I want to discuss a topic that gets very little intelligent discussion. Talk on this topic is mostly made behind people’s backs and is often no more than biased criticism. Let me state now that if anybody makes a comment that is childish or disparaging to other people their comment will be deleted, they’ll be sent to the headmasters’s office and may incur a suspension.
I want to talk about size versus size. I mean the size of a rider versus the size of a horse. Although, this is not a topic that is often openly discussed intelligently it is an issue for very many people. The subject lacks good information and is most often only discussed in disparaging terms that make some riders feel bad about themselves. I believe this is not helpful.
I’ll state from the outset that I do not agree that big riders cannot be great riders. Proof for this view comes in the form of a very talented horsewoman, Lee Smith. Lee is a first class trainer and rider, and is a large person. Anybody who watches Lee working horses will have to agree with my view that a person’s size does not have to limit their ability to ride and train horses well.
Most people see large people on short horses and are concerned for the horse. However, a horse’s height is not necessarily a factor in its weight carry capacity. Many draft ponies such as Highland, Fjord, Halfinger etc can carry as much or more than their taller cousins. A more relevant factor is the weight of the horse because this takes into account the density of bone, muscle mass and size of the girth or barrel of a horse – which are more important factors in determining the carrying capacity of a horse.
It’s hard to find too many facts on the subject of size versus size. There has been a long held view that a rider’s weight should not exceed 20% (or one fifth) of a horse’s weight. You’ll find some old cavalry manuals state this. That means if a horse weighs 500kg, the rider should weigh 100kg or less.
A study in 2008 showed that the ideal rider’s weight was between 10% and 15% of a horse’s weight. If the rider weighed 25% of the horse’s weight, some muscle soreness and damage was observed along the horse’s back. Riders that weighed 30% of their horse’s weight caused significant soreness in horses.
However, there are several factors that were not considered and which can mitigate a horse’s tolerance for carrying weight.
Horses with short backs are less likely to develop soreness than those with longer backs. A horse’s tolerance for carrying weight is related to the conformation of their backs. Short coupling and well-set hindquarters provide a horse with a greater ability to carry a large rider with comfort. Most people who ride performance horses already know this.
Secondly, a horse with good muscle development and topline will more readily be able to resist back soreness caused by a large rider than an unfit horse with undeveloped topline. Horses with a sway in their back need more care than horses with flatter toplines and wide barrels.
Another factor is saddle fit. Making sure the horse is carrying a well-fitted and balanced saddle is even more important than normal when the rider is a large person. Damage from any little pressure points will be magnified with increasing weight of a rider.
A big factor in a horse’s weight carrying ability is relaxation. A horse with tension in its topline will inevitable become sore quickly, irrespective of a rider’s weight. But the larger the rider, the quicker and more severe the soreness will develop. This factor is a no brainer. It is important that we all work our horses towards being as soft and relaxed as possible in order to maintain comfort and soundness. It is no less important for horses with large riders. A horse with a tight topline will very quickly develop a sore back.
The way a larger person rides is arguably one of the most important factors in keeping a horse sound.
When a rider’s weight borders on what a horse can comfortably tolerate for long term soundness, they need to maintain a good position that puts them as closely aligned to the centre of gravity of a horse as can be. A horse’s balance point and a rider’s balance point need to be as close as possible, if not overlapping. It means not riding like a sack of coal, keeping quiet in the saddle and following the horse’s movements with our seat.
Lastly, I have noticed that many of us (including myself) lose their flexibility and athletic prowess as we get older and gain more weight. As much as I resent my body letting me down as I age, I have to accept that I will never again be the Adonis I once was. Nevertheless, I try to maintain my flexibility and strength because my work demands it. Simple exercise is slowing down my delapidation. I can mount most horses without the need for a fence or mounting block. I am able to move and adjust my position in the saddle easily. I can still move my feet pretty quickly when a horse pulls hard on the lead rope. And I can still put my socks on each morning while standing.
If I can do those things with a little regular exercise and stretching, then so can anybody else - carrying extra weight or not. It is important to both the horse’s well being and the ability to ride well that a big rider maintain core strength and flexibility to go with their horse, while still being relaxed in the body. It just takes a little effort.
The bottom line is that a large person can be a good rider without harming their horse. It’s a good idea to think about the 20% rule when choosing a horse. But if you are riding a horse that is small for your size, making sure your horse is fit and relaxed, use a well-fitting saddle and maintain a good riding position and flexibility in order to ensure long-term soundness. It’s nothing more than every rider should keep in mind.
This photo was taken of Lee Smith at clinic she did in Scottsdale, Arizona about 8 years ago