Why you should care
Not only is a simulator a safe space to learn riding technique … but it’s also good for your abs.
Straddling Simon is no easy task, and once aboard this 6-foot stallion, I’m bounced around like a puppet. And just when I’m getting into the rhythm, he speeds up … and I fall forward, my fists wrapped in his mane.
Simon is a horse-riding simulator, an adult-size electronic rocking horse that provides all the punch of a horse with the temperament of an iPhone. His movements mimic those of a real horse, and the experience can be enjoyable — that’s the point. But once you’re acclimated to riding a fake horse — thighs burning, endorphins rising — you’ll soon learn how to trot up and down like a natural.
But first things first: “He’s not a stationary bike. Simon’s a tool, not a horse,” says trainer Colleen J. Reid of California-based Colleen Reid Dressage, pressing the small of my back to correct my form. Although even she admits riding Simon feels “like a velociraptor on hind legs.”
Horse-riding simulators were invented in 1982, initially designed as an aid for rehabilitating jockeys. But in recent years fitness fans have found them a fun way to liven up their workouts — a less stressful alternative to SoulCycle and Barry’s Bootcamp.
They provide a full-body workout and benefit anyone who wants to strengthen and tone their body.
Carol Andrews, horse trainer
English company Racewood is the leader of the fake-horse herd, shipping simulators to Japan, Oman, Canada and South Africa — they were even at the Rio Olympics. The company’s latest models use pressure sensors to measure riders’ weight and balance distribution and transmit that data to a screen for real-time riding feedback. Racewood originally focused on the pro domain, but in recent years the company has also been providing fake horses to the fitness industry, at about $60,000 a pop.
The fake horses “provide a full-body workout and benefit anyone who wants to strengthen and tone their body,” says London-based horse trainer Carol Andrews. In 2016, she launched Equicise, an electronic-riding group fitness class in Wimbledon Village Stables in the United Kingdom. Classes include horse posture training, horse yoga and postnatal riding sessions — all set to Top 40 tunes. The novelty helps overcome riders’ exhaustion, Andrews adds, and people with disabilities or who are horse-shy feel safe here. “And you don’t have to worry about the English weather!”
Most states in the U.S. have horse simulators too — mainly for horse-riding training, but fitness is a growing dual purpose. At the Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina, instructor Barbro Ask-Upmark offers 30-minute rides on simulators Dante and Tryon Maximus for $100. People fly in to train here, she says, and her clientele is 80 percent amateur women. Each simulator is named; previous friends include Luke and Lulu. For marketing manager Christy Smith, riding electronic horses is an exhilarating experience. “I’m a beginner, and I’m afraid of heights,” she says.
These simulators are a comforting intro to an unfamiliar world — but clearly a middle-class one, like snowboarding, pentathlons or sailing (there’s a reason that members of the British monarchy enjoy these pursuits).
Electronic horses are becoming popular for another reason: the global horse shortage. In 2012, the Center for Economic Research and Forecasting reported a 35 percent drop in the number of horses since 2003. Electronic horses help bridge that gap — although they don’t offer a better workout than a real horse — and are easier to navigate than the real thing. For example, a 2015 study in the Journal of Equine and Veterinary Science reported heart rates were higher in real-life riding but suggested increasing the simulator tempo to bridge the difference.
In terms of pure joy, it’s hard to beat the feeling of wind in your face and a breathing, galloping horse beneath you. But horses are hard to come by in a city, and for people looking for the fitness benefit — or for training, minus a horse’s temperament — simulators are pretty awesome pieces of kit.