While waiting to judge a local dressage competition yesterday evening, I noticed a lovely horse being worked on the lunge. The horse just floated across the ground and oozed presence. The natural lift and suspension that horse possessed was jaw-dropping and I felt myself turning green with envy as I watched him scooting round in a huge extended trot as a noisy lorry passing on the nearby road spooked him. I could hardly wait to see him performing his test later in the class.
The first dozen or so combinations had been and gone and I was still awaiting the arrival of the superstar I had seen earlier on the lunge. Next to go was a rather miserable-looking creature with what can only be described politely as "flat" and "earthbound" paces. I heaved a deep sigh as I watched him shuffling disconsolately around the edge of the arena whilst his rather large lady rider insisted on sitting heavily to the trot even though the level of the test she was riding permits rising, whilst happily using the reins (and therefore the horse's mouth) to balance herself. As I sat cringing, the penny suddenly dropped. Here was the aforementioned superstar, but oh what a contrast with his rider on board!
Detailed research has established the effects of back pressure on the horse. If a horse is schooled intensively for over 20 minutes, the average back pressure must not exceed 0.1kg per square centimetre. Working with a continual pressure (sitting trot for example) for longer than this will constrict circulation to the muscles of the back and the blood vessels that supply them. The result will be a greatly reduced supply of oxygen which causes spasms. Thus, if a saddle is designed with a potential contact surface area of 150 square inches, then the rider, clothing and saddle should not exceed 220lb in weight.
Rather worryingly, the saddlery industry has begun to respond to the increase in plus-size riders by offering 22 inch saddles specifically with "rider comfort" in mind. Surely making saddles bigger to accommodate overweight riders is not the way forward as far as horse welfare is concerned. The horse's back is not evolving magically to carry more weight and the increased pressure exerted by a bigger saddle can only have a detrimental effect on the poor horse concerned. Clothing manufacturers now routinely produce jodhpurs and show jackets in XXL sizes and bigger, along with extra wide-topped riding boots in response to demand.
We have this the wrong way around don't we? We really should not be manufacturing supersize saddles and clothing which encourage ever larger people to take up riding whilst horses just have to suffer in silence. Surely people who can't fit comfortably into a standard size saddle should make the effort to lose weight and get fitter before they take up riding? I'm not "fattist" at all and nor am I a size zero, but I really do think that people should put the welfare of the horse first. Most riding schools and trekking centres now have a weight limit for riders, and rightly so.
I suppose in days of old knights in heavy suits of armour mounted on strong draught-type horses galloped into battle without worrying about such things, but as a much more well-informed generation, surely we should do the right thing by our horses and either give the cream cakes a miss for a while or think twice about mounting up.