Rider to Rider: How do you defend riding as a sport to those who argue that it isn’t?

Readers share their secrets for turning skeptics into believers.

You don’t think riding is a sport, eh? Try getting on MY horse and jumping THAT jump and tell me how easy it is.
Allison, Delaware


This is my biggest pet peeve by far! I usually respond by telling myself to keep calm, and then I say something like: “Oh you think riding isn’t a sport? Well let me tell you something, working around the barn and doing barn chores and riding definitely replace a gym for me. Lifting weights? Easy, why need dumbbells when I lift 50-pound bags of feed, haul and dump big wheel barrows of manure and carry water buckets? That’s just doing chores. I don’t build muscle while riding? Tell that to my thighs! You try going a countless numbers of laps in 2-point! It’s tough work. And contrary to popular belief, the horse isn’t the only one working up a sweat. You actually can burn calories while riding, and I definitely burn calories doing chores! Working with horses gets your blood and heart pumping because you do a huge ton of walking, and sometimes sprinting if a horse is loose or won’t let you halter it! It’s very much a team sport because you and your horse become one being and you work together. All sports come with risks, but no other sport requires you working with a 1,000 pound animal that could kill you in one second. Other sports, if you fall, you only fall about 2 feet or so. Horseback riding? You fall about 5 feet or more and you also have the risk of being drug if your feet get caught in the stirrups. When we get in the arena, we don’t get time-outs or the ability to have substitutions. It’s one shot and it’s make or break. And you say horses can’t make you money? Horse racing totally can, and not just racing. Other shows can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars or more for the first place winner. And if horse back riding wasn’t a sport, why would it be in the Olympics? Only real sports are in the Olympics, including riding.” I might say more, but after I rambled all that on, the person starts to believe me. Horseback riding is a real sport and I think it’s the best sport out there.
Janisse Ruis, via email

Horseback riding isn’t a sport? I’m sure that’s why it’s in the Olympics.
Lance Whitner, via email

I just tell them to try riding my horse and putting him over a 3-foot fence without falling off.
Diandra Littledog, via email

I love riding so much and I really wanted to share why I thought it was a sport, so for my college English class, I wrote a paper about it. I was able to describe the incredible athleticism of the horses and the athleticism of the rider. I also got into how we, as riders, are riding and partnering with 1200 lb. animals while jumping a course or posting without stirrups etc. It was really cool to put research into it and see how riding is a sport by the Olympic standards and if people would really try it, they would see it requires just as much strength and burns as much calories as swimming or jogging. If people would try it, try riding without stirrups or doing a dressage test or a cross-country course, or just try trotting with stirrups for the first time, they would appreciate riding more and see it is a sport.
Rachel McLelland, via email

If it’s in the Olympics, it’s a SPORT!
Shelly Saaf Talk, via email

I’d tell them to take my horse and try to jump something, or do some dressage.
Adrielle Moonswan Kash, via email

The people who believe equestrian activities are not a sport are generally the same people who think those that play football, basketball and baseball are the end all athletes. To them I counter that those other sports are actually games that you play with a ball, while our “ball” weighs 1,200 pounds and has a mind of its own. And ask a pentathlete which of the 5 sports (riding, running, fencing, swimming and shooting) they find most difficult.
Kim Cronenwett, via email

I bring them to a riding lesson, telling them, it’s so easy you have nothing to risk. Seeing them walk after the ride is pretty rewarding! Usually, after this lesson, they never argue that riding horses isn’t a sport!
Josee Talbot, via email

Interesting. I’ve never heard a non-riding person classify any riding discipline as a non-sport. I guess I’ve been lucky. Isn’t thoroughbred racing referred to as “the sport of kings”? At any rate, there’s truly no argument, as everyone’s fine comments prove. Now, golf – there’s another story!!
Andrea Stegman, via email

Riding is in the Olympics and it has been officially ranked the hardest sport in the Olympics.
Rachael Prawitz, via email

Generally, I argue that riding has many nationwide and international competitions and variants, including racing and the Olympics.

