Written by: Nicole Kitchener
Find out which factors influence whether a horse is comfortable carrying the weight of his/her rider.
In 2013, a study out of Great Britain’s Duchy College on rider-horse weight proportions published in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour garnered a lot of international press. The typically brash UK media crafted some attention-grabbing headlines, saying overweight people should “be banned from riding,” that obese riders “put horses’ health at risk,” and declaring a “plague of overweight riders.”
There is a longstanding unofficial rule of thumb that a horse should bear no more than 20 per cent of its body weight, including rider and equipment. That means a rider, plus tack, on an average 454-kilogram (1,000-pound) horse, should be less than 91 kilograms (200 pounds).
However, Duchy College researchers, responding to what they called a British equine “industry practitioner’s” assertion that riders should only weigh 10 per cent of their horse’s weight, set out to determine how many among 152 recreational riders fell within that rider-horse weight proportion.
Only five per cent made the grade. Thirty-two per cent weighed more than 15 per cent of the weight of their horse, which researchers said could lead to back and lameness (so-called “welfare”) issues. The remaining riders were at a “satisfactory” level between 10 and 15 per cent.
Not mentioned in most media accounts? All of the riders had a healthy body-mass index (or BMI), a standard measure of body fat based on height and weight. Researchers concluded, “The suggested 10 per cent guideline appears unrealistic within the general riding population.”
It’s true, society is getting larger. According to Statistics Canada, nearly two thirds of our nation’s adults are overweight or obese (more than doubling since 1980). But the rather overblown media response to the study and the subsequent reaction of countless riders on internet forums and communities worried about over-burdening their animals, signaled how sensitive and complicated an issue weight is in the horse world.
For many riders it’s about much more than looking svelte in their breeches. They’re asking: “Am I too heavy to ride my horse?”
No Hard and Fast Rule
Most experts acknowledge the answer can’t be wrapped up in a tidy formula. Even the Duchy College researchers noted their suggested guidelines were “broad-brush” and didn’t take into account the horse’s age, breed, style of riding and the rider’s experience – just a few of the (often subjective) variables at play when determining whether a horse and rider are suited weight-wise.
And it’s not just about riders carrying extra pounds. An average-sized adult rider on a fine-boned, 10-hand pony could potentially cause more damage than an overweight person on a big horse.
Tim Barton has been a trail guide/outfitter for nearly 40 years. He owns and operates The Outpost at Warden Rock near Banff, Alberta, with his wife Julie Leavens.
Like many trail and riding lesson operators, they have instituted a weight restriction. At 131-kilograms (250 pounds), it’s a pretty standard limit, but Barton said there’s some sway, depending on his client’s muscle-to-fat ratio, weight distribution, experience in the saddle and fitness level. “We’re very protective of the horse,” said Barton, who also taught equine comparative anatomy at Olds College for two decades. “If we notice any discomfort, or we can’t get the person to balance in the saddle, we will restrict the timeframe they’re mounted.”
Leavens noted that they’ve hosted larger clients who “can ride a horse all day long and not cause the horse any discomfort.” She recalls one man in particular, a soldier, who, although beyond the weight limit, was extremely fit and well balanced and, therefore, didn’t hurt his mount in any way.
But Barton did say, “The heavier a person is, the more prone they are to damaging a horse.”
Does (Only) Size Matter?
A 2008 Ohio State University study published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science bears out Barton’s belief. It found that horses ridden for 45 minutes (exercise mimicking an average riding lesson) packing 15 to 20 per cent of their body weight displayed minimal signs of stress. Muscle soreness and tightness, heart rate, respiration and temperature were significantly higher at loads of 25 per cent and even greater at 30 per cent.
“When a horse moves under a weight that’s too great for them, it leads to excessive ligament stress and muscle soreness, imbalance and pain,” explained Leavens. The animal might simply pin their ears or move away when saddled or exhibit serious behavioural issues like bucking, rearing or lying down under tack.
