accounts for the horses steps, not yours… which transfers over into how many calroies it thinks you are burning. I have one and love it but compared with a legit heart rate monitor, its not accurate and always over estimates my calorie burns, especially when riding.


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