Question of the Week: How much weight can a horse carry?

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Belgian Draft Horse
A fit, healthy horse with a sturdy build can typically carry more weight than a horse with a finer build or one that is out of shape.

Q: How do I determine what is a safe weight for a horse to carry? I have received several different answers ranging from 20% of the horse’s weight (including tack) to any horse over 15hh can carry 300 pounds safely. Is there one rule of thumb or standard that I can use to determine if a horse can carry me safely? Does the breed or type of horse make a difference?

A: A black and white answer to your question was established in an article published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science in 2008. This study, done at The Ohio State University Agricultural Technical Institute took eight riding horses, loaded them with certain percentages of their overall body weights, ranging from 15 to 30%, then worked the horses and recorded their vital signs. The results from this study showed that all the horses in the study had no problem carrying up to 20% of their body weight (which translates into an average 1,200 pound horse being able to carry a total of 240 pounds). Horses carrying 25% and 30% of their body weight had higher heart and respiratory rates during exercise, and muscles that were more sore a day after exercise. So, in short, a good rule of thumb is that an average horse can carry 20% of his bodyweight (keeping in mind this is tack combined with the weight of the rider).

The long answer to your question is: it depends on the horse. The 2008 study noted, along with the 20% rule, horses with wider loins and those with relatively thick cannon bones were the least sore in the study group based on subjective scoring by the researchers and blood levels of muscle enzymes that are released into systemic circulation during times of excessive musculoskeletal stress. These findings clearly establish that a horse’s conformation also dictates, to an extent, how much he can carry. Overall fitness level of the horse also comes into play, as does what you are asking the horse to do. In general, if you have a fairly fit horse with large bone structure on a relaxing trail ride consisting of walking and the occasional trot, there’s no reason this horse can’t carry beyond the 20% rule – in fact this happens all the time as there are plenty of riders out there who push beyond the 240 pound limit on their 1200 pound horse, or the 200 pound limit on their 1000 pound horse but still enjoy a good ride while not worrying they are overburdening their mounts. Using common sense to evaluate your horse’s fitness level and keeping the 20% rule in mind should help guide you in determining what is “safe” for your horse to carry.

On a historical side note, the 20% rule has been in use for much longer than this 2008 study. The U.S. Cavalry Manuals of Horse Management in 1920 stated that no horse should carry more than 20% of his body weight in equipment and rider.

For more on this topic, read Too Heavy to Ride? from the February 2014 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine.

17 COMMENTS

  1. BEFORE I EVER KNEW THE 20% RULE, I RODE A SMALLER ARABIAN WHO I, AT FIRST, WAS AN OK SIZE FOR. DURING THE 6 YEARS I OWNED HIM, (LIKE ALOT OF PEOPLE), I PUT ON WEIGHT. THEN I LEARNED ABOUT THE 20% RULE. I NOT ONLY FELT “UNDER-HORSED” FROM ME GAINING WEIGHT AND HIM BEING SMALL, BUT I LEARNED HE REALLY WAS CARRYING TOO MUCH FOR HIS SIZE. HE WAS ABOUT 850-875# AND THE TOTAL OVERALL WEIGHT HE WAS CARRYING WAS ABOUT 200# AND HE NEVER SEEMED TO BE BOTHERED BY IT. WE MAINLY TRAIL RODE, WALK-TROT-CANTER AND ALL. HE CARRIED ME QUITE WELL I THOUGHT AND SO DID MY FRIENDS. EVEN THO I HAD HIM FOR 6 YRS AND HAD TAUGHT HIM SO MUCH AND DONE ALOT W/HIM I FELT GUILTY CAUSE HE WAS REALLY TO SMALL FOR ME. I WASNT GETTING ANY SMALLER AND HE WASNT GETTING ANY BIGGER. SO I FINALLY MADE THE DECISION TO SELL HIM. I NOW HAVE AN ARABIAN THAT’S THE PERFECT SIZE FOR ME AND I KNOW HE CAN CARRY ME AND MY TACK COMFORTABLY. AND THATS SO MUCH MORE COMFORTING FOR ME KNOWING THAT.

  2. The best information out there on this subject is, bar none, the article written by Dr. Deb Bennett, entitled “The Ranger Piece.” One also has to take into consideration the terrain, such as deep sand, the size of the horse’s cannon bones (a good size at maturity should be at least 8″), and the skeletal maturity of the horse. Dr. Bennett’s article is a must-read for all horse owners, breeders, trainers and instructors.

  3. Great article! I’ve actually wondered about this myself! I have 2 saddles I ride in. One is a trophy roping saddle and is quite heavy! The second that I bought when I got my newest rescue horse is a SUPER lightweight synthetic “barrel” saddle. The smaller saddle is not much bigger and ultimately probably lighter than an English style saddle, and I use that if we’re trail riding or working out of the arena. For arena work and because my Smokey is still putting weight on and increasing his fittness level, I use the heavier roping saddle with a back cinch and breast collar. I guess I’m hoping that I can condition him to the heavier saddle so when we use the light, closer contact saddle, he knows we’re out to play/have fun and also it’s maybe a nice change up.

  4. I was just thinking about this subject after my sister and I rode double bareback on my horse today! Oh I love when things like wondering and having the answer given to in the same day happen!

  5. Great article. That means that my horse can carry a person of 40lbs. I actually would have guessed around 50lbs and he probably can. Of course, the lighter and fitter we are the easier we are to carry.

  6. There is also a study which, shows that a heavier rider who, sits in balance and moves with the horse stresses the horse less than a lighter weight rider sitting unbalanced!

  7. Thank you so much for this information. I have been trying hard to lose wt. because I feel guilty riding my 1200 lb. horse at 200 lbs. I’m tired of the comments from people who don’t know anything about riding or horses.

  8. Thanks I think this is REALLY important because I hate seeing videos or even in person, seeing bigger people on tiny horses. It breaks my heart to see them under soooooooo much work at a walk!!!
    Replies to other riders: Mikaela of Belchertown, MA; yes I totally agree, VERY wrong.
    Tammy of Stanton, KY; don’t feel bad, lots of people are in the same situastion as you are matter of fact I bet you are down right gorgeous the way you are. (Also your horse LOVES you the way you are!)
    Carol of Chantilly, VA; thanks for the great tip!
    Allie of Carter, ME; i know right? that is cool that they can tell how much weight a horse can hold by how big they are!
    thanks for posting HorseChannel!
    -KansasCityCowgirl
    Peace Ride Fun Love

  9. PLEASE ANSWER!
    I ride an 800 pound horse/pony. I weigh 100 pounds, and together with my saddle, my horse is carrying 150 pounds. I try not to interfere with his movement by being off balance, but do I weigh too much? Should I go on a diet?

  10. I ride in lessons so the horse I ride varies but one of the horses I ride is a relatively small horse about 14.3hh to 15hh (I don’t know for sure) and I am 5’7″. Since I started riding more seriously I gained a lot of muscle and now weigh 165lbs. Am I too big for her? I am one of the only people who can ride her without her fussing.

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