Too Heavy to Ride

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Illustrations by Chris Ware

Too Heavy

In the spring of 2013, research out of Duchy College in the United Kingdom suggested that many riders were heavy enough to cause welfare concerns for their horses. The study was based on the assertion that a rider should ideally weigh 10 percent of her horse’s weight. As word of the research spread around equestrian circles, riders did some quick mental math—and panicked.

If an average riding horse weighs 1,000 pounds, then the ideal rider would weigh 100 pounds—not exactly an attainable goal for most adults. But before writing off horseback riding as an activity only for kids and jockeys or trading in your light horse for a Clydesdale, take a closer look at the research.

The Duchy College study was a collection of data from riders and horses in the United Kingdom designed to be a starting point for further research. The researchers looked at riders with what is considered a healthy body mass index (BMI), the measure of a person’s weight in relation to their height. The survey revealed that these riders were between 14.2 and 16.6 percent of their horse’s weight.

So where did that 10 percent figure come from? The researchers used numbers provided by “an industry practitioner” as the basis for their scale. According to that source, a 10 percent rider-to-horse bodyweight ratio is optimal and 15 percent is satisfactory. Once a rider’s weight hits 20 percent, it would be considered a welfare issue. Mainstream news outlets picked up the 10 percent statistic and published it in somewhat sensationalized headlines, even though the study allowed for a more attainable 15 percent. Still, the stories brought an important issue to light. As obesity rates climb, are we jeopardizing our horses’ welfare?

How Heavy is Too Heavy?


One of the most frequently cited recommendations on matching horses and riders comes from the U.S. Cavalry Manual of Horse Management. It recommends that the rider and gear weigh no more than 20 percent of the horse’s weight. The mention of gear is important—a western saddle can add another 30 pounds or more to a horse’s back, easily pushing the total burden past that 20-percent point. These standards were based on the educated opinions of military horsemen at the time, and scientific studies in more recent decades have backed them up.

Research from Ohio State University (OSU) published in 2008 measured stress and soreness indicators in horses before, during and after exercise while carrying 15, 20, 25 or 30 percent of their body weight. The horses were put through a 45-minute workout designed to replicate an average riding lesson. Lead weights were added to both sides of the saddle to reach the necessary total weight.

Too Heavy

Don’t forget to take your tack into consideration. A western saddle can add 30 ounds or more to your horse’s total burden.

The researchers found that the horses started to exhibit a change in muscle soreness and tightness once their burden reached the 25-percent point, and those measurements increased significantly at 30 percent. Horses carrying 25 or 30 percent of their body weight also had an elevated heart rate, respiration and temperature compared to those that carried 15 or 20 percent. These findings appear to verify the old cavalry guideline.

Karen Wimbush, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Agricultural Technologies Division at OSU and was one of the researchers who conducted the 2008 study.

“The horse that carries more weight is doing more work,” says Wimbush. “That is simple physics.”

The riders in the OSU study were experienced equestrians instructed to ride as quietly as possible, and the horses still showed increased stress and soreness indicators when carrying 25 and 30 percent of their weight. However, Wimbush believes that the skill and balance of the rider are more influential than weight when it comes to the horse’s comfort and soundness.

“Without a doubt, a quiet, balanced rider causes less stress to a horse than a ‘busy’ or unbalanced rider,” says Wimbush. “Rider weight is a factor as well, as the study proved, but a balanced rider centered over the horse’s center of gravity is less stressful than an unbalanced rider of the same weight. Even a heavier rider that is balanced probably isn’t as hard on a horse as a lighter-weight rider that isn’t as balanced.”

Wimbush also points out that, in her experience, lameness issues pop up more in horses subjected to frequent improper or novice riding than in those that carry more weight but are consistently ridden correctly.

Too Heavy

Type matters. Research indicates that horses with more bone and wider loins are better able to carry weight than those with less bone.

Not All Body Weight is Created Equal


When we talk about a horse’s body weight in relation to how much weight he can carry, it may seem too simplistic. Should a fine-boned Thoroughbred be expected to carry the same amount of weight as a stocky Quarter Horse of equal body weight?