If that doesn’t convince them, I put them bareback on a horse and send them off to jump a few oxers.
Katherine Johnson, via email

I tell them to jump on the back of the biggest football player they can find, start kicking them in the ribs and try to convince them to go where they want them to go. As they are thinking about that, I say now try that on something that is four times bigger.
Lisa Bent, via email

I was once asked a similar question by a colleague who queried: “Why would you take riding lessons? Don’t you just sit there?”

I responded: “Let me explain this to you. You’re on an animal who may be galloping at 35 mph. His back, the platform you’re just sitting on, could be lifting and dropping 12 inches every 2 seconds, as he moves forward. Sometimes, in response to some scary stimulus that you are never even aware of, he decides to jump sideways 15 feet and maybe take off in another direction. And you think this isn’t a sport?” He never asked about my riding lessons, again. However, he did seem in question of my sanity.
Patricia Carando, via email

I tell them yes, there are certain equestrian disciplines that are more of a hobby then a sport. For example, pleasure trail riding does not require much athleticism. However any of the Olympic accepted disciplines require physical and mental strength. You must have the utmost balance, muscle control, mental clarity, stamina and patience to ride a 1500lb animal over a course of 4′ jumps. I then proceed to tell them that I in fact have never had anyone that has actually taken a real riding lesson question the validity of it being a sport.
Nichol Peterson, via email

It’s included in the Olympics!
“Crash” aka Sacred Warrior, via email

Honestly, I don’t think anyone has ever said that to me. My physical therapist knows it is good exercise and mentally therapeutic.
Pretty-Ponies Gifts, via email

I always, always invite them to come try it out on one of my horses if they truly believe it isn’t a physical, active sport.
Kelley Wick, California

I had a manager once who told me riding was not exercise. I asked him if he could do squats for an hour. Then, the partner we were working with came to my defense.
Mary Sherfesee, Florida

Whenever people tell me that riding is not a sport and that all you do is sit there and look pretty, I just smile. Then I ask them, have they have ever tried to control a 1200-pound animal? Have they have ever ridden at full speed to a 4-foot high jump? (If you haven’t figured it out by now, I am a jumper.).?Have they have ever ridden in mid-August heat or the freezing temperatures of January? Have they sweated buckets or had on so many layers you’ve forgotten how many you have on? Have they ever ridden without stirrups for hours just to get a little bit better? They usually say no to my questions, then I reply, “then you have no clue what we equestrians do – way more than sit there and look pretty.”
Alison Thomas, Arkansas

Tell them to try doing what you do.
Jennifer Granade, Georgia

I’ve had this discussion with folks before. It usually ends with me telling them, “Alright, if it’s so easy, let’s see you do it.” Oddly enough, no one’s taken up on that offer.
Jamie Edgerly, Florida

If someone claims that riding isn’t a sport, they haven’t tried to ride. I just say when you can do a wall sit for half an hour on a moving animal that isn’t very smooth without having sore muscles or complaining, then tell me riding isn’t physically challenging and not a sport. We know that’s not going to happen.
Erin Berkery, Pennsylvania

I always say you try riding a horse first; then come tell me it’s not a sport. They never have a response to that.
Amy Titcomb, New York

Let’s see YOU get 1,200 pounds off the ground!
Aimee Rose Kelly, New York

Fortunately, I haven’t ever had anyone try to tell me that horseback riding it’s not a sport! But, if this were to happen, I would probably invite them to come and ride with me. If the person had the nerve to take me up in my offer, I’m sure they would change their mind!
Nancy Rosen Resop, New York

I always like to invite them to come riding with me if they don’t believe it. I love the satisfaction of them yelling “How do I stop this thing!?”
Paige Vrooman, Maine

I invite them out for a month worth of free lessons with me. After a month of posting and two-point and hitting the dirt, they realize just how hard it is. A lot will not come back after the first lesson!
Amanda Hammons Frye, Texas

