Too fat for my horse

UPDATE: We were all so shocked by this study, that the International Society of Rider Biomechanics has asked Professor Fernanda Carmargo, University of KY to speak at the Society’s Symposium in Lexington, Kentucky in October, 2015 on this topic.  Dr. Carmargo combines not just the science, but also a “commonsense” approach to the topic, being a well horse owner, rider and property owner in Lexington KY.  Come and listen to her presentation. Details here

Overweight riders: Am I too fat for my horse?
Study shows that TEN PERCENT is the “new rule”. Can this really be true???

Again and again I have been asked, especially by trainee coaches while I’m doing teacher training courses “how fat is too fat” for horse riders?

Problem was, until recently…I didn’t know!  In fact I didn’t have a real clue!

It wasn’t until an event some time ago that I really set about to find out:

What do the scientists say?
Is 20% an “Old Wive’s Tale”?

Clinics Coming Up ButtonObesity was never a problem when I was a kid, we were on our horses for so many hours we’d barely have lunch!  We were all skinny and fit, we rode for hours and hours and our horses were all super fit, but that’s just not the case anymore with overweight weekend riders being seen more and more. The only thing I recal from back then is that you shouldn’t be able to see a rider’s foot hanging down from the other side of the horse, but obviously with the very tall riders we have now, that doesn’t work either! And, even if it does, there was no science to back it up.

I had heard the old wive’s tale “20% of the horse’s weight was OK”…but I hadn’t heard of any real studies that had been done to prove (or disprove) the old wive’s tale.

Shocking collapse of horse while mounting

The incident that got me started researching the actual science and the studies that had been done around the world was I had a client who was both elderly & overweight, and after asking to see their walking pattern on the ground I realize that with poor stability they would have difficulty mounting. So, I was embarrased and ‘hid’ our normal mounting block and got a large tack trunk to mount, rather than the little mounting block we had that I knew would be too short, and far less stable than a huge trunk.

But, I’ll have more courage next time.

It really didn’t occur to me it was going to be a huge problem, as I do teach lots of overweight people and they can mount safely.  I REALLY hate offending people, it just kills me, but next time…I’ll know better!

The horse is more important that my feelings of horror and embarrassment!Clinics Coming Up Button

Don’t get me wrong….

YES… I think that old people should ride (I am one remember!) 
 I think overweight people should not be exempted from sports…(remember I was 192lbs [87kg] and only 5ft 2 inches)…and…
YES… I remember when 3 people had to help me mount at Perppercorn Park Riding for Disabled in Melbourne Australia when I was a para-equestrian in a wheelchair, and sadly yes I was BADLY overmounted compared to this study.

But, after this study I ask myself: is it more important that I feel good because I’m riding…or
is the horse’s welfare more important?

Finally my client, with a LOT of help was able to crawl onto the box.  Once standing on the box …I stepped back to let my client on…and I was just HORRIFIED.

The horse literally “sat down” in the hind quarters collapsing underneath the weight above. The hocks literally banged together and the horse virtually “sat down” and collapsed in the hind quarter.

I was so horrified, and I did not know the answer, so I just had to find out…

What do the scientists say?

That led me to hours and hours of research on this topic.  From my research I’ve found that most people feel that 20% is the limit.   But, to my absolute shock, their extensive study found that TEN PERCENT IS IDEAL.  

It’s not just the rider’s weight, it’s the comparison

It’s not so much the weight of the rider alone, it’s HOW HEAVY IS THE HORSE compared to the rider’s weight.

Clinics Coming Up ButtonAfter all this research, I now think about it this way…ANYONE is too overweight, even a tiny child, to ride a teeny dwarf/miniature horse. Remember… Thumbelina is only 26 kilograms (57 lb).

On the other hand Mammoth was estimated to be 1,500 kilograms (3,300 lb) and 21.2 hands.

Guess which horse I need (lol!)

What’s the answer?

Based on this science, (not on my opinion as I was obviously very wrong) it’s quite obvious there’s only two answers….