While many trail operators have started using taller, bulkier mounts, such as draft breeds, to accommodate an increasing number of larger riders, it isn’t necessarily size that dictates whether a horse can tolerate heavy burdens. It also depends on their own body weight and fitness level, breed and build, conformation, the type and level of work they’ll be doing and any history of injuries. Notably, in the Ohio State study, the horses showing the least amount of soreness had wider loins and thicker cannon bone circumference.
Barton’s dude-string horses are mainly Tennessee Walkers, Quarter Horses, draft crosses and mules in the 15- to 15.2-hand range. Although not tall, they’re “all big-boned and fairly large-footed” he said, adding that it’s also easier for larger people to mount shorter horses.
Amanda Appleby, 30, from Fredericton, New Brunswick, writes about plus-sized riders on her blog, A Fat Girl & A Fat Horse. She notes larger riders might prefer a bigger mount. “Though I don’t believe height truly very often plays a big factor in whether a horse is a good weight bearer, a plus-sized rider will often feel a lot more comfortable on a horse with some substance even if a smaller horse could carry them fine.”
Overweight riders should also be aware that they could be at greater risk of injury than average-sized individuals.
Susan Sokoloski co-owns and operates Summit Sport Physiotherapy in Okotoks, AB. She also gives posture and body awareness clinics for riders across the country through her company E-Sport Physiotherapy. She says a high body-mass index is “highly correlated” with hip and knee osteoarthritis and heavier children are more susceptible to lower extremity injuries.
“These issues may then impair the ability to ride with the appropriate strength and balance, not to mention the pain that may be caused by sitting in the saddle, moving with the horse or posting,” she explained. “High BMI is also associated with increased injury in contact sports. This would suggest that overweight riders that fall off are potentially at more risk of being injured.”
Sokoloski said lower levels of fitness can create lower back and pelvic pain and poor core muscle co-ordination. Riding may increase the forces on the spine’s joints and ligaments and cause injury. Extra weight can also affect posture, which is, in turn, related to balance. A rider needs to have core strength and co-ordination to “respond to the horse’s movements appropriately,” she added. “They are powerful animals that create momentum in the human body. The rider not only needs to balance themselves, but to use their neuromuscular system to hold their position and control for the forces applied to them.”
Industry Steps Up
Experts all agree, saddle fit is critical to prevent pressure sores and other pain in horses and, likewise, to facilitate a rider’s own comfort through balance and proper weight distribution. Barton said finding a saddle that’s a good fit for both is “quite a thing to accomplish.” Yet it’s much easier than in the past with saddle makers creating more off-the-rack models for bigger bums and builds than ever before.
In fact, the horse industry on the whole is responding to the societal trend of burgeoning weights and cultural shifts. Over the last decade or so, many companies have emerged that cater specifically to heavier-set riders with items such as specially designed clothes, tack and boots. Established businesses are also gearing more products to this demographic of equestrians.
“I think retailers and manufacturers are finally waking up to the underserved market of plus-sized riders out there who have the money to buy their products,” said Appleby. “I do think there is more support out there than there used to be, but I don’t know if that’s just because more big riders are allowing themselves to enjoy horses or because there has been a change in society in general.”
But, at a time when larger riders are being embraced by tack shops and equestrian wear boutiques, a climate of fat-shaming and discrimination still exists in Canadian barns and show rings. But nowhere is the venom as severe as online.
The Dark Net
Forums and comment sections are rife with inflammatory rhetoric that often goes beyond name calling. A few internet bullies even go so far as to suggest overweight riders should commit suicide.
Appleby began blogging in 2009, mainly to detail the journey working with her black draft-cross Bronwyn. “I was a member of several very large horse forums and found, while there seemed to be a large number of bigger riders, nobody was talking about it, and if they were, it wasn’t very positively,” she explained. “I felt like there needed to be a place where riders of size could go that was a safe space.”
Not having experienced negativity from equestrians in person, she began to see haters emerge online in response to her blog. Not only has Appleby received undesirable comments, but people have stolen her blog photos for what she calls “unkind purposes,” which, at their worst, involved sexually explicit suggestions or deemed her a horse abuser.
