Rejuvenation through a Horseback Riding Fitness Vacation in Alaska

An Alaska guide, U.S. Navy Veteran and fitness enthusiast on why horseback riding is so good for you and so good in the wilds of Alaska.

Anyone who has ridden a horse knows that it’s a workout for the body, mind and soul, which is why we here at Equitrekking were intrigued when we heard about a new Horseback Fitness Adventure in the wilds of Alaska combining horseback riding with special fitness activities for a full-blown wellness escape. The creator, Amber-Lee Dibble, is a United States Navy Veteran and Professional Alaska Guide and Manager at Pioneer Outfitters. She lost 100 lbs. and has kept it off for 12 years and counting through her own horseback riding and fitness routine in Alaska.

Learn about what makes getting out into nature and riding such a great 360 exercise routine from Alaska horsewoman and pro guide Amber-Lee Dibble.

pioneer outfitters fitness adventure alaska

Guests of the Horseback Fitness Adventure spend 21 days riding in Alaska.

Equitrekking: What in your own life inspired you to design a horseback riding fitness vacation?
I come from generations of people overweight to the point of obesity. A lifetime of fighting my weight made feel as if I was unworthy because of my weight for almost my entire life. When I arrived in Chisana, Alaska, I was urged to learn all I could about fitness and do anything to lose weight and be strong. I tried all the diets, all the pills and all of the exercise routines. I took classes and sweated, studied, cried, held my head up ignoring what others said about me and prayed. Then, the second year I was in Chisana, I was given the opportunity to ride out with the guides and be their camp help, cook and wrangler. It changed my life.

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Amber-Lee Dibble in 1993 at 245 lbs. 

Equitrekking: How does horseback riding and guiding in Alaska keep you fit?
There is nothing that works more of your body, all at once than your posture on a horse as you ride. The movement and motion of riding, even at a gentle walk, requires the constant flex and movement of each muscle from your neck and shoulders down to your calves.

In addition to the rock and sway of the horse’s stride, Mother Nature has her hand in the fitness provided by horseback riding and guiding for Pioneer Outfitters. I mention guiding for Pioneer Outfitters as opposed to most other Alaskan Outfitters because our guiding is done 95% or better from the back of a horse. As one of the few remaining horse outfitters in Alaska, I believe this is worth mentioning.

Mother Nature’s part in our fitness comes from our body’s natural reactions to weather. To brace against the wind, to shiver against the cold and to preen under the relentless sun; all require energy that burns more calories by simply being in the saddle.

The constant and unceasing movement of each body, stretching and strengthening–– the body burns calories faster than they can be replaced, more so than yesterday’s ride and less than tomorrow’s ride.

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Amber-Lee Dibble after losing 100 lbs. She's kept it off for 12 years and counting.

Equitrekking: Does your background as a United States Navy Veteran influence how you help others stay fit? What about your work as an Alaska guide?
My upbringing as well as my own background in the United States Navy has blessed me with the understanding, compassion and relentlessness that reflects itself in each step I make.

I believe that the decades spent here in this remote and untouched wilderness has only deepened what was already inside me and allowed me to understand it more deeply, adding experience and knowledge to my whole being.

My own personal struggles with body weight and fitness, as well as the wounds and traumas that I too have had to live with have opened my own eyes to seeing what isn’t always evident to those who haven’t had to battle handicaps and the damage that the world and others have inflicted upon us. There is a burning urge inside me to help people realize their deepest most secret dreams.

What is it, really, about me and my own history that makes the difference? Easy. I will not quit on myself or you, ever. But that isn’t enough all on its own. I will not quit believing in you or myself, ever.

Getting and staying fit, finding, climbing and pursuing that gorgeous white ram or laying on the icy ground for hours with my body contorted in strange and unnatural ways as we use tweezers to pick for gold. These are just two examples. As a Professional Guide, it is my belief that my ultimate purpose is to help you realize that dream and that wish that brought you to us in Alaska. That purpose is second only to keeping you safe.

Equitrekking: Horseback riding is a full-body workout. What are some examples of ways that you have found this to be true and body parts you work when riding?
Horseback riding is a full-body workout! The easiest way to confirm this is after one of the first rides of any season for an experienced rider or as a beginner, the ONLY position that gives any relief, isn’t laying on a comfortable couch, but sitting in the saddle!

Most folks can recall the strain and pain that tells them they really did work out and well, yesterday. And if they hold still enough, over the next few days, that pain will go away. When one begins to really focus on taking their fitness to a higher level and wanting to become stronger and step it up, your body will tell you that you did work out through the stiffness that comes with resting or the burn in your muscles. With us, as most of us here at Pioneer Outfitters do, after stretching (and yes, at the beginning of the “season” our stretching takes longer because we continue to stretch until we feel loose and ready) that burning backs off as our muscles loosen and warm again. When we stop, be it to glass the mountainsides or the drainages, to rest the horses, to take a privy break or have lunch, we will stretch again. This stretching does a few things for us all. It keeps us limber and ready to move easily, keeps us from getting sore in the saddle, prevents injuries (like pulled muscles) and adds to the strength training by which we all (and I am speaking of Pioneer’s guides) abide.

