“Equestrianism is a sport? Such a joke!”
“The horse does all the work. You just sit on top of it.”
The above is a common experience for equestrians discussing their sport, whether with friends, family, or fellow athletes. As said by Gianna Giacopuzzi, a sophomore at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, “The reason that this sport doesn’t get a lot of credit is that people aren’t able to understand what the rider has to do just to get over one fence. But the riders have to be able to communicate with 900-1,600 pound animals by different combinations of movements that can sometimes take decades to learn.”
Giacopuzzi has been riding since the age of six but began competing more seriously at age ten. Since her mother, Alden Giacopuzzi, is an equestrian trainer, Gianna grew up with horses and fellow riders, gaining inspiration to be just like her mother.
“Having my mom in the training industry gave me an unique advantage in the sport mostly because she was able to give me incredible and valuable insight,” said Giacopuzzi. “Not only is my mom able to teach me this sport, but she also is able to understand and help me through the ups and downs that come with a sport of this intensity.”
Competitive show jumping (as well as equestrianism itself) is defined as the “skill or sport of horse riding.” Various forms of riding – Western, English, jumper, hunter, dressage, among others – exist, although the Olympics divide riding into only the show jumping, dressage, and cross-country categories.
“Horseback riding really works the core muscles that stabilize the trunk: the abdominal, back, and pelvic muscles,” said Alison Stout, DO, of EvergreenHealth Sport & Spine Care, who has also been an equestrian since the age of nine. “It’s not just about the strength of the core, but the coordination and stability of it as well. The more you ride, the more the body learns to move with the horse.”
In addition, equestrianism has been confirmed to improve one’s core strength, balance and coordination, muscle tone and flexibility and provide cardiovascular and mental exercise, providing the same amount of calorie-burning and fitness that other sports such as football and soccer do.
The Australian Sports Commission defines a sport as “a human activity capable of achieving a result requiring physical exertion and/or physical skill, which, by its nature and organization, is competitive and is generally accepted as being a sport,” so by that definition, horseback riding has been confirmed a sport. Like the most commonly accepted and appreciated sports, equestrianism requires and includes competition, athleticism, mental exercise, aerobics, calorie burning, and rules and regulations.
According to the Odyssey, jumping specifically takes numerous hours of training so that the horse is not afraid to or refusing to jump. Jumping courses often include flowers and other decorations that may take time for horses to get used to. If the horse refuses to jump, the rider can be thrown, while in worse scenarios, the horse could even trip over the jump and land on the rider.
“I’ve fallen off more times than I can count with my fingers,” said Giacopuzzi. “… but that never deterred me from pursuing the sport I love most. Thankfully, none of my falls have been disastrous or life-threatening, but I know of riders who have lost their lives doing what they enjoy most.”
According to the same Odyssey source, more than 30 million people worldwide ride horses, and in 2007, 78,279 people went to the emergency room due to accidents.
“The people who believe equestrian activities are not a sport are generally the same people who think those that play football, basketball and baseball are the end all be all athletes,” said Kim Cronenwett in a post on the Practical Horseman Magazine website. “Those other sports are actually games that you play with a ball, while our “ball” weighs 1,200 pounds and has a mind of its own.”
Riding, regardless of the discipline, demands a bond of trust between the rider and horse. That connection often takes months or years to build but can be broken within a second. Connecting so intimately without verbal communication is truly an incredible, special moment that soccer balls and tennis rackets cannot offer.
“That’s something else so special and valuable about riding,” said Giacopuzzi. “I’m proud of what riding offers.”
Just like football players know that getting tackled has risks, or how a basketball player knows that driving to the basket may have the risk of getting fouled, they do it anyway. Even if people consider equestrian a hobby rather than a sport, people’s hobbies still deserve respect.
“There’s a lot at stake in this sport, whether it be health or even the financial aspects,” said Giacopuzzi. “But within the community of equestrians, we’ve learned to respect each other, our trainers, parents, and most of all, our horses. Riders, remember to thank your parents and horses after each ride. Other people, please respect what we do. We willingly risk our lives each time we step onto the back of a horse.”