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A Weighty Issue
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A Weighty Issue

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.

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  1. PonyGirl
    Rider weight is a very complex problem. Saddle fit, rider fitness and ability, horse's build and fitness, plus the work the horse is required to do all play a part in whether or not weight is a problem for an individual horse. I would think that the rider just sitting there on the horse like a lump and hanging on his mouth did more to destroy his action than the actual weight. However carrying weight definitely affects performance. In this case I would say poor rider ability and fitness was the main problem, compounded by her weight. I'm also curious about the study you mentioned. Did they use both western and English saddles? Did the larger area of the western saddle help (if they were used in the study)? Was the rider's ability taken into consideration? Did the rider supporting herself in the stirrups make a difference? This is definitely a subject that needs study. However study is needed by people who actually understand the problem. Lately, so many of the studies I've seen on horses, completely misunderstand horses' fundamental nature or (like the study I wrote about) come to completely unrealistic conclusions (such as only people who are jockey-weight should ride). Lots of food for thought here.
    1. autumnap
      Yes, indeed. I've judged a lot of big riders who ride very lightly indeed. I think the study focussed on English saddles rather than Western although it was carried out in the US by a physiotherapist. I think that saddle design counts for a lot too and also what kind of saddle pad/cloth is used. From what I've observed over the years balance is a major issue for overweight riders. They do not have the core strength to maintain good posture and too often the reins are used to steady the wobble, so to speak. There are certainly horses which are built to carry weight and those which plainly aren't. As you rightly say, it's a huge can of worms and a very thought-provoking subject. x
  2. Rene Wright
    Rene Wright
    Voted. There is quite the controversy about weighted riders vs. the horse they ride. Being a heavy person myself I am very aware of how much my horse can safely carry without bad consequences. Though I am also working diligently to lose weight so I can ride longer and my horse will be more comfortable. My time limit for riding is around 10 minutes and only at the walk. I don't think people are being educated enough about general care and safety of riding and their weight. The rule of thumb has always been the weight of the rider, clothes and saddle should not exceed %25 of the horses total body weight. Therefore a 1000 lb horse could "safely" carry 250 lbs total. Of course rider ability makes a huge difference in the performance of the horse as well as how fit the horse is. A stronger topline and back muscle would be better to handle the weight load. It's also been said that a wider backed horse could handle weighted riders far better than those who are more narrow. Makes sense to some degree. I still go by the %25 of 1000 lbs. so I've got quite a ways to go, but I'm getting there. As for the judging aspect of it, chances are (in my opinion) had the rider had advanced riding experience the outcome of the performance would more than likely been better because she would have worked "with" her horse instead of being a passenger. When I was a kid, we would go to shows where there were 2 classes in western. 1. Equitation and 2. Pleasure. I never could keep it straight which was for the horse and which for the rider so I just decided to work with my horse and do my best for both. I know that's not the case for English, but the same could be said.. do your best for both horse and rider to showcase both abilities and performance.
    1. autumnap
      Thank you. I've certainly seen some larger riders who ride more sympathetically and lightly than many of the stick insects on the circuit. I think the research I referred to in the article is particularly interested in the effect of weight distribution on the horse's back muscles, blood vessels etc. I suppose it makes sense - if I were to have a rucksack on my back which weighed 1/4 of my body weight for 20 minutes, my back would go numb too! x
      1. Rene Wright
        Rene Wright
        Oh! my apologies for getting off topic. :-S
        1. autumnap
          Lol! Not at all, many varied and valid points have been raised and the original article seems to have sparked a great debate which can only be good. It's certainly a very emotive topic and with obesity rates in children as well as adults at an all time high here in the UK, it's a discussion that will run and run! x
  3. jst4horses
    This article is a good one, I see mini horses with huge adults skinny or not, they are much too big for those tiny animals, or fat twelve year olds. However, there are large numbers of men who have ridden for centuries who are well over 300 pounds, so the question should not be limited to weight. I think more than weight, this woman probably did not have good rapport with this horse. I have run a program called "Size Two Saddleclub" for obese youth and teens for decades now. The premise is: if you get on the horse you want to ride, and the knees buckle, you are going to have to ride the draft horses. A misconception is that knights galloped around anywhere. They were put up on their horses with cranes, and that short 100 yard tournament was about it. In movies they use thinner "knights" and faster horses, but in reality the days of knights and horses jousting with full armour were restricted by strict rules and were not fast and furious as movies portray today. People in movies are always galloping around. Take a look at the Lone Ranger. I loved the movie, but the horses in movies since early on westerns are called "chase horses" and the humane societies only allow short thirty second chases. The horses are rested, the cameras reset, and the next shot taken. People need to realize it is not real. Horses were cheap and not cared about by some, but for the most part, people knew better than to