Horseback riding uses the following muscle groups: shoulders, triceps/biceps, abdominals, back, inner/outer thighs and calf muscles. It pretty much covers our entire bodies. If I had to sum it all up, it would come down to flexibility, stamina and strength. Flexibility is what I focus on more than any of the others. The reason is that simply riding well takes care of all of them, on its own, but focusing my extra efforts on flexibility also reduces injuries that can keep me out of the saddle and that just aren’t allowed to happen!

We all know that we are not only made of muscle, so I will also mention that flexibility also helps protect the joints that take the abuse your body takes while riding. Your shoulders, lower back, hips, knees and ankles are the joints that we protect by stretching, taking breaks and stretching some more keep our posture correct as we sit and enjoy the ride.

Equitrekking: Horseback riding recharges your mind, as well as your body. What is it about the Alaska wilderness that makes it such a good setting for mental rejuvenation?
Fabulous question! Being still simply isn’t an option in most of our lives. Yesterday, today and tomorrow, to most people in any generation just meeting their own obligations and responsibilities doesn’t give any of us the quiet or peace to merely stop. The Alaska wilderness, this wilderness untouched by the hand or inclination of man and progress, is a gift in any time, to any life.

You can climb to the highest peaks, or ride to the highest saddle, and look in any direction as far as your eyes can see or a spotting scope may reach, and there is the wilderness, waiting. To be surrounded by the ragged snowcapped peaks of mountains, held safe in the cradle of their endless stretch, is amazing.

We humans are meant to have space around us–– not to be crowded and jostled for it. In Alaska, you can still breathe air that has never been scented and drink water so fresh and cold it should have a different name. At times, when the world feels too close, nature seems to be a tale that our ancestors may have encountered at the beginning of time. It still lives and breathes right here, waiting to fill and reconnect with the ones for whom it was made.

The air itself can be heard once the noise ringing in your ears stops. It lives, too. It breathes. The stars shine brighter than any city’s lights here in one of the only remaining truly dark places left in the world, free from light pollution.

The quiet, the space and the indescribable beauty will sink into you. For some it’s immediate and for some it may take a few hours or a day or two. When it does, and your own rhythms slow in time to the wilderness, there is another gift she bestows on each that come–– inspiration. As your mind and body rest and are rejuvenated, your soul opens. For some, it is only a crack and for others the walls vanish. The wilderness and everything in it will inspire you, physically, mentally and emotionally.

Equitrekking: Riding horses in nature can be a spiritual experience. Has there been a time when you’ve been riding in Alaska that you had a spiritual awakening? What happened?
Indeed, riding horses can be an incredibly spiritual experience and nature herself is of the spiritual element. So rarely does a spiritual awakening or dawning not come to me as I ride for any distance that it is hard to pinpoint now, the time when it began.

Horses teach us, remind us, that living right now and fully in the now brings with it peace, serenity and connection. They fill the emptiness that invades us and drains us from living our busy and stressful lives. For me, it is the sloughing off of all the weight I may not even be aware of until it leaves me… falling behind. It may be that the air 15 or 16 hands up higher into the air has a special quality to it.

Horses don’t care what we look like, how we speak, what we do for a living or where we live. They give us acceptance and tolerate our ignorance. The empower us and allow us to stand up straight without fear. They teach us that body language is as important as any speech. No matter what worries I may carry with me, or regrets or frustrations of the day, my neck feels looser within minutes, my heart feels lighter.

Horses live in the now. They don’t worry about yesterday or the future. Horses live in the contentment and peace that we all desire for ourselves in our lives. They teach us and remind us by their own actions of honesty, that being the real you, the authentic you is the way to peace and serenity. They don’t expect us to be anything but what we are, unlike society that convinces us to hide our true selves, trying so hard to be what is expected of us. They teach us to trust our feelings, our hearts and ourselves. What’s more is they have also taught me to trust others, through trusting them.

They teach us to be aware. Horses are incredibly alert to their surroundings and aware at all times. It is their natural defense. If we are alert and aware of our surroundings, we are not tied up in our own personal trials. We see more beauty and more opportunities. We see more opportunities for connections, the chance to witness great and small gestures of love, grace and need. We are more aware of those around us, who may simply want to love us or may need our love.

Equitrekking: What’s the biggest takeaway that people leave with after riding with you in Alaska?
That there is something very special, almost tangible in the wilderness that surrounds Chisana that people feel and most acknowledge before they leave us. As you look, really look, and find no words; feeling both, your heart healing and filling to an inner bursting point and feeling that your soul has been laid open to the breeze and wind like a raw wound. This takes you beyond the physical, past the mental; this is the spiritual element. This is Chisana.

How you can go: Learn about Pioneer Outfitters 21 Day Horseback Adventure with fitness as the key. For 21 Days, you will stretch, ride, walk and eat in the most glorious and magnificently exclusive mountain wilderness in the Wrangell St. Elias National Park & Preserve.