I say, “Try and sit on the roof of your car and give it a mind of its own.”
Rachel Holen, Minnesota

I tell them that after they have cantered a course of 3-foot jumps, they can come back and we will discuss their experience.
Susan Hughes, New York

First I hand them a very good waiver to sign. Second, I hand them my horse to ride.
Hunter Heights, Ontario

How can you argue that it’s not a sport when the Olympics awarded it the hardest part of the Olympics? Personally when whoever wants to argue they can ride better than I can on a course at 3-feet on an animal with a mind of their own, I’ll believe them when I see them!
Chelsea Hagerty, New Jersey

One day while sitting in my 1:30 writing class wishing that I was riding my horse, my teacher decided to push my buttons by calling riding a hobby. She messed with the wrong girl. I explained to her that they do not put hobbies in the Olympics. I also told her riding a horse isn’t just sitting in the saddle and looking pretty, you have to be physically and mentally fit. It’s also not an individual sport, you have a teammate with whom you have to communicate without words. Riding requires muscles that most people don’t even know they have. All the hours of lessons, riding, walking courses, setting up patterns is not just for our health (well it does help) but it’s the fundamentals of a sport. Football players take weeks to learn their plays; we only have minutes to learn our courses (which generally are a lot harder). Riding is just as much of a sport as any other, and if you think it isn’t, come over and ride my 1,300-pound horse and make it do what I do.
Amanda Keynton, New Jersey

It’s in the Olympics!
Rachie Rawrrs, Michigan

You say riding isn’t a sport? Tell me more on how football is in the Olympics. Or, you play soccer/football/baseball? That’s cute.
Claire Pida, California

Honestly I don’t try to explain or defend riding as a sport to anyone. Unless they actually ride and are addicted to horses, they will never get it. I talk horses with all of my wonderful horse friends and other topics with my wonderful non-horse friends. I’m doing what I love and I don’t need others to “get it.”
Lynn Jones Coleman, Georgia

The equestrian sports speak for themselves! Equestrians transform 1200-pound animals into tremendous athletes. Does galloping over miles in a matter of minutes, soaring over six-foot fences, and making a horse dance in unimaginable ways sound easy? Absolutely not!
Samantha Baker, Maryland

If you must argue that horseback riding is a sport, forget it! The other person is a dunce!
Jonathan H. Ray, Texas

Never waste your time defending a point that doesn’t need defending. After all, riding involves two athletes coming together and that takes an enormous amount of time and training. My experience has shown me that school athletics dictate what most people view as a sport: baseball, basketball, etc., and these sports are inexpensive and can incorporate several students and therefore get paid for with our tax dollars. Horses are expensive ? enough said.
Beth Neely Lake, Ohio

I don’t defend it to people who don’t think it’s a sport. I just assume they are an idiot and try to muster some sympathy for them.
Jody Livak Werner, New York

I always defend that riding IS a sport

through one simple word, especially to football players: Olympics. As in, if riding isn’t a sport, then how come it is in the Olympics every summer? This is especially beneficial when talking to a sports player that can’t participate in the Olympics.
Emilie Laik, Washington

I always explain that not only do I have to be in good physical shape, my horse does, too. Riders are responsible for two athletes. Furthermore, no matter how well they are trained, we compete with an animal partner and that can sometimes be very challenging.
Ally Long, Louisiana

To people who argue with me that it isn’t a sport all I tell them is, “Your ball is a sphere filled with air. My ball is 1500 pounds with a brain.”
Kayla Elizabeth, Virginia

sport [spawrt , spohrt] (FROM dictionary.com)
1. an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature…

2. a particular form of this, especially in the out of doors.