race the legs off their horses. Even the most fit race horses do not race more than two miles. The pony express stations were close together, the riders changed horses and on their way back took the horses back to the base stations, the pony boys (often girls with hair cut short and nowhere else to live but be pony express riders and pony boys, cooled out the animals left by the last rider. Movies and television have not done horses a service with the idea they can go on forever. I have seen completely fit race horses drop dead on the track of an exploded heart or lung........and most races are less than a minute. Top speed is not healthy for horses with riders, on their own, they never run more than a quarter mile. It is usually well meaning screaming riders, and people chasing them that makes a loose horse run farther. Weight. Get a horse than carry you. or lose weight. I have found my own horses just said, when I got a horrible hormonal cancer that caused weight gain, you are too much, and I do not ride them anymore. I have not lost some after surgery.......and hope to ride again, but the truck accident I was in hit by kids racing harmed both my hips and legs, and back so I can not get ON, or off. The horses are probably just as happy without riding. Please remember there are plenty of slender people who are horrible and vicious riders, and not to pick on big persons. I would have to watch, but I would tend to think this horse was held back by a bad rider, not because of weight. The Arabians all seem fiery and tempermental no matter how big their riders. Of course they have that shorter back, and it helps them.
    1. autumnap
      Thank you for commenting! I agree with much of what you say. My point was that the research shows the effect of prolonged pressure on the horse's back and the problems this can cause. From what I have observed over the years while judging, overweight riders are generally less balanced and more inclined to interfere with and compromise their horse's way of going. I was spectating at a horse trials event today and saw a dreadful rider pulling, tugging and manhandling his unfortunate horse around the cross country course. The rider was, and there's no polite way of putting it, hugely fat. His balance was non-existent and the horse did a good job of staying on its feet as he bounced around on its back and socked it in the teeth over every element of the combination of fences I saw him negotiate. The XC course was intermediate level and challenging with undulating ground and some very technical fences. The horses needed all the help their riders could provide in keeping their own balance and rhythm - not the hindrance provided by this man.
  4. Jane
    I have to agree with you. It's a sensitive issue since people tend to get defensive and feel that you are judging or criticising bigger riders. However, it's nothing personal at all. The simple fact is that horses are limited in the amount of weight they can effectively manage. The other aspect is the rider's level of ability and therefore their capacity to make life easier for their horse. I halso ave to agree with you in saying that, in my experience, the overweight riders that I taught tended to have less balance and coordination than others. It's an observation that I have also heard other riding instructors make and in fact it was the subject of a recent conversation I had with an old colleague. That is a generalisation that obviously doesn't apply to every individual and I do recognise that thin riders are not automatically better. As I said to my colleague the other day, I'd far rather teach an overweight rider who makes an effort than a skinny one who cant be bothered. It sickens me to watch riders who sit like a sack of potatoes, regardless of their weight. There is a man who jumps at a local equestrian centre here who sounds very like the man you described, except that he isn't too heavy for his horse, just too lazy.
    1. autumnap
      Thanks for commenting. It's certainly a debate that will go on especially given the obesity epidemic in the UK at the moment. The Olympics last year certainly seem to have encouraged more kids into riding and sport in general which is obviously a good thing but I do think that those who want to ride need to make the effort to get in shape first, rather than using the poor horse as a mobile gym! x
  5. arabobsession
    Horses have sensitive backs and I think and have learnt from experience, that as long as your horse is not buckling under your weight and you are not bouncing around they cope fine. I am and have been slender all my life, but when I'm having one of those days when I can't seem to rise to the trot, my mare tells me very quickly that it hurts and I need to do something different that day. I usually stand in my stirrups at the halt and then go forward, because usually it's because I have twisted my upper body (leaning like you do when you are riding a motor bike), and thing improve. Weight can be an issue, but core strength of the rider is greater. Good article, and great comments
  6. BiologyBrain
    I think instead of focusing on rider weight the focus should be on rider empathy. I know others have said it, but a good heavy rider can be far less damaging than a poor light rider. Tensile the 25% rule sounds great, nothing is ever that simple. A fit 200 lb cowboy with a 20+ lb saddle doesn't injure his horse by not posting or not getting off, he has conditioned the horse properly for its work that is most likely bred to do. The same was true in the old days when ponies were often ridden by all members of the family. Some of those crofters (male & female) surely weighed more than 25% of their ponies' weight. Yet, once again, the ponies were bred and conditioned to do the work required of them. I'm not advocating overburdening horses, but I am advocating staying away from generalities -- especially those about weight. In all honesty, I think sometimes we are to blame for horses that can't take what they're bred to do because we prize and breed the wrong traits. You can't ride a pretty head any more than you should ride a long/weak back. A proper fit, not just of saddle to horse, but of horse to rider and horse to work is the key.

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