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Are You Too Heavy For Your Horse?
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Are You Too Heavy For Your Horse?

 If you're like me, you've been seeing news of a study out of Devon, England published in The Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, on the "proper" ratio of rider weight to horse weight. According to its authors, the optimal ratio between a horse's and rider's weight is 10%. They also stated that 10-15% was satisfactory; that only after 15% did the weight become problematic. Unfortunately, most of the news stories quoted 10% as the only ratio which was not detrimental to the horse, not even mentioning the higher ratios which were deemed acceptable. And one horse health site (which I had thought to be very reliable), noted the higher percentages, but put the word "satisfactory" in quotation marks, inferring that the weights were perhaps not safe.

  This is very troubling to me for several reasons. In the first place, a 10% ratio between a rider's weight and the horse's is completely unrealistic. Jockeys weigh about 10% of their mounts' weights in thoroughbred flat racing. Quarter horse jockeys (and I believe, jump jockeys) weigh slightly more. These men and women have to just about starve themselves in order to maintain their weight. So what kind of message is the news media sending out to the many young girls (some of them already troubled) who love to ride horses. Anorexia Nervosa is already a problem for many teens, and articles like these just add fuel to the fire.

 Quite frankly, the way these stories have been reported seems to be nothing more than bashing overweight people. They have very little to do with the welfare of the horses. They're just sensationalized stories which get everyone all stirred up and give people who know nothing about horses a reason to point fingers and cry "abuse".

 Now don't get me wrong.  Weight does affect the horse. Weights are assigned to racehorses to "handicap" the race. In other words, the older, more successful horses are assigned more weight than the younger, less successful ones. This is done in order to even the chance of each horse being able to win. The higher weights slow the horses down, but they don't injure them. So if you're riding in a race, or if you're doing Grand  Prix jumping, or have a barrel horse in the National Finals Rodeo, perhaps a 10% ratio would be a good number to aim for, but otherwise it's ridiculous.

  And that's what's so troubling about this study. It does not differentiate between a high level performance horse and a horse used for recreational trail riding done at a walk. In the authors' own words, they did not take into account "age, breed, style of riding, or experience of the rider". There is also no mention of the horses' builds or their fitness levels- all of which are hugely important to the amount of weight they can safely carry. There is also no mention as to whether the horses' saddles fitted correctly. An ill-fitting saddle will magnify the effects of any weight the horse is bearing and is by far the most likely thing to cause a sore back.

   So let's look at some of those other factors. The first consideration is rider ability. People who know how to ride well enough to stay in balance with their horse, and distribute their weight evenly between their seat and their stirrups will be much easier on a horse (no matter what they weigh) than riders who are unsteady in the saddle. There have been studies done with infrared thermal photography, documenting that a heavier well-balanced rider puts less stress on the horse's back than a lighter, unbalanced rider. This makes perfect sense if you stop and think about it. A person can carry a heavier weight in a well balanced backpack than they can in an unsecured sack thrown over one shoulder. The balance of the weight makes all the difference.

   The next thing to consider is the horse's fitness level. A 15 hand horse who weighs 1200 lbs. because he's obese is not going to be able to carry any weight as easily as a 16 hand horse that weighs 1200 lbs from size and muscle weight, just like a 220 lb. Marine can carry weight much more easily than a 220 lb. sedentary office worker.

   The age of the horse is another huge consideration. A young horse's bones have not finished growing, and his tendons, ligaments, and muscles are all more prone to injury. Again this is just common sense. A large child is still not as strong as a healthy adult.

  The build of the horse also plays a part in how much weight a he can carry. Dr. Deb Bennet, Ph.D., who is an expert in the biomechanics of horses, says that horses who are wide across the loins are more able to carry weight, than their thinner counterparts. (Loins are the part of the horse's back located between their last rib and their croup.) So a stouter, wider horse is more able to carry weight than a taller, slimmer horse.

  So, taking all that into consideration, what is a healthy ratio of weight? Another study was done at Ohio State University. This study found that mature horses who were trotted and cantered, carrying between 15 and 20% of their body weight showed relatively little indication of stress. At 25% they started showing marked increases in their stress levels, and these increases became even more accentuated after 30%. The day after the experiment, the horses carrying 25% of their weight displayed some soreness, while those carrying 30% showed even more. The study also found that horses with larger cannon bones and (in agreement with Dr. Bennet) wider loins could bear the most weight without distress. The authors of this study concluded that riders should not weigh more than 20% of their horses' weight, which I think is a much more realistic number. The U.S. Calvary recommended this same ratio in their Manual of Horse Management published in 1920. And since the calvalry had thousands of men who practically lived on their horses to study, I think their findings are probably the most reliable of all.  

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I have been riding horses since I was two years old, and started earning money for riding while in my teens. After high school, I went to an accredited riding academy, and have done nothing but work with horses ever since I graduated (in 1973). I have moved all over the country with my jobs, worked with all kinds of different horses, and learned many different styles of riding. Currently, I am working as a pony girl (hence the pen name) on the racetrack in Louisiana. So, as you can imagine, I have had a very well rounded (still ongoing) education in horsemanship. I consider myself very lucky to have met so many knowledgeable people in so many different disciplines over the years. And now, I would like to share some of the things I've learned, with the readers of Of Horse.