  1. Get fit/lose weight (this is a SPORT after all).  This is why I’m not 192lbs any more, Doesn’t take me reading a study to know my horses are sure happy I’ve already lost 60lbs (27kg).  (Sadly still working on the rest!), but going from Size 20 to Size 6…of COURSE my horses are happier (and safer)
  2. Get a bigger horse!  I did that too.  Gone are horses like my little “Misty” that the Gold Coast Polocrosse Club would remember me playing several seasons from a million years ago (and, that some will remember actually fell in one game in Ballina NSW)….and now horses like “Saint” are perfect for me. Sure not going to tip him over!

Ignore the scientists…

Can you imagine how horrible I felt having to tell my client.

I was “stealing” their dream.  But, the horse is more important than my horrendous embarrassment. Sadly, I had to let the client know they need a “Mammoth” and not a “Thumbelina” if they cannot work on getting fit and losing weight.

I had always said to myself “a fat stable rider is better than a skinny wobbly one”, but the science just doesn’t back that up.  I was wrong.

Ignore the scientists if you must, I’ve already had some comments such as “well too bad, I’ll do what I want”, but it’s my duty to warn people that….

Coaches may be at risk

Should a rider have the same accident I had years ago…get ‘stuck’ while mounting and getting dragged…the coach would be at risk – especially now we have the science to back it up – of being sued for not warning the client and preventing them for riding. Horses can trip, or rear or literally buckle under the pressure above.  Should that happen, now you know the science says “TEN PERCENT”…then you really are putting your coaching at risk.  You know insurance companies pay experts all over the world to help them NOT pay claims…let’s just not let that happen to you, and your business!

How do I tell my client?
Discussion point…

We will be including this as a topic at the International Society of Rider Biomechanics International Symposium, and anyone is more than welcome to contribute to the discussion.

We will not be discussing the science behind it, as that is not our role, and the studies have already been completed.  What we will be discussing is  how to tell your clients and not steal their dream, not lose them to riding altogether, and of course not lose the income for the coach.

My only real tip:
Set your client up for success…

One of the suggestions has been to “set the client up for success” in ADVANCE of the lesson by links to these studies, links to this article, putting up articles on your website, and have it in your terms & conditions that they can see on your website before they come, or at perhaps up on your “stable rules” on your wall.

We would love to hear your opinion of how to tell your clients to a) “get fit” or b) “go bigger”.

This is certainly a case for consideration for both the welfare of the horse, and the safety of both horse and rider.

Thank you for sharing, and for your positive comments.

Symposium Information

Link to the Study

The horse and rider bodyweight relationship within the UK horse riding population. Emma Halliday and Hayley Randle. Duchy College, Stoke Climsland, Callington, Cornwall, PL17 8PB, UK

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Join the conversation! 18 Comments

  1. Very informative …. when new clients ring for information I have taken to asking, politely, their height and weight , to make sure I have a mount for them…. on my advertising is a 90kg limit ……………. soooo hard when all these people want to do is try, or they have a “dream” to learn to ride! Thanks…… Nan (Tasmania)

    • Hi Nan, Yes setting them up for success PRIOR to arrival is the only way out of this one I think. It’s embarrasing for them, for me, for everyone, but what’s worse than embarrassment…a horse with a sore back. Some people have said “they don’t feel it”, and yes they probably don’t THAT DAY, but when we think about the long term “sinking” of the back and bones grinding together (kissing spines), it’s just not worth it. That’s why I a) lost weight and b) got an elephant sized horse lol. Then, I’m doing BOTH things right, the very best I can. I’m so glad I found some STUDIES with information, because I had no real guideline, and to see the horse collapse the other day was such a shock I went straight to my computer to find out and research. I don’t ever want to see that happen ever again, poor little darling overmounted sweetheart didn’t deserve that. And the rider…could only blame the mounting block and not accept responsibility. For me, I just had to take one look in the mirror and see my 192lb fat rolls bouncing around. Thank goodness I already had a big horse, but that fat HAD TO GO! Great to hear from you Nan! I’m coming to Tassie at Christmas I hope.