The OSU study examined this question by looking not just at the equine subjects’ body weight, but also at their amount of bone. This is done by measuring the circumference around the middle of the cannon bone. The researchers also measured the width of each horse’s loin. They found that the results correlated inversely with muscle soreness. In other words, horses with more bone and a wider loins seemed better able to carry weight without negative effects.

Fitness Matters


Type and size aren’t the only considerations. A young or green horse with little under-saddle mileage is akin to a sedentary person hitting the gym for the first time. Even a small amount of exercise will leave them sore for a few days. Similarly, a senior horse or one with a history of injuries won’t be able to bear the same amount of weight that he could when he was younger and sounder. But adult horses with a high level of conditioning are able to push the boundaries of athletic achievement.

A pair of studies performed in 1996 and 1999 examined horses that competed in the Tevis Cup, a challenging 100-mile endurance race that takes place each year in California. The researchers looked at the body weight and condition of all horses that started the race in 1995, 1996 and 1999, as well as the amount of weight they carried. Over the course of both studies, the horses’ body condition proved to be the strongest indicator of whether or not they would successfully complete the course-—more so than the amount of weight they carried.

Using the Henneke Body Condition scoring system, which rates horses from a 1.0 (emaciated) to 9.0 (extremely fat), the researchers found that horses were more likely to complete the race if they had a higher body condition score. It’s important to note that these subjects were highly conditioned endurance athletes, and none scored higher than a 5.5. The correlation would not necessarily continue for overweight or obese horses—those scoring 6.0 or above.

Perhaps not surprisingly, of the horses that scored below a 3.0, none completed the race in any of the three years surveyed. A score of 3.0 is considered “thin.”

Most of us won’t ever ask our horses to cover 100 miles of rugged terrain in a single day, but the findings of this study are still relevant to the average horse owner. Consider your horse’s body condition when determining who can ride him. A horse that is underweight may not be able to safely carry as heavy a rider as he could at his ideal weight.

But my Horse is Fine


These studies provide interesting fodder for academic purposes, but when it comes to applying the findings to the real world, it’s not so simple. It may seem like your horse is doing fine even if he’s being asked to carry more than 20 percent of his weight regularly, so why worry about it?

Horses are often stoic. They will work through discomfort because they’re bred and trained to do so. Even when they do show slight soreness or lameness, it’s virtually impossible to conclusively trace these problems back to a rider’s weight. Many horses that are not asked to carry excessive weight come up mysteriously lame, and others that do have a heavy rider might appear sound for years before problems arise.


It’s up to riders to be honest with themselves about what they’re asking their horses to do. Just because a horse appears to be OK doesn’t mean he’s not overburdened.

A Weighty Issue


Rider weight is a sensitive topic. On one side, there is legitimate concern that our 21st-century sedentary lifestyles are leading us to unhealthy weights. Statistics back this up. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the percentage of overweight or obese Americans sharply increased around 1980 and has continued on an upward trend in the three decades since. Riders aren’t exempt from this trend, and as our weights increase, so does the burden we place on our horses.

Too Heavy

On the other hand, it’s hard to separate legitimate concerns about rider weight from the superficial obsession with being skinny. The horse world in America has a large population of girls and young women who enjoy the barn as a place for respite from the outside world. Scrutinizing rider weight just adds to the pressures that cause self-esteem problems and eating disorders. Even for adults, studies have shown that discrimination against overweight people is a real issue in the U.S. No one wants to bring those ugly problems into the barn.

But for equestrians, this subject has to be viewed through the lens of equine welfare above all else. This doesn’t mean overweight adults can’t ride. It does mean that they need to be realistic and ride horses of a size and build appropriate for their weight, or take steps to lose weight in order to keep riding the horse they already have. That’s easier said than done, but few horse owners would say that their horse’s well-being isn’t worth the effort.

For riders in the market for a horse, the problem has an easier solution. Grit your teeth and hop on the scale. Take into account the weight of your saddle and any other gear you might ask your future horse to carry, and then only look at horses that are sized appropriately for the job that you need them to do. It’ll make for a happier, healthier horse-and-rider relationship in the long run.

