Horse Weight Bearing Capacity – Revisited

Hi All!

I haven’t written anything here in quite a while and a few days ago I saw a blog post done by fellow plus size equestrian blogger If the Saddle Fits  shared on a non-equestrian plus size fashion Facebook page. The post was called “Body Shaming The Show Ring” and the story was about a husband’s shock to hear spectators fat-shaming his plus size wife during her dressage test. It’s a great post because it really hits home for many of us and sheds light on an issue that hasn’t been openly talked about much until recently.  I find myself still thinking about it today and began wondering why? I think it’s because find it interesting that a non-equestrian page shared the story. Equestrian topics are typically not very relatable to main stream media and plus size equestrian topics even less so. So what’s going on here? Why is this equestrian blog post getting out there to so many non-equestrians?

As I discussed in my last post, I’ve noticed a measurable shift towards body positivity and size acceptance both in main stream and equestrian communities. Plus size people are finally “putting themselves out there”, becoming more confident and increasingly unapologetic and I say IT’S ABOUT TIME! I am and always will be an advocate for plus size equality and acceptance. I believe that the size and shape of your body and the number on the scale does not define who you are as a human being. To me the fact that plus size equestrian topics are being discussed in main stream media says a lot about how far we’ve come.

I feel that from the new attention the plus size riding community is getting, there may come an influx of new inexperienced plus size riders so I feel it’s my responsibility to re-visit once again, the timeless equestrian question

How much weight can a horse safely carry?

When you do an internet search for this question you are given a mix of websites offering significantly varying answers. So what do you trust? I only trust information that is supported by evidence with citations. For example, I would trust information obtained from the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science much more readily than I would believe something I read from John Smith’s Horse Care Blog. Here are a few of my favorites:

I’ve done a lot of research on this question over the years and come to the conclusion that there isn’t one correct answer. Horses are as different as people so each horse’s strengths, weaknesses, abilities, and limitations are different. When we are choosing a horse to do a particular job we take this fact into consideration. For example, if you were in the market for a quick agile barrel horse you wouldn’t test ride a Warmblood bred for show jumping, would you? If you are looking for a high level eventing horse you aren’t going to buy a horse with Navicular and expect that horse to be a high performance jumper, right? So how can we follow an absolute rule that states ALL HORSES can only carry ___% of their weight in tack and rider? In my opinion, we can’t.

I’m frequently asked questions from followers like “What type/how big of a horse do I need?” or “Am I to big to ride my horse?”, so I have come up with a series of questions that I ask everyone who comes to me for help.

  • How tall are you, and how much do you weight?
  • What is your physical fitness level? (Do you work out? What type of exercise and how often?)
  • Do you have a light independent?
  • What discipline do you ride?
  • How much does your saddle and tack weigh?
  • What are your riding goals?
  • How many days per week do you ride or plan on riding?
  • How long are your rides and what type of work do you do during your rides?
  • How tall is your horse and how much does he weigh at optimum weight (Horse is not overweight or underweight) ?
  • What breed is the horse (Please provide multiple full body photos of the horse at different angles (head on, side on, tail on)
  • Does the horse have any known health or soundness issues?

While I wait for answers to these questions I starting thinking about horse conformation. If you are interested in learning about horse conformation, the last two links that I provided above are great starting out points. There is an infinite amount of additional information available in books and on the web and if I dived into that right now we would be here forever so I will not digress. I will tell you, though that based on my research, I’ve found the ideal conformation for weight bearing is:

  • Short back
  • Wide chest
  • Deep barrel
  • Straight legs with generous cannon bone
  • Adequate hoof size in comparison to body size
  • Large, well muscled, adequately sloping hips
  • Well muscled shoulder with angle close to 45 degrees

Conformation that is NOT ideal for weight bearing is:

  • Long back (also called dog backed)
  • Narrow Chest
  • Shallow barrel
  • Slim, light boned, and/or noticeably incorrect legs
  • Small, contracted appearing hooves in comparison to body size
  • Small hips with a sharp slope
  • Very narrow shoulder angle
  • Skinny, stringy musculature

A horse that can carry extra weight is a well built and naturally balanced horse. The better a horse can balance himself, the more balanced he will be under saddle. The more solidly built the horse, the more surface area he has to absorb the shock of the rider. A narrow incorrect horse will struggle because he will not be able to balance himself and the weight of the rider will be more concentrated on his back due to the smaller surface area of his body. So with ideal horse conformation and my set of questions in mind we press on.

