Kaley Cuoco, Mary-Kate Olsen and Iggy Azalea have all spent time in the saddle as amateur equestrians – Azalea even said riding horses “saved my life and gave me my confidence back” – and Georgina Bloomberg and Jessica Springsteen are both pro riders, but can you actually burn calories while doing it?
PEOPLE writer-reporter Gabrielle Olya set out to find out by taking a beginner riding lesson while wearing a Fitbit to track her heart rate and calories burned. Here are her notes from the saddle:
The lesson began with the basics – how to get the horse to turn, how to stop the horse, how to get it to go forward. It became more physically intensive when the lesson moved into posting – sitting up and down by pushing your weight down into the stirrups – while the horse was trotting.
Because this was a beginner lesson, the majority of time was spent sitting in the saddle and walking. The time that I spent trotting and posting in the lesson definitely felt like a workout! It takes strength to sit up and down continuously without relying on your hands to help push your weight up.
Posting required a lot of inner thigh strength. Immediately after the lesson my inner thighs were burning! I also felt my abs working, because you also need to use your core for the up and down movement.
At the end of a 30-minute lesson, I had burned 140 calories, with an average heart rate of 115 bpm.Of course, like any other physical pursuit, the more you ride, the better a workout it can be. PEOPLE also spoke with professional hunter-jumper rider and trainer Melissa Gruber for her thoughts on riding as a workout.
“For the average junior or amateur rider who trains in the saddle at least two to three times per week, riding is a great addition to an exercise program,” says Gruber, who, with her husband Brian, currently teaches at Tulucay Show Stables in Napa, California. “Riding is a total body workout. Your legs, arms and core work together to control and communicate with the horses. Really, riding is a partnership sport; the rider and the horse support and guide each other. Just like dancing or ice skating with a partner, horse and rider communicate through body language and touch.”
“That subtle body control takes physical strength and balance very similar to Pilates, yoga or even surfing. The best riders make the work out invisible! Riding can look easy and effortless to the untrained eye.”
Of course, it only looks effortless. As a professional rider and trainer, Gruber climbs aboard four to eight horses a day, six days a week.
“Generally speaking, the harder the workout is for the horse,” she says, “the more energy that’s required to ride it.”
On a half-hour ride consisting of flatwork and jumping, Gruber’s average heart rate was 132 bpm and she burned 180 calories in 27 minutes.
“Walk breaks slow your average heart rate down,” she explains. “You can’t constantly move because the horses need to walk.”
And on a more strenuous schooling ride of just 17 minutes, Gruber’s average heart rate was 143 bpm and she burned 131 calories. (Of those 17 minutes, five minutes were at her peak heart rate of 170, six minutes were in the cardio zone and six minutes were in the fat burning zone.)
In short, when you first start out, riding might not be “that strenuous,” says Gruber. But the more you advance and the more you ride, “it can be an incredible workout.”