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  1. autumnap
    autumnap
    What an interesting and debate provoking article! I know that most riding schools over here have a weight limit for clients to protect their horses' wellbeing. When I was judging however, I saw plenty of 'large' riders whose riding was lighter and more sympathetic than many of the skinnies! Voted. x
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    1. PonyGirl
      PonyGirl
      Thanks autumnap! I worked as a trail guide in California for awhile and we had 3 draft horses for larger individuals. We always tried to match the rider's size to the horse's. Some of the people we got were knowledgeable riders, but many could not ride at all, and their weight did make a difference to the horses. If we had adhered to the 10% rule though, we would have had to have all drafts for the adults. :D
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    2. Mark Calvo
      Mark Calvo
      Great point autumnap. I have seen some plus size woman who look beautiful in how they ride. I think it is not how much you weigh but how you carry that weight when in the saddle. There are so many factors to consider when working with an animal such as a horse.
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  2. Rene Wright
    Rene Wright
    Voted. Love this article. Many folks in my area don't take their weight into consideration and they really should. It takes hard work and determination to lose enough weight for your horse to be comfortable and safe enough to carry you. I know this to be true because I have only ridden Cookie one time for about 5 minutes, just to see if I could still ride. I am working very hard to lose the weight I need to in order to ride again... but I know it'll all be worth it for both of us.
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    1. PonyGirl
      PonyGirl
      Thanks Rene. That was another thing that I thought about but couldn't fit into my post. A lot of people are looking for an exercise to lose weight. Horseback riding is great exercise for this. The way these stupid "news' stories are set up are (I think) very discouraging to someone who would like to learn to ride and lose weight. This is a disservice to people looking to better themselves, and also a disservice to the many horses that need a home. The article is turning away potential horse owners. The 20% rule, which I think is reasonable, would apply to horses doing a moderate amount of work. You could actually go to a higher percentage if the horse was doing light exercise. The most important thing to remember is to make sure your horse has a properly fitting saddle. A 90 lb. kid could sore a horse's back up with an improperly fitting saddle. And of course, the more weight you put on it , the more of a problem it becomes. If the saddle fits correctly, all you have to do is take things slowly until your horse gets fit. Most injuries happen when your horse is tired- their muscles don't recover as quickly and can easily become strained. This is true, even if you were lunging your horse without any weight on her at all. What weight does is cause your horse to tire more quickly. The other thing you can do to help your horse is work on your balance. Once you're in balance with your horse, your weight won't have nearly as much effect on her. It's really a matter of common sense. A sturdily built, fit horse can carry a lot of weight comfortably. And even the second study I cited was flawed I think. They exercised the horses carrying 30% of their body weight. On a 1,000 lb. horse (which is not a big horse), he would be carrying 300 lbs! I know of very few horses who are used to carrying that much weight. They aren't fit for it. I saw female Marines who could run for miles carrying 75 lbs of gear. But they certainly would have injured themselves if they'd had to do that the first day of boot camp. So really, I think both studies, while well intentioned, are less than helpful. Just use common sense. A large man shouldn't ride a Shetland pony, but unless a person is morbidly obese, a normal sized, mature horse who is fit can carry them without much trouble. If you plan to do moderate to hard exercise on your horse, like the cavalry did, adhere to the 20% rule. Otherwise, be sure your saddle is comfortable for your horse, give your horse plenty of time to get fit through slow stages, and work on you balance. After that, just enjoy the ride!
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    2. Lori L
      Way to go, Rene! I encourage you to keep up the good work of weight loss! I have lost 23 lbs since Jan. of this year and feeling so much better. Last year, I actually had to have help getting up on a 15.2 gelding at a horse ranch because I was too heavy to carry my body over the saddle. When I owned my mare, I did not have a saddle; I just rode bareback... but then that was so many years ago, too. I was in good shape then. Now, I am dropping the weight by dropping what I loved the most: Wheat. Sugar. Soda pop. Fast foods/packaged foods. Now I replaced all this with fresh made foods with seasonings, lean meats, fish, lots of fresh vegetables and a little less of fruits to keep the sugar down. Tough, yes... doable...yes. This summer I will not have any trouble getting into the saddle by myself!! As for you, I say give it a try and ride Cookie for short periods of time during the week so she can get used to you on her and as you lose the weight, you will be able to extend the time on her!! Happy trails!!
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      1. MzLissa777
        Absolutely wonderful discussion, thxs PonyGirl for this post and to Lori for responding with your honesty. I too am setting my weight loss goals with horses in mind!
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  3. carolj418
    What a great article on a subject that all of us think about - especially as we get older and heavier. I think that you described the circumstances very well on the different horse and riders abilities. When I was training race horses I would prefer to put a larger jockey on my horse (especially a QH) than a light inexperienced one.
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    1. PonyGirl
      PonyGirl
      Thanks, so much!
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  4. BiologyBrain
    BiologyBrain
    Thank you for this wonderful article. I recently read another article here that seems to shame larger/heavier people into not using their horses. The comments that followed were also harsh on those who carry more weight than may be popularly considered acceptable. Traditionally, certain breeds of horses have been bred to carry more weight than others -- Shetland ponies immediately come to mind. As you say, there are MANY variables involved in determining what is too much for a horse to carry. I don't advocate obesity, but I believe we do need to use common sense and common courtesy when dealing with people of ALL sizes, shapes, and skill level. As some of the other comments mention, horseback riding (and just general horse keeping activities) is very good for helping to lose weight and/or get fit. If you do all your own horse keeping, you get a full body work out before you even sit in the saddle! Some people also can use horseback riding as their 'reward' and/or goal for weight loss. Earlier this summer I was at my heaviest at almost 170lbs. However, assisting in taking care of 5 horses (a new job for me) has helped me stay on a weight loss/muscle building regime. I now weight 160lbs. Thanks again!
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    1. PonyGirl
      PonyGirl
      Thank you for your kind comment, BiologyBrain!
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