Setting Limits

The issue of rider weight becomes more complex for riding instructors, trail guides and other professionals who provide horses to the public. It’s not easy to turn away paying customers, especially when the reason for doing so could offend them on a personal level. Some public riding facilities are proactive by stating a weight limit so that would-be riders know ahead of time whether or not they will be able to sit on a horse.

The Traditional Equitation School (TES) in Burbank, Calif., has had a strict 195-pound weight limit for students in effect since it opened its doors 30 years ago.

“We cater to a large number of adult beginner riders,” says Andrea Call, office manager of TES. “Beginners are harder on their horses until they learn to balance themselves and control their bodies while mounted.”

Restricting the pool of potential clients might seem like a business risk, but Call says the benefits outweigh any negatives.

“We have had to turn away some clients, though not many,” says Call. “Having happy, healthy horses is the foundation of our business, and the most important thing to us. We gain more by taking good care of our wonderful horses than we stand to lose by turning away a few potential clients.

“We have relatively few back problems [in our school horses],” she adds. “We attribute that to both the weight limit and proper saddle fit. Our horses tend to have great longevity. We have quite a few horses working in our school that are in their mid- to late 20s. We credit this to good care and maintenance along with a workload that is tailored to each horse’s needs. Our weight limit is a part of that equation.”

New students at TES have an initial evaluation lesson, during which the weight limit is made clear. “Part of booking that lesson is asking the client their height and weight, along with their riding experience and other details,” says Call. “I think most clients tend to be truthful when asked their weights. If they’re over the limit, I apologize and briefly explain the purpose [of the limit].”

And what if an aspiring student is dishonest about her weight?

“I do have a scale in the front office,” says Call. “I could ask a rider that appears to be over the limit to step on the scale, though it’s never come to that.”

Resources:

  1. The horse and rider bodyweight relationship within the UK horse riding population. E. Halliday. H. Randle. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research. Volume 8, Issue 2, Pages e8–e9, March–April, 2013   http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2012.12.020
  2. Evaluation of indicators of weight-carrying ability of light riding horses. DM Powell, K Bennett-Wimbush, A Peeples, M Duthie. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science (2008), 28-33. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jevs.2007.11.008
  3. Relationship of body condition score to completion rate during 160-Km endurance races. S.E. Garlinghouse, M.J. Burrill. Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences. California State Polytechnic University, 1999.

Liked this article? Here are others you’ll love:
Ask the Expert: How Much Weight Can a Horse Carry?
HorseChannel’s Guide to Rider Fitness

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe!


Leslie Potter is the Senior Associate Web Editor for HorseChannel.com. Follow her on Twitter: @LeslieInLex.

23 COMMENTS

  1. “Research from Ohio State University (OSU) published in 2008 measured stress and soreness indicators in horses before, during and after exercise while carrying 15, 20, 25 or 30 percent of their body weight. The horses were put through a 45-minute workout designed to replicate an average riding lesson. Lead weights were added to both sides of the saddle to reach the necessary total weight.”
    This was a very poorly conducted study if lead weights were added to each side of the saddle. I train race horses, and when a jockey is under their assigned weight, weights are added to their saddles. Because of this, it is preferable to have a jockey that is 5lbs overweight vs a rider that is 5lbs underweight. Why? Because lead attached to the saddle is dead weight. The horse that is exercised daily by a talented 170lb is going to have far less problems than the horse who is exercised daily by a 100lb rider who is deadweight. Re-do the study without adding dead weight and I promise you will see a much different result.

  2. I agree with Angie from canada. Dead weight/ lead weight would bounce on the horse causing a pounding effect. what horse would not get sore from that?

  3. I’m lucky, my horse weighs 2000lbs. I can gain as much weight as I want!
    On a more serious note, many riders are too heavy for their horses, but they’re also too heavy for themselves! It’s not healthy to be overweight and unfit. Do yourself and your horse a favour.

  4. Wonderfull article. We had just finished discussing the issue of how much weight should be in the kids backpacks, and no more than 15% of their weight was recommended. When I decided to get back into riding I knew I needed to lose some weight, but bought a bigger Appy, it was easier. Now she is helping me to lose the weight.