Enough said.
Dawn Reisinger, Montana

I show them my collection of hospital bills from falls I’ve taken! I also show them the dinner-plate sized dent in my helmet from my horse’s foot and her steel shoes.
Elizabeth A. Barton, Florida

First I would ask if they have ever ridden, likely this person has only had, at most a “guided trail ride” on a good-as-gold horse who knew the way and walked at an easy pace. I would explain that riding like that is equal to watching baseball. But if you want to play baseball, you start off in “tee-ball” and so you go up the levels of baseball learning to play better, it’s all the same game but the skill level and physical fitness increases. But what if baseball is not your thing, you try basketball or football, hockey? All have a “ball” which is the “horse,” all sports require skill, coordination and physical fitness. And if that does not convince this Doubting Thomas, then I would put him on a horse and say “Play Ball!”
Chris Cole, Washington

I point out to them that I’m 50 years old and don’t have cellulite!
Ginny Kennedy, Alabama

I just have them watch me try to canter my greenie as he goes bucking around the ring! You try sitting on top of a 1200lb animal with a mind of its own that could kill you in a second if they so choose.
Stephanie Klebes, Massachusetts

By this quote: “People say riding isn’t a sport. Well you see, the ?ball’ I play with has a mind of it’s own.”?Unknown
Amelia Jackson, Oregon

Of course riding is a sport! We work all day on an animal just to find to find that tomorrow all of our hard work has been forgotten. These animals have minds of their own and could kill us at any given moment. We work hard to make our horses do things we can’t because we love the danger that comes with it. Horseback riding is harder than any other sport in the world. We work with 1000-pound animals that could kill us in an instant because we trust and love them. The bond between horse and rider is strong because we work hard to achieve perfection.
Sara Conley and Rosie Fahey, Ohio

If others say equestrian sports are not sports because if it looks like you are sitting there doing nothing, then aren’t you doing it right? Making a complicated sport look effortless?
Sarah JoAnn Smith, Oregon

ABSOLUTELY! The NCAA recognizes it and some schools offer scholarships. Students must adhere to the NCAA athlete requirements, etc. Just like any other sport, riders must be fit, intelligent and put in the time if you want to be successful. Yes, equestrian is most certainly a sport!
Christina Stewart-Mitchell, Oklahoma

I tell them to put their money where their mouths are and get on.
Jaye Fisher, Alberta

My husband tried to tell me that figure skaters are most definitely athletes, but figure skating is not a sport because it’s not judged objectively. He said the same with many equestrian events (except for show jumping, cross country, endurance riding, Western speed events and racing, which he considers “true” sports with objectively measurable outcomes). I said, “You have been a soccer referee, softball umpire and football and basketball fan for years. Please tell me that officials’ nonobjective, disputable calls can’t make or break a game!”
Julia Jensen, Indiana

What makes this discussion most difficult is that for someone to truly appreciate the level of athleticism necessary in riding requires years of training and practice. The most common arguments I make include the fact that the majority of disciplines have rules, referees (judges) and different levels of expertise (minor league, major league; local hunter/jumper associations, FEI) much like football, baseball, etc. I also compare the disciplines to more common sports that people can relate to like field hockey (polo) or hurdles (jumping). The best way for someone to fully comprehend the extent of physical exertion required as well as how each discipline is a sport of its own is to invite her to ride for a few hours or watch a competition.
Anne Meyer, California

The most common argument I hear is that the horse does all the work. People have no idea how much muscle control it takes to keep your seat and guide your equine.
Jessica Coleman, Missouri

True sport involves teamwork ,and there is no closer partnership than that with an animal.
Cathie Sansom, British Columbia

When riding, you use every muscle in your body. You also have to control a 1,200-pound animal with body communication. In the end you have a friend for life. How many of us can say that about any other sport?
Tracey Heller Delmore, Pennsylvania

I usually show them pictures of the cross-country jumps when we walk them with us standing beside them, then I show pictures to them of jumping them while riding the horse. That is usually all that it takes because they are amazed that we would even jump anything that doesn’t fall or collapse if hit by the horse, or the fact that it is something that could cause you to die if you fall off or the horse falls and lands on you.
Kim Walsh Parisan, Maryland

Read more answers to this question in the March 2013 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.

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