    • Yes, and I think that perhaps having it on your website, perhaps a link to the study so then we don’t have to ask. It’s SO EMBARRASING. I hate hate hate this. I would HATE it if I was the rider (I changed some of the details of the person mounting so that the incident doesn’t embarrass them even further). Thank GOODNESS there was only one other person there to see it, otherwise it would have been just awful had this happen at a Pony Club or in front of hundreds of people. At least now, with this study, I can have it up on the website, and they know THIS IS NOT ME. This is NOT COLLEEN KELLY because I was just as fat (if not fatter!) than nearly ever rider, and my horse at the time wasn’t that big either. I should be just as embarrassed and upset with myself as anyone. So, to have the backing of science, it will keep me more on track with my diet and exercise, and I won’t be riding any of the small horses again. It’s just not fair. Leave the skinny horses to the skinny kids, and give me a big one, and life will be OK for everyone. Thanks everyone for your hundreds of comments today. Brilliant! At least you are all agreed – let’s love our horses (love being a VERB, a DOING word) and protect them, and being armed, in advance, with the science behind it makes it a LOT easier for coaches to address this hugely embarrassing safety issue.

  2. Thank you so much for speaking up on this topic. You were delicate in the CK-honest-way, which means you humorously did not avoid the hard parts. Good for you. This has bothered me for many years but I had nothing to back my perceptions. Like you, I think it’s better when riders, overweight or not, work regularly on developing and maintaining their own muscle tone and do not just lean on the horse to provide all the physical effort required for a harmonious ride. Whether the rider is overweight, appropriate weight or underweight, a muscularly toned (especially core) rider is easier for the horse to carry. On a horse, skinny blobs and fat blobs are about the same–they both do damage. Don’t be a blob. The ability to move with the horse is crucial to the horse’s short-term happiness and long-term health and can–let’s not be naive–influence where the horse ends up in his later years. (Where do you want your horse to spend the last years of his life?) The rider needs to be committed to the horse’s best outcome. Overweight or underweight, your ability to move with your horse will impact your horse’s future. Ask no more of your horse than you ask of yourself.

    • Yes, scary isn’t it. I was WAY WAY overweight according to this study, and thank goodness I’d already fixed it before I read the study! I’d already gone from 192lbs to 130ish, and a great big horse has at least allowed me to eat the odd Big Mac (oops!!!). I really had to pull my socks up. It wasn’t easy coming from a wheelchair with so many operations, and cancer, and overweight, but hey I did it, and I feel so much better for it. And, thank goodness I’m not hurting my horse now. I felt TERRIBLE when I read this study! Thanks for your comments.

  3. Oh hec!
    I had exactly this situation some years ago….when I was teaching.
    I taught a normal weight lady who asked if her sister could come to have some lessons saying ‘she had tried a couple of other riding establishments, but wasn’t happy with them’…

    When the ‘sister’ turned up I nearly dropped – fully kitted out in the most expensive riding clothes – but absolutely HUGE.
    I had selected a horse in my mind, but changed to a short backed, stocky Standardbred at 15hh….
    This valiant little horse gave this lady two riding lessons at the walk…. (yes we went through the mounting block drama!) but when she appeared for the third lesson, as she went for her ‘step-over’ he quietly stepped sideways. He did that twice, so I – apologising for the horse’s behaviour, which I regret doing – he was the sweetest horse ever – went to mount him, for which he stood obediently still, as usual.

    Only then did I pluck up the courage to tell this lady that this ‘riding’ idea was not going to work and that I didn’t have a horse suitable for her… which her reply was ‘OK – I twisted my knee last time he moved away anyway, and I suppose I ought to think about losing a bit of weight’

    (Yer think!!!!) I didn’t SAY that – I wanted to though!

    I would NEVER do that to a horse again!
    I should have been braver from the start and told her she was too heavy to ride….but we are trained to be ‘too polite’… what do we say?

    ‘You’re too plump’
    ‘You’re too heavy’

    God Forbid we say ‘You’re too fat’….!
    If I was still in business I would have a weight restriction in my terms & conditions.
    No ifs no buts!

    • Yes I was really shocked when I read it. And for me the worst part is it says (although it’s best for the horse) “… the suggested 10% guideline appears unrealistic within the general riding population.”

      So, now I really have NO CLUE how to handle the situation. Sure if it’s MY horse the answer is obvious, but when it’s THEIR horse it’s even worse. That’s why we have it as a major discussion topic at the Symposium in October. To get ideas how to handle both this, and several other, studies and worse, how to tell the riders.

      Several people were upset with the study, but please do remember THIS ISN’T ME, it is being brought up as a discussion topic at the Symposium and that’s the appropriate contact for people to voice their concerns and debate the science, as I have no skill in that particular area of science.

