Riding outside has a ton of benefits.
Whether you’ve been stuck inside for months, missing out on show season, or just looking to liven up your regular routine, riding outside may be just what you (and your horse) need.
From physical to mental fitness, riding outside has tons of benefits for you, your horse, and your bond.
Here’s why saddling up for some time outside of the ring may be just what you need this season. Plus a few tips on how to train, prepare and make the most of your time outside (read here for more advice to prepare for riding outdoors).
Benefits For Your Horse
Riding outside offers a ton of challenges that you just can’t get in an indoor arena or outdoor ring. Uneven terrain, road hazards and spooky bushes are all awesome training opportunities if you know how to handle them. Here are the top 3 ways that riding outside can benefit your horse.
Strength and Fitness
One of the primary reasons why riding outside is great for your horse is the opportunity for hill work.
Even walking up a hill can encourage the horse to engage his hindquarters and step further underneath himself. This helps develop muscles in his hindquarters, back, and topline.
Hillwork is good for his cardio, too. Just like running on a treadmill on an incline makes your heart beat faster, working on an incline is good for your horse’s cardiovascular health, as well.
If your horse isn’t accustomed to hill work, it’s important to start slowly. Keep sessions mostly at the walk to start, until he’s used to moving his body up and down hills. For a horse accustomed to flat rings and arenas, make sure to give him plenty of time to get used to hills at the walk before you add in short spurts of trot. As his fitness grows, slowly add more short sessions at trot and canter.
You don’t just have to go up and down the hills, either. If he’s weak or stiff on one side, lateral work on a gentle hill or slope can help to strengthen less developed muscles.
It’s important to remember that hillwork can be very taxing for a horse, especially one who is out of shape or not used to working on an incline. Keep sessions short and sweet, and focus on impulsion over speed. You can get great physical benefits just working at the walk.
Mental health is important – for horses, too. Adding the odd hack to your routine can help keep life more interesting and break up the monotony of training in the ring, keeping him keen and attentive.
Even if you don’t feel comfortable trail riding just yet, even taking him for a hand walk and some grazing can help him get accustomed to the sights, sounds, and smells outside of the barn and arena.
A super-nervous horse should get some desensitizing time in a ring or other controlled environment first, before heading into the great wide open. It’s time well spent because a confident horse is safer, less spooky, and more likely to be relaxed in his work.
Riding outside can also help his confidence and athleticism when it comes to footwork. The uneven terrain means he has to be a lot more careful about where he puts his feet. Not something that’s usually a consideration over groomed arena footing, but this improved carefulness can come in handy over fences, especially if you’re training for cross country.
The constant micro-adjustments required to successfully navigate uneven terrain outside the ring help better develop smaller muscle groups, which may not get much of a workout in the ring.
Not only will he be more careful about where he puts his feet, but he’ll also be more naturally well-balanced when he does put his feet down. And who doesn’t want a surefooted horse?
Benefits for You
Riding outside doesn’t just help your horse’s physical fitness, riding outside makes you a better rider, too. Whether it’s becoming a better horseperson, or just a more focused one, here are three ways riding outdoors can help improve your riding.
Learn How to Handle a Spooky Horse
Knowing how to handle spooks, frights, and other mishaps isn’t just good riding, it’s good horsemanship.
Redirecting nervous or spooky energy into circles, serpentines, or other “listen to me” exercises can help you better control his energy – a form of communication and understanding that takes time to build, but has benefits that can flow through to every other aspect of your relationship.
And your horse will learn how to handle spooky stimuli, too. The more experiences he has that say “wait, this bush is not trying to kill me”, the more relaxed he’ll be next time he encounters it. A calm confidence that he will carry into the ring, too.
All that hill work isn’t just good for your horse’s fitness – it’s good for yours, too.
Doing hills in 2-point can help to build your own jumping muscles and improve your balance, and keeping off his back will allow him to stretch his back and neck, too.
You may have heard trainers talk about getting a horse to “lift his withers” and “engage his hind end”. But unless you know what this feels like as a rider, it’s nearly impossible to achieve it. Because hill work requires so much impulsion, it’s virtually impossible for a horse not to get his hind legs underneath him and lift through the withers – making it the perfect opportunity to “get the feel” of what exactly your trainer is talking about.
Learn to Think Like a Horse
Being on the lookout for potential hazards can help you think like a horse, improving your own empathy and horsemanship skills. Horses have less visual acuity than humans, and their area of best focus is only about 18 inches from their eyes – meaning the world you see is very different than the one your horse sees. It’s up to you to pinpoint potential hazards – a rustling bush, a tractor, a loose dog – and prepare to give your horse encouragement or redirect his energy if he spooks.
Watching his ears, which can pick up sounds from 2.5 miles away and at frequencies that are otherwise inaudible to human ears, can tell you where his focus is. Horses have a much better sense of hearing than humans, including a larger inner ear apparatus and external ears that function like rotating radar dishes, your horse can hear more sounds, and from farther away, than you can. If you notice he’s on “high alert”, try to see what he’s interested in – it may be a potentially spooky situation. Knowing where his focus is can help you prepare for (or better yet – divert) the burst of frightened energy that comes with a spook.
Benefits for Your Partnership
Riding outside can reinvigorate the interest of a “lazy” horse and renew his interest in work. The different sights, sounds, and smells of the trail can perk up a horse who has been plodding around the indoor arena for a bit too long.
For horses that are feisty or strong in the arena, a hack outside can help him blow off steam. But only if the rider can handle him – strong horses can get even stronger in an open space without physical confines like arena walls to keep them in.
Riding outdoors puts you in different, sometimes uncontrolled situations than you would face in the ring. Experiencing these together creates shared experiences that, if handled properly, help strengthen your bond.
For novice riders, hacking and riding outside can be great confidence boosters. As your own confidence grows, your horse will learn that he can trust you as a calm, confident leader.
And you can help your horse’s confidence, too. Helping him overcome the fear of new, scary objects doesn’t just mean he’s less likely to go ballistic next time he sees a road cone but also means he’s more likely to trust you when faced with another scary situation.
Plus, you’ll need to trust one another when it comes to getting over common hack obstacles like ditches, brush, and puddles.
Spend Time in Nature
Spending time in nature is good for you. Dozens of scientific studies confirm what horses have instinctively known for centuries- it’s good to be outside. In fact, it’s so good that researchers at Yale University have coined a term for it – ecopsychology.
Increased exposure to nature is being credited for everything from lower stress levels, improved cognitive function, decreased depression, lower blood pressure, improved immune system functioning, and even reduced crime rates in cities. The dose of natural Vitamin D, gentle exercise, and natural sunlight that come with being outside can even help treat Seasonal Affective Disorder and depression.
So what does this mean for you and your horse? If time in nature has such incredible benefits for you, it stands to reason that it has similar benefits for your horse, too. Since our horses live in increasingly unnatural environments as well (think rumbling trailers, small stalls, artificially lit arenas, to name a few), both sides of the equation can benefit from some time outside.
Whether you need a break from show season stress, your horse is getting sick and tired of ring work, or you’re just up for a challenge, riding outside may be exactly what you and your horse need. From mental to physical benefits (for both of you!) to an opportunity to strengthen your bond, take some time to enjoy nature from the back of your horse. There’s no better view!
Riding outside is great, but not everyone has access to groomed trails or wide-open fields. We’d like to know – does your barn have trails or an area where you can ride outside?