Once all of my questions are answered, I use the “20% rule” as a starting out point. Studies show (see first link above) that a sound healthy horse can comfortably carry 20% of its body weight in tack and rider at any level of work. Even though I do feel that every horse’s weight bearing capacity is different, for the safety and well being of the horse I like to see how close to 20% weight ratio we are before factoring anything else into the equation. If the ratio is over the 20% mark I put them into one of the following categories*:

  • 20% ratio – OK for all types of work
  • 21-24% – OK for moderate to heavy work
  • 25% ratio – OK for moderate work
  • 26-29% ratio – OK for light to moderate work
  • 30% ratio – OK for light work

Heavy work – Horse worked 5-6 days per week and/or performing high level physically demanding tasks such as: ranch work, eventing, foxhunting, endurance riding, jumping, high level dressage, performance barrel racing, etc…

Moderate work – Horse worked 3-4 days per week and/or performing physically challenging tasks such as: Trail riding on moderate terrain, showing, low to moderate level dressage, canter work, low level gymkhana and gaming, hunter paces, etc…

Light work – Horse worked 2-3 days per week and/or performing less challenging tasks such as: Easy trail riding, light schooling, a few schooling shows, limited canter work, etc…

*The above categories are only my opinion but my experience has taught me that when I categorize in this way, the results are better in the end.

Let’s say I want to purchase a horse that weighs 1200lbs and I weigh 280lbs. I am already 23.3% of that horse’s body weight without tack. Here’s where the rest of my questions come in. I will use myself as an example:

  • 5’10’, 280lbs
  • Physically fit
  • I have a moderately light/balanced seat. My balance could be better.
  • English
  • Saddle – 13lbs
  • Eventing / Foxhunting / Hunter pace (jumping) / Versatility/ Trail riding
  • I ride up to 6 days per week depending on how busy I am. Typically 4-5 days
  • 1-2 hour rides. I might go on a 2+ hour trail ride on rare occasion.
  • 15.3hh, 1200lb
  • AQHA – Photos demonstrate that the horse is of good weight bearing conformation, except the feet appear to be somewhat contracted in relationship to its body.
  • No soundness issues

I immediately add the 13lb saddle onto my body weight of 280lbs for a total of 293lbs. My breastplate and girth weigh 5lbs combined which brings the weight total up to 298lbs. At this point I re-calculate the weight ratio and find I’m up to a 24.8% weight ratio but I round up to 25% since it’s so close. A 25% ratio falls into my “OK for moderate work” category (above). Now I look at the type of work I want to do with the horse. I ride up to 6 days a week and my goals are eventing, hunting, hunter paces, horse trials, and versatility with some trail riding thrown in for good measure. These sports and the number of days I ride fall into the “heavy work” category so this horse is probably not my ideal partner. Could he do what I want with almost 300lbs on his back? Possibly. I am an effective rider with a fairly light seat and I am in good physically condition, so these attributes are in my favor but I’m new to eventing and not an extremenly experienced jumper so I have the potential to become fairly unbalanced while learning which would weigh more negatively against me than the positives. I feel I’m really skirting the line with this horse. I could ask for a test period and see how he performs for me, but personally I’m not willing to risk his long term health and safety just because I want to use him for eventing. If my weight ratio was a little lower I might have reconsidered but I don’t feel comfortable at 25% taking everything else into consideration. The fact that his feet are small would solidify decision. Since his feet are small in comparison to his body they will not absorb and distribute the shock of my weight as evenly and effectively as a larger more proportioned hoof and it would cause added stress on his legs. I would probably would not choose to purchase the horse based on the guidelines I set for myself but if I had been a pleasure rider doing less intense type work under saddle I would definitely have taken him for a trial period.

In conclusion – there are MANY factors that affect a horse’s weight bearing capacity. Again, we have to remember that each horse is an individual so their weight bearing capacities are going to be different. Additionally, each rider is an individual so each rider is going to feel different in the saddle. It’s our job as riders to figure out if our mounts can physically handle what we are asking of them at our weight. Finding the right horse is like finding the right pair of shoes, he has to fit! If you do your research and are truthful to yourself in what you expect from your horse you should have no trouble finding a good match. When it comes to what types of horses are ideal for plus size riders, the possibilities are endless!

Ride on my friends


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