However, she says she can take the mistreatment. “If that means someone else doesn’t have to shoulder it, I’m okay with that,” she said.
Appleby is just one of many people who are battling back, finding a voice and a shared community through blogs and forums dedicated to awareness, healthy body image, fitness and quashing critics. Appleby’s own writings have struck a chord and that’s what keeps her positive about what she’s doing. “I don’t feel special or authoritative about anything, but I do feel like the fact that I was open and talked about my struggles, confidence issues and experiences in a way that not many were publicly doing before me resonated with people.”
Appleby wonders if a gender bias is also at play. “Amongst our group of ‘big-girl riders’ there’s a joke that man fat weighs less than woman fat,” she said. “You often see big, tall cowboys on little stock horses asking them to perform much more athletic and demanding tasks than most of us are asking of our horses, but they don’t tend to get called out the same way a woman does.”
It’s clear there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to whether a horse and rider measure up when it comes to weight and size. It really does just depend. But if you’re unsure, consult experts – veterinarians, saddle fitters, human and horse physiotherapists, for instance – who can help keep both you and your horse comfortable, happy and injury-free. 32653.jpg
There is a longstanding unofficial rule of thumb that a horse should bear no more than 20 per cent of its body weight, including rider and equipment.
Is Hitting the Saddle a Good Way to Lose Weight?
Well, said Alberta physiotherapist and jumper competitor Sandra Sokoloski, “any activity is better than no activity.” But she added, “It doesn’t measure up well against other forms of exercise for improving fitness and weight loss.”
Sokoloski noted it largely depends on the type of riding a person is doing. “If it involves more sitting trot, cantering or jumping, the energy expenditure of the rider is higher and may be more effective for weight loss,” she said.
Research published in in the Journal of Exercise Science in 2015 by Texas A&M equine and health specialists indicates this is true. A study to determine the exercise value of riding as an activity to help fight obesity and disease stemming from sedentary lifestyles concluded, “Riding at intense gaits such as long trot and canter can lead to health benefits through accumulated weekly riding.”
According to Sokoloski, there are other healthy benefits. “Studies have shown that riding can significantly improve balance reactions, which is correlated with the ability to perform daily functional activities. This may enable more activity generally. Spending time with horses also has a significant impact on mood which can indirectly positively affect the weight-loss process.”
Poor Posture=Poor Balance
Dr. Wayne Singleton, a chiropractor based in Cobourg, Ontario, says poor posture is a tell-tale sign of imbalance.
Often, he said, people carry more weight on one side of their body than the other, hold one shoulder or hip higher than the other, or tilt their heads to the side and/or too far forward or back, for example. Each of these habits can translate to poor position in the saddle.
He recommends that riders undergo postural assessments to help improve their balance. The key areas that are assessed are “the arches of the feet, the pelvic and shoulder tilt, the level of the skull, and whether any of these structures are rotated.”
Becoming aware of “how one lists to one side and can help people ride more centred,” he said, adding that carrying a more centred rider also benefits the horse. “In addition, many people have a pelvic torque, giving them instability in the saddle, causing them to have to use more leg to stay in position.
“The majority of people are imbalanced and continually adapting,” he said. “Because we always accommodate, one may not even be aware of this.”
Dr. Singleton brought a Spinal Analysis Machine (S.A.M.) to Maple Crescent Farm in Campbellcroft, Ontario recently, where several curious riders lined up to be assessed. The machine has two scales, which display weight differential (in pounds), showing how a person is accommodating, or not, for their postural distortions. Upright bars can be utilized with strings between to show shoulder, pelvic and head tilt as well as in the side view how far the head is carried forward or back.
Most people discovered weight distortion to some degree – from just a few pounds difference, up to 20 pounds more on one side than the other. In several cases, the root of the issues could be traced back to past injuries or job-related repetitive stress. Depending on the results of the assessment, a chiropractor can recommend adjustments and/or exercises to help improve problem areas.
It’s not just about riders carrying extra pounds. An average-sized adult rider on a fine-boned, 10-hand pony could potentially cause more damage than an overweight person on a big horse. ~ Amy Harris