  5. I agree with the person that the article should be re-done. I don’t agree with the findings. I am a 205 pound man and have been riding hunters for over 45 years. My horse is a 12 yr.old OTTB whom I got off the track as a 6 year old. We ride quite allot of trail miles and have had no issues doing it, jumps and all! I’m not about to change a thing and I’m quite sure my horse wouldn’t either!

  6. This is interesting – Japan did a similar study with their native horses, and determined that the max weight their horses should carry is 225 pounds… that horses ability to make the distance of the ride, rather than lameness was more at issue. So with my OTTB and Warmbloods, I limit my friends to 225 pounds..so my 6’4′ husband can easily ride.

  7. This is a great article. I will share with our face book page Desert Acres Stables We limit our riders to 225 pounds. I agree with not too much heavy weight. Horses don’t want to carry and get overburdened. We used to let heavier people ride but we have ended that.

  8. I love this page, I see western riders look so big on their little quarter Horses, I guess they just don’t see what they look like on the horses plus the poor horse
    having to carry so much weight. thank you again. jackie Baker

  9. I think the original study, while possibly well intentioned, must have been poorly conducted to come up with such unrealistic statistics. I think the U.S cavalry weight limits are sensible for horses doing HEAVY work like the cavalry horses themselves.(Check out some of their training exercises on YouTube) Neither the English study or the Ohio study take into account the age, build, or fitness level of the horses- all of which make a HUGE difference in weight-bearing capacity. Dr. Deb Bennet, Ph.D who is an expert on the biomechanics of horses states that horses who are wider across the loins are able to carry weight much easier than their thinner counterparts. The Ohio study, besides using dead weight which affects the horse differently than a rider, also failed to take the horses’ fitness into account. While it may be work for a horse to carry 30% of his body weight, the difficulty of the work will depend entirely on his prior exposure to this. I worked on a Marine base and met several female Marines who could run for miles in full combat gear which weighed 75 lbs. I’m sure they could not do that on their first day of boot camp. (How many horses in the Ohio study were gradually introduced to carrying 300 lbs.? None, I bet.) Now, it is true, weight does affect the horse. However, after doing the research, I think any arbitrary number is useless in determining how heavy is too heavy. There are so many factors involved- rider skill and balance; horse’s age, breed, build, and fitness;horse’s training in weight bearing; work type; strenuousness of the work; and length of time in one riding session. Saddle fit also must be taken into account. Poor fitting saddles have caused far more sore backs than rider weight alone. I say just use common sense and monitor the condition of your horse’s legs and back. Too much work, whether caused by the activity the horse is asked to perform, or by rider weight alone causes signs of strain. Riders should learn what these are and watch for them closely. Horses, although basically more athletic and physically fit than humans, still need to be conditioned to do the tasks we ask of them. If your weight is heavy in relation to your horse, you should allow more time to bring him up to fitness- but rider weight is just one factor in this equation. If you’re heavy and are buying a horse, his age and build should be factors in your purchase. Older, thicker, big boned horses will be a better fit for you. If you already have a horse- monitor his legs and back for stress. If he shows these signs, back off his work load. If the work load he is able to maintain and remain sound is too low for your requirements, then yes, you may be too heavy for that particular horse- whether you weigh 280 lbs or even if you only weigh 80. Each horse and rider are different. Random numbers and broad generalizations are all but useless, and in a guilt-ridden subject like weight are, in my opinion, actually harmful.

