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The Body in Motion - Horses boost metabolism

Your age, gender, and genes have a lot to do with your metabolism, and so does your horse. But did you know that the number of calories your body must burn to see you through the evening chores each day has more to do with the direction and slope of the manure pile than the number of hours you ride each day?

Walking around the pasture or zipping along on a trail ride is good aerobic exercise. It raises your metabolism, burns some calories, and then keeps your metabolic fire stoked for a while afterwards. But this type of exercise doesn't give your metabolism the boost it needs to burn more calories throughout the day. In order to give your metabolism a permanent boost, you need to lift weights – grain bags, hay bales, fence posts, manure rakes. Unlike aerobic exercise, short bursts of hard, strenuous exercise (or anaerobic exercise) develop big, strong muscles that have a big appetite.

While body fat usually waits patiently in saddlebags, muscle fibers burn calories every time they contract. So the more muscle mass you have to move around the barnyard, the higher your metabolism needs to be. A muscular, 190-pound equestrian has a higher metabolism and must eat more each day to maintain his bodyweight than someone who weighs the same yet has less muscle mass and more body fat. (Extremely low fat, low protein diets oftentimes don't work very well just for this reason. They can cause you to lose muscle mass, which lowers your metabolism and makes it harder to lose weight.)

Deep breathing

And don't forget to breathe! You need to take deep, rhythmic breaths – lift that rib cage, expand those lungs. Instructors and clinicians extol the benefits of breathing for good reason; concentrate on deep breathing and your performance improves. But don't let anyone tell you that it's because you're taking in more oxygen. Taking regular, deep breaths – breaths that raise both the chest and lower abdomen – improves your performance because it helps you relax and keeps your mind from dwelling on the gritty details of the maneuver your instructor just asked for. But breathing like this doesn't take in or deliver more oxygen to your working muscles.

If you're a normal, healthy person, your lungs make sure that the blood leaving them is 98 to 100% saturated with oxygen. Your hemoglobin molecules are carrying a full load, and your brain and muscles are getting all the oxygen they can handle. You only breathe harder while riding because your body's trying to get rid of the carbon dioxide building up in your muscles.

Our partner at work Breathing can waste valuable energy, so your horse tends to let locomotor-respiratory coupling do the work. As he canters or gallops, the pounding weight on his front legs, sloshing organs against his diaphragm, and rocking motion of his body, moves air in and out of his lungs with each stride. Your horse uses this phenomenon to his advantage while trotting too, but the ratio between respiration and stride is no longer one-to-one.   

Johanna Harris
The Equestrian Athlete
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