I wanted to enter a showjumping competition recently and was told I’d need to shed a few pounds to be eligible to enter on my 17.5 hands healthy horse. Now, anyone that knows me will realise I may be tall and well built, but I’m definitely not “heavy” in the sense of being overweight. I was happy to comply, though, and did … but it led me to notice the ongoing contentious debate about big people riding horses!
Is this, as many have contested, “fat shaming”, or is there in fact a limit to how much you should weigh in proportion to your mount before you go riding for welfare reasons?
There’s some science behind this controversial question, so I’ve looked in to it. It’s sad to think that there are some big people out there afraid to ride their beloved horses for fear of being shamed, especially on social media groups where posters are quick to post their opinion on the strength of a photograph with little information about the subject!
We should all be able to enjoy our horses, but none of us I’m sure would wish to cause them discomfort or distress, so let’s look at some cold, hard facts before we rush to judge.
The Weight Factor
Until a few years ago it was a matter of common sense to judge whether your horse was suitable for your size. Then came the controversy, sparked online, and suddenly organisations like the British Equestrian Federation (BEF) and World Horse Welfare started taking note of the possibility that horses were being injured by carrying excessive loads. This at a time when obesity rates in general are increasing (64.3% in the UK are now reckoned to be overweight or obese).
Research proliferated, and many equestrian organisations – including the Pony Club and riding schools – started issuing guidelines on the horse/rider weight ratio.
The problem with research into this issue is that there are so many variables!
Heavy riders carry their excess weight in different places, putting pressure on different points on their mounts, and they have different skill and fitness levels. Incorrectly fitting saddles and tack can also exacerbate the situation, and of course the build and gait of the horse itself can be a factor.
Concerned horse riders, especially those who carry a few extra pounds, are crying out for firm advice about whether their horses are happy carrying them or whether they’re saddling them with too much weight.
Well, sorry to say but although a myriad of vets, horse organisations and researchers have come up with horse/rider weight and size ratios, none as yet appear to be definitive – and they probably never will be!
The best we can say after reading dozens of studies and articles is that when a load (and this means rider and tack) exceeds 20% of the horse’s bodyweight, the horse will struggle and show physical signs of stress and soreness.
Exceeding the limits
All of this doesn’t mean that heavy people can’t ride … it just means that you need to be matched to the right mount, and have a correctly fitted saddle.
Different equestrian associations and different disciplines have their own weight rules for competition, which have obviously been carefully considered with the horse’s welfare in mind. No-one wants to deny anyone the joy of riding and competing, but the limits are there for good reason. If you’re asked to dismount at an event don’t take it as an insult to you personally – it’s just for safety’s sake.
So, what happens if you’re too big for your horse and ride on anyway?
Well most researchers seem to agree that horses carrying up to 20% of their bodyweight manage fine, but once this ratio increases they will begin to show signs of strain like laboured, fast breathing, higher heart rates and muscle soreness. There’s also evidence that gait and behaviour is impacted by riders that are too heavy for the horse.
All logical, it has to be said. But continually being exposed to such strain would obviously be detrimental to the animal in the long term. The type of exercise would also impact on performance – a horse with a heavy rider on a leisurely hack would obviously not take as much strain as the same pair tackling a cross country course.
I’m pretty sure that we’ve not heard the last of this weighty equestrian issue, but until there is more definitive scientific research on the matter let’s just be sensible and not overtax our horses and ponies, and avoid being judgmental of others.
Enjoy your riding, large or small, and if you need advice on any aspect of your riding or tack don’t hesitate to ask. Totally Tack is all about keeping horses and riders happy!