To The Non-Equestrians: This Is Why Horses Are A Sport

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The cheap shots at “horse dancing” and “the horses do all the work” are pretty tired at this point. You think they could at least come up with some new material in between each summer Olympic Games, but nah.

Well, we’re here to set the record straight. Maybe by the time Tokyo 2021 rolls around, someone will Google “horse sports” and this piece will come up. Maybe it won’t change broader opinions. But at least you – horse people – will be armed with info to share should the argument ever arise again… because spoiler alert: it will.

Yes, You Have To Be Fit

Anybody who thinks they can just clamor onto the back of a horse and hold on while it performs Grand Prix level Dressage movements or leaps effortlessly over 6-foot-tall fences, is just well, what’s the polite word for “dumb”? Even Uncle Joe knows from the painful bow-legged aftermath of his two-hour leisurely vacation trail ride that horseback riders use all kinds of muscles in their legs, back, core – you name it – when they’re in the saddle. It requires a high level of fitness to perform at the top of the sport. Most pro equestrians ride multiple horses a day, and plenty of others are keeping up with the cardio and the weight training when they aren’t in the tack. Heck, we even have our own heart rate monitor tailored just for us – horse and rider.


You Must Be A Multi-Tasker

A trainer once told me that in order to be successful rider, you must be able to juggle dozens of small tasks seamlessly at once. We may not be sprinting to a finish line or attempting to throw a ball into a basket, but we are silently managing every step of a 1,000-plus pound animal, from the take-off to a jump to a pirouette into the extended trot. That take some serious motor and critical thinking skills.

It Takes Strategy And Quick Thinking

Building on what we’ve already outlined above, equestrians must be mentally sharp. Pro riders walk the show jumping course on foot, not to get an up close look at how pretty the massive fences are that they’ll jump on horseback later, but to do actual math and calculate the path they plan to use later when they’re piloting the horse around. They’re considering angles of turns, the strides between fences, how close they can slice one jump and how much room they’ll need to gallop to the next. They’re determining their Plan A, B, and C, because if something doesn’t go right in that split-second jump-off it’s their job to have a safe alternative option for their horse.

As USEF President Murray Kessler described it“Equestrian athletes have an additional challenge that other athletes do not, and that is they are working with another living being, their horse. A successful equestrian athlete must be a sports psychologist to the horse, as well as the first responder when it comes to the training and development of that horse. Equestrian is not a sport that an athlete can ‘pick up and put down’; it requires commitment and focus.”

You’ve Got To Be Tough As Nails

Watch a five-star eventer go around cross-country at Badminton or Kentucky and then try to show me another sport which requires the same level of fearlessness. Riders have to be confident leaders for their horse. They are the stoic, assured presence that helps the animal rise to the occasion. They could be freaking out on the inside, but on the outside, they are calm and collected because they have to be. The horse depends on it.

One time pro eventer Boyd Martin told me“If you’re attempting to do something that scares the hell out of you, that means you’re trying to do something with your life.”

So maybe equestrians are adrenaline junkies, too.

You Can’t Give Up

Equestrians are just as mentally tough as they are physically. In order to be successful in equestrian sport, you can’t just show up for riding lessons. It’s days that start before the sun and end long after it went down, mucking stalls, feeding horses, treating ailments, fixing fences, packing, unpacking. The physical toll is mentally tough. The sport is fraught with heartbreak – injury and setback is more common than winning championships. It’s what makes the sport so humbling. Horseback riders are in it for the long haul because you have to be. It takes years – YEARS – to develop a horse-and-rider pair to get to the top levels. No matter your beginnings, if you want to be good, you have to put the blood, sweat and tears into it to get ahead. But it’s that commitment that makes the victory as sweet as it is.