  10. I think the original study, while possibly well intentioned, must have been poorly conducted to come up with such unrealistic statistics. I think the U.S cavalry weight limits are sensible for horses doing HEAVY work like the cavalry horses themselves.(Check out some of their training exercises on YouTube) Neither stud takes into account the age, bulid, or fitness level of the horses- all of which make a HUGE difference in weight-bearing capacity. Dr. Deb Bennet, Ph.D who is an expert on the biomechanics of horses states that horses who are wider across the loins are able to carry weight much easier than their thinner counterparts. The Ohio study, failed to take the horses’ fitness into account. While it may be work for a horse to carry 30% of his body weight, the difficulty of the work will depend entirely on his prior exposure to this. I’ve known several female Marines who could run for miles in full combat gear which weighed 75 lbs. I’m sure they could not do that on their first day of boot camp. (How many horses in the Ohio study were gradually introduced to carrying 300 lbs.? None, I bet.) Now, weight does affect the horse. However, I think any arbitrary number is useless in determining how heavy is too heavy. There are so many factors involved- rider skill and balance; horse’s age, breed, build, and fitness;horse’s training in weight bearing; work type; strenuousness of the work; and length of time in one riding session. Saddle fit also must be taken into account. Poor fitting saddles have caused far more sore backs than rider weight alone. I say just use common sense and monitor the condition of your horse’s legs and back. Too much work, whether caused by the horse’s activity, or by rider weight alone causes signs of strain. Riders should learn what these are and watch for them closely. Horses, although basically more athletic and physically fit than humans, still need to be conditioned to do the tasks we ask of them. If your weight is heavy in relation to your horse, you should allow more time to bring him up to fitness- but rider weight is just one factor in this equation. If you’re heavy and are buying a horse, his age and build should be factors in your purchase. Older, thicker, big boned horses will be a better fit for you. If you already have a horse- monitor his legs and back for stress. If he shows these signs, back off his work load. If the work load he is able to maintain and remain sound is too low for your requirements, then yes, you may be too heavy for that particular horse- whether you weigh 280 lbs or even if you only weigh 80. Each horse and rider are different. Random numbers and broad generalizations are all but useless, and in a guilt-ridden subject like weight are, in my opinion, actually harmful.

  11. I have lost 180 pounds sence January. I did it for my horse. Because i love her! If i can do it so can you! I thought to my self if i was a horse i would not want a Heffalump on My back

  12. As you state in the study, a heavy rider requires more fitness and strength on behalf of the horse, I wonder if an unfit rider correlates to the horse also being unfit.
    I do lots to stay fit and slim so that my horse does not have to carry a heavy burden. I also study and attend clinics to improve my self carriage on my horse. Great article, very pertinent. 🙂

  13. I agree that to much weight on a horse is not good but if a rider is heavy he should find a big horse according to his weight like perchon or steeldust or other draft animals that can carry more weight without harming the horse that is what I think.

  14. There are several gaps in this article. First, although the cavalry manual may suggest 20%, that is for heavy, all-day work that most of today’s horses don’t do. Second, the US cavalry conducted test in the 1920s (results available online) 60 miles x 5 days over hills, carrying 225 to 275 lbs each. No boots or bandages allowed. This was supposed to imitate cavalry conditions. Most of the horses were remounts. Winners were between 15 and 16 hands and 850 to 1100 lbs. So the cavalry themselves did not meet that 20% requirement. Third, the tests cited did not confirm the 10% rule or even the 20% rule. They found stresses over 25%. Fourth, none of these rules takes into account the horses own size. Once the horse gets over 1000 lbs, then the stresses on his body increase due to his own body weight. So putting a heavy rider on a heavy horse (like a draft) is counterproductive. The horse has to not only handle his own excess bodyweight as well as the rider. This aspect of the problem is not even considered. I am not making this up, ask a vet who deals with draft horses.
    Think about this weight problem for a moment. When I was lean and mean (and younger), I weighed 125 lbs. I regularly carried a backpack of weighing 30 lbs. That is 24% of my weight. I was fit and used to this, and didn’t think anything of it. Why is it worse for a horse as long as the horse is in good condition?
    Those who complain about big cowboys on small horses being abusive need to screw their heads on right and go to a rodeo. Lots of small horses there getting their big cowboys where they need to be fast. If the horse couldn’t get the job done, they wouldn’t be riding him. But he can. If the stress made him lame he’d be no good for work either. These people don’t care about theoretical numbers. They care about whether the horse can do the work. We’ve forgotten about that.

