Ask FGG: Horseback Riding, anyone?
Posted by Toni in Ask FGG
Photo by Mike Baird

This question landed in our inbox this morning, and because time was of the essence, we decided to (ahem) gallop with it:
Hello! I was wondering if you could help me out. I'm going horse riding for the first time for a hen's weekend and am more than a little anxious about it. I'd really appreciate any and all advice."

This isn't the first time we've received a question about horseback riding, particularly whether a bigger gal might be too much for a horse to handle. We poked around online a bit and found that there is some controversy in this area; obviously people of all shapes and sizes can and do ride horses, but in the equestrian community, opinions can be pretty strong about how big is too big, but reading between the lines it seems that it is possible to ride responsibly if you're overweight.

We spoke with Mary Midkiff, founder of Women & Horses, which covers female-specific training with an eye toward the care of and empathy for the horses while riding. Many big, tall men ride horses, and we wondered whether this was analogous to a 250-pound woman mounting up, and Midkiff agreed. "You could hurt the horse if the horse is too small," she said. "For a person of that size, Id want to see them on a draft horse or a draft type horse--in other words, a heavy-boned, bigger horse." Before riding, call and ask if there are any weight limitations for riders, because every place will have horses of different sizes and abilities, and every stable will have different preferences about riders' ability levels and size.

What to wear

We've all seen cowboys riding horses, and cowboys (and girls) wear jeans, right? Not if you're a beginner, says Midkiff. "They'll rub you around the knee, calf, and upper thigh, and the seams at the crotch can be uncomfortable over time." She suggests investing in a pair of plus size riding tights, or if you're not sure you'll be riding often, wear pants with a straight leg that stretch well with some padded bicycling shorts underneath. "Some women are embarrassed to wear riding tights because they are tight and they do show a lot, but you can wear a longer shirt or jacket over them," says Midkiff. Skip the yoga pants or boot cut jeans if you'll be riding English style (as opposed to Western style--read about the differences here), to prevent getting caught in the stirrups.

There's a reason cowboy boots have heels, and so should your footwear when riding. A shoe or boot with a 1" heel will keep your foot from sliding through the stirrup, so leave your gym shoes at home. Some Western saddles have toe guards, but unless you know your stable will have them, don't count on that. Midkiff insists on protective headgear, too: "There are equestrian-specific helmets that meet the safety standards for riding and run in the $30-50 range," she says. Most, if not all outfitters provide helmets, but Midkiff suggests bringing a bicycle helmet along just in case. Finally, here's where having an Enell or similarly structured, high impact, minimum bounce sports bra will serve you well, because there will be bouncing--even more if your horse decides to trot, canter, or is spooked.

Before you ride

Horseback riding doesn't just bounce your jiggly parts, it also works your inner thighs in ways most other activities don't. Therefore, stretching the inner thighs is important and warming up the core muscles with some pelvic tilts is a good idea, too. "Always ask your outfitter for a mounting block or to stand on a hay bale - something secure and sturdy - to help you mount the horse," says Midkiff. "For one thing, you don't want to stand on anything unstable where you can lose your balance, and if you mount from the ground, you torque the horse's back." A good outfitter will demonstrate how to mount and then help you properly--and safely--climb aboard.

After riding

If you're sore after riding, Midkiff recommends a hot bath with bath salts to soothe aching muscles. Expect soreness in the inner thighs, glutes, and piriformis muscles. "You're doing a lot of gripping with the inner thighs just naturally while riding," says Midkiff. "So when you get off, you'll feel like one of those bowlegged cowboys." For bruises, she suggests arnica gel or lotion, which you can find at most natural or health food stores.

Girls, share your own experiences with horseback riding in comments, and if you love horses, too, consider contributing to an organization right in Toni's back yard, the Hooved Animal Humane Society.