  4. Thank you Collleen! My sister & I just had this very question a few days ago. We were very close to your answer. Regardless if your an instructor or a horse person, everyone needs to know this information. I think if a person has common sense they know if their too heavy for their horse. I think it’s denial if they choose to ignore the truth. Sad for the horse. Honestly is the best policy but of corse in a nice way. 🙂

    • Thanks Laura, it’s kind of scary that they say “it’s probably unrealistic” to have a 10% ratio, but if science has proved this, then we do need to sit up and take notice. I did. I’ve lost so much weight, and I’m so much happier, and I have a great big horse, so I’m good, and I feel so much better about myself now. YES I DID RIDE OVERWEIGHT BEFORE, gosh I hope my horse didn’t hate me! But at least I’m trying now.

  5. Very brave of you to address this Colleen! I was guilty of being overweight and lost 75lbs (still working on the rest too!) and my whole horsemanship changed! This article motivates me to continue for my horse’s sake!

    • Thank you I appreciate it. It’s not ME addressing it though, just reporting on the study, and warning our coaches just in case they do have an accident and the courts came accross this study, I’d hate to see a coach get into trouble through this. At least we are all looking at the right things: How to make our horses the most comfortable possible. The study does note, as I said in my notes, that it now seems ‘unrealistic’ with 10%. Sad though huh, when if we can’t lose weight, then get a bigger horse. I had to. I was fat, and now I’m not so fat, and a HUGE horse, and at least I feel like I”m not doing too much damage. Thanks for commenting!

  6. Colleen – does this recommended 10% limit include the weight of your saddle? ie if your horse is 1,500 lbs and your have a 30 lbs saddle, you should only weigh up to 120lbs?

    • Hi there, it doesn’t mention the saddle, but I’m guessing it must be the ENTIRE weight, just like when a jockey is weighed, with the saddle and all equipment. Great to hear from you. And, good question! At any rate, another reason I need to stay away from McDonalds lol! (Or, keep on with big horses lol!).

  7. Thank you for the informative article.
    I barely weigh 100 pounds and am skinny as a stick. My horse is tall (16.1hh) but he’s only a thoroughbred, so not built to carry much weight.
    I appreciate the article, however I find it sad that I cannot possibly loose any more weight, yet I’m already too heavy.

    • Yes I was really shocked when I read it!!

      I guess that’s why the study also says although 10% is what’s best for the horse, “… the suggested 10% guideline appears unrealistic within the general riding population.” To me that’s just SCARY! Rather than change the ratio, even they sound like they just “give up”, rather than tackling the actual issue.

      Scary! And certainly I don’t have the answers of how to tell our clients. That’s why it is a discussion point at the International Society of Rider Biomechanics, as we need to know the answers to protect our horses, and our coach’s reputation and livelihoods.

      I found it really sad as well. Shocked actually, which is why I brought people’s attention to it…all for the good of the horse.

      • Indeed… My saddle is quite heavy so when I add my tiny figure (most people tell me I am “anorexic” “skin and bone” and “need twice the weight”), to the weight of the saddle… It comes to 127 pounds. I just have to hope my horse is heavier than I estimated…

      • I took a look at the study and they don’t mention how the ratio was created in the first place from what I can tell. It said “Traditional methods of determining whether a horse can withstand the weight of a rider are not based on scientific principles. An industry practitioner proposes a 10% rider to horse BW ratio for optimum performance, 15% as satisfactory and 20% to be a welfare issue”. Was there something that showed any science behind how this person came up with the suggested ratio? Also, the person suggested that 15% BW ratio was satisfactory as well.

  8. We have TB horses, and found 200 pounds is the limit for most of ours. We learned the hard way, by leasing to those over that weight (even good balanced riders), and 2 horses came out with bowed tendons. So, I’ve become bold, but sensitive when others want to lease or just ride. I find that putting it back on us, like “at this time, we don’t have any horses that would be compatible for you”, works. I’ve also let folks know up front in the conversation, before any talk of leasing or riding is discussed, that “our TB’s are not as big as quarter horses or sport horses, and thus we have a weight restriction of 200#”. That way it is out there, and I am not offending, just stating a business practice.
    Look forward to following this thread!


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