  15. Having spent 16 years as a professional equine massage therapist, I can attest to the fact that a rider’s body weight does affect the horse. One of my very first clients called me saying her horse had a sore back and three vets and a chiropractor were unable to fix it. I said I am not a veterinarian or a chiropractor but I will see what I can do.
    When I got to the barn I immediately realized the problem: the rider was at least 350 pounds and her horse a thin paint mare no more than 15 hands high. The woman had a huge western saddle covered with silver, possibly adding an extra 60 pounds. That mare was sore from nose to tail, poor thing. I had no idea how to broach the subject of the obvious problem and of course,was not able to make any lasting improvement to the horse. The woman told me it wasn’t her weight because her mare was “Foundation Stock” and therefore ‘capable of carrying her weight”. Yet here she was calling yet another pro to ‘fix her horse’. Upshot was: I didn’t help the horse, who was oh so very sore, and the woman called me names, said she was going to file a complaint about me (to whom?) and refused to pay me for my work.
    Later on I talked to one of the vets she’d fired and he told me, Join the club. Everyone knows that ….., and no one will work on her horse anymore.
    If someone is upfront about her weight, I have respect for that, but to blame the HORSE is just disgusting.

  16. There’s weight, and then there’s weight–I’m no lightweight, but I’m also fairly strong with lots of muscle (from farm work). A muscular, but heavy rider, is better for the horse than a sloppy rider with lots of adipose tissue. Since I’ve owned my horse, I’ve dropped about 40 pounds. Give us large riders a chance to lose the weight! I can see setting weight limits, but an overweight person maybe inspired to drop some weight, if it will get them in the saddle. Suggest they help around the barn, mucking, washing, brushing, etc.
    I’ll never wear a size 10, but I also won’t ask my horse to do an Advance CC course. I understand what limits I’m going to ask of my 15.3 OTTB. If I think he’s tiring on a trail ride, I get off and walk with him–better for him and me! A lot of this should be awareness on the part of the rider, but shunning large riders just isn’t fair–I’ve been there.

  17. I feel that another item to be addressed is whether a horse that just turned 2 means he’s automatically capable of bearing a person’s weight. I see so many sway backed horses out in the pasture in our area and wonder why people can’t give the horse an extra year to allow his back to develop more completely. Same premise as heavy riders causing/inflicting problems and pain…

  18. I own a business that breeds, foals, raises and trains Belgian draft horses to ride and drive. We have helped many people over the past twenty years find the perfect companion. Plus Size Riding , a division of Double Tail Farm, recognizes this need and caters to the individual who wants to ride a draft horse! Contact us in Thurmond, NC.
    Pam and Tom Vybiral dbltail@aol.com 3369576111

  19. I own a business that breeds, foals, raises and trains Belgian draft horses to ride and drive. We have helped many people over the past twenty years find the perfect companion. Plus Size Riding , a division of Double Tail Farm, recognizes this need and caters to the individual who wants to ride a draft horse! Contact us in Thurmond, NC.
    Pam and Tom Vybiral dbltail@aol.com 3369576111

  20. I know I’m really late in the game, but I really wanted to comment! I think this article was really excellent, but I’d like to add one more thing. Sometimes weight restrictions can actually be really restrictive specifically for mixed-race people or People of Color, because body shape and body type varies so much based on ethnic background. Therefore, some folks [like me] have significant booty and chest, which adds a lot of weight–but doesn’t have a whole lot to do with limiting our health or fitness. Meanwhile we can get scored down in dressage or hunters based on appearing to be messy, bouncing around, etc., when in reality these are simply ways to describe being a) obviously female, and b) not built according to the Western European body type for whom these forms of competition were invented.
    I absolutely do think that setting a weight limit is necessary. I watched a video in which a quite large man broke and rode a very small mustang, and the sight just about broke my heart. However, I support all the commenters here suggesting that riders buy appropriately for their weight, instead of eschewing riding.
    However, I literally just spoke with someone who told me that 170 pounds was “pushing it” for taking lessons at their barn, which is probably not so strange–I’ve seen the limits even at 150 pounds. That seems unnecessary to me, as a heavier horse with an English saddle could, it seems to me, carry this weight for the duration of one hour-long lesson, in a schooling ring on soft ground, without suffering lasting pain.
    I just think there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and trainers have created unnecessarily exclusionary policies based on ill-disguised sizeism. Meanwhile in my experience, terrible riders who “look like riders”–are thin, pretty and rich–can get away with some pretty awful horsemanship, and no one dares say boo to them.
    Classism and raceism and all the other -isms are real, and parts of our world. We need to confront them head-on.

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