Maybe you rode a horse as a child and miss that fleeting sense of partnership. Maybe you’ve never been near a horse but see pictures and long for the feeling of freedom. If you’ve never been serious about it, you may be surprised to learn that horseback riding is not just for the young and athletic; it’s adventure and lifelong exercise for everyone!
Hit the trails
Guided, group trail rides are often the first step into the world of horses. Mine was in Kentucky, on a scruffy pony named Hudson, and my life changed course forever.
Most trail facilities are well outside of city limits, because of land availability. Fortunately, it’s a one to two-hour drive from Columbus to many of them, making trail riding a fun option to include in a day trip.
Some popular trail riding stables in the area are Marmon Valley in Zanesfield, Uncle Buck’s in New Marshfield, The Spotted Horse Ranch in Laurelville, and Equestrian Ridge Farm in New Plymouth. If you’re looking for a unique experience, the Wilds, in Cumberland, offers horseback safaris overlooking their open-range endangered animal areas and butterfly habitat.
For safety, trail rides have age, weight, clothing, and weather limitations, all of which are shared ahead of time. When you arrive, you’ll sign paperwork and learn some basics. The horses will be saddled and ready to ride.
Most guided trail rides for novice riders are one to two hours. That time sounds short, but trust me, balancing on a horse uses a whole different set of muscles, and you’ll likely have sore legs the next day.
Trail guides and operators are trained to help first-timers mount up, walk, stop, steer, and discourage their horses from stopping for snacks. For the most part, though, seasoned trail horses walk quietly in single file, giving you the opportunity to enjoy the scenery from a whole
Yes, riding is a sport
Trail rides are fun, but learning to really ride is a great workout,
and you can get that workout through dozens of different equestrian sports or disciplines.
If attention to detail is your strong suit, look into dressage, reining, or hunt seat jumping. Are you a speed demon? Set your sights on rodeo-type sports like barrel racing, or on timed jumping events. If that level of intensity isn’t enough, there are more extreme sports like eventing (a sort of triathlon) and endurance riding.
You also can chill out with pleasure riding, or, if you’re not ready for the saddle just yet, you can work the horse “in hand”—leading it through patterns and obstacles.
No matter what you choose (and these are just a few options), you’ll develop balance and coordination, along with strength and aerobic capacity.
But doesn’t the horse do all the work?
I hear it all the time: “How can that be exercise? You just sit there, and the horse does all the work!” And then I get out my soapbox.
True, at a walk, the horse does most of the work. But increase the speed, and before you know it, you’re in a full-blown cardio workout. Your abs, back, and legs will thank you (after they get done yelling at you).
Then, there’s the fact that a half-ton animal isn’t going to scrub off the mud, saddle itself and trot around in a circle for fun. Even though horses enjoy exercise, their main priorities are usually the same as mine: friends, snacks, and naps. A rider has to use strength, coordination and balance to manage a horse on the ground as well as control speed and direction from the saddle.
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It’s all about you
Set aside the mental images of glamorous cowgirls in lip liner and cowboys showing off their 6-packs. Most riders are in it for the fun, not for the fashion. Of course, if you want fashion, there’s plenty of it—especially in the show ring—but most beginner programs have a comfortable-but-safe dress code for lessons.
Beginning riders start at all levels of fitness; your instructor will help you progress through lessons at your own pace. Although horses do have limits on how much weight they can carry, many barns have one or two horses who can carry heavier riders. Just ask!
Beginner lessons are fairly similar, no matter what style of riding you choose. It’s a good idea (and also fun) to start at a facility that offers a range of disciplines, so you can try out different styles of riding. You might change your mind after trying a few things—I’ve bounced through at least a half dozen disciplines over the years.
Local stables that offer cross-discipline beginner lessons are all around the Columbus area: Dare Equestrian Center in Hilliard, Central Ohio Riding Club in Marysville, Cherokee Stables in Grove City, Triple
Edge Equine in Canal Winchester, and Field of Dreams in Blacklick are just a few.
The good thing is, you don’t need fancy equipment to start. Most stables require only long pants, closed-toe shoes or boots with a low heel, and a helmet. After you choose the style of riding that fits you, you can start investing in more specialized gear, a little at a time.
Your first lessons might be more walking than riding. You will learn to lead the horse, groom it, and put on its tack (saddle and bridle). These are essential skills; plus, the time spent on the ground helps the horse and you get to know each other. Soon, you’ll be arriving early to get your horse ready, maybe even riding in group lessons or shows, and reaping serious exercise benefits.
Central Ohio is full of riding programs. If one doesn’t fit your style, personality, or budget, there are many others. Give it a try. That feeling of freedom is waiting for you.
Plus, as I used to tell my own students, “Ride a horse, and you’ll never have to do crunches.” •
Melinda Green is a multi-discipline rider, horse owner, and former beginning-level riding instructor