Equestrians as athletes: Do they measure up?

By: Leah Palm
Email: Palml@findlay.edu

The debate surrounding equestrians as athletes is nothing new to those of who compete in the industry. For years, equestrians have been told that riding horses is not a sport, and for many reasons. Most commonly, the majority of people have come to know an athlete as a person who they can witness physically exerting force to win a game. Whether that means tackling the quarterback, running sprints for track, or blocking the point guard, most people define athletes as being both physically and mentally fit.
University of Findlay Equestrian Senior Brandon Morin says his idea of an athlete is someone who needs skill to complete whatever event it is that they are competing in. Morin was awarded a National Championship title at the 2017 Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) finals and is beyond familiar with the athletic skill required to ride and compete.
“You need to have skill, you need to have athletic ability, you have to have that demeanor that you’re going to do well, and you have to be able to deal with stress,” said Morin. “If you’re competing for points for a team or competing for a national title that would be considered an athlete and it takes all of those things mashed together.”
According to Morin, a common misconception is that when people see an equestrian riding they automatically assume that the horse is doing all the work, therefore the rider cannot be considered an athlete. However, Head Coach of the University of Findlay’s western IHSA team, Spencer Zimmerman, explains that the best riders are the ones that make it look that effortless.
“Our riders are working to stay in rhythm and in motion with that horse to make it look like they are not moving, which can be a lot more work than just sitting there,” said Zimmerman. “I think the good ones that just sit there are doing it correctly, and there is a whole lot more going on underneath them than meets the eye.”
Kimberly Zimmerman, the wife of Spencer Zimmerman and assistant coach of the UF western IHSA team, explains this in another way.
“I think IHSA is way more about the people than the horses and that’s what we tell the judges that they are looking for. Who would you want to ride your horse and have the finesse and feel to do that, and I think that takes a lot of core strength and muscle memory and strength from the rider,” Kim Zimmerman adds.
Spencer Zimmerman discusses the training routine of his athletes outside of practice sharing that he tries to focus mostly on cardio conditioning as well as building core strength within his riders.
“They do not necessarily lift weights to get bulky, but enough to be able to pull on a thousand-pound animal that might not want to say yes to you the first time,” explained Zimmerman.
As for getting inside the brain of this animal, Zimmerman says it is difficult that the horse ultimately holds the power.
“The horse really holds the playbook for you and sometimes there is not a playbook because it is all in their brain. As you are going through your ride, they may throw the ball over here and you do not know it is going over there so you have to be ready to catch it over there and bring it back into play, hypothetically speaking. I think that it becomes a much more mental game,” shared Zimmerman.
He adds that this is what can take riders to the next level as well. Learning to understand what the horse is thinking so that the rider can know what they are going to do next and be able to counteract their move.
“I find that to be the most challenging for me and that is what keeps a lot of people hooked because if it is not challenging people will just get bored with it,” said Zimmerman.
Whether debating the mental or physical, Morin hopes to put an end to the argument that riding horses cannot be considered a sport.
“I would not be able to go on a football field and perform, but I would like to see a football player get on a horse and perform.”

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