STUDY: How Does Your Weight Affect Your Horse?

Article after article have been written about how much weight a horse can carry. Some consistently refer to the 20% rule, while others believe that the rider’s weight may only amount to 10% of the horse’s weight. But what is actually correct? We will try to make sense of the debate and take a closer look into the latest research. 

You should only ride a horse that fits your size. Most riders now know that. However, in the spring of 2019, British scientists investigated the sensitive subject of the weight of the rider in relation to the horse’s movements and pain caused by pressure on the back ligaments. As a base for their research, they have performed various tests on riders in different weight classes to assess gait and behavioral responses in horses. 

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The results, published in the journal Equine Veterinary Education, show that a reasonable rider weight is crucial to whether the horse is free in its movements. Let us take a close look and get more into details of the study. 

Six horses participated in the study
They were ridden by four riders in different weight classes:
Light weight 135 lb (60.8 kg)
Moderate 170 lb (77.8 kg)
Heavy 200 lb (91 kg)
Very Heavy 315 lb (142.1 kg).
The BMI of the riders was 23.2, 28.0, 26.3, 46.9%, respectively.

Dr. Sue Dyson, Head of Clinical Orthopedics at the Animal Health Trust’s Center for Equine Studies, Newmarket led the study, and she states that the findings not only showed the importance of a good rider / horse-weight ratio – especially for heavier riders – but also that the saddle must fit properly for both horse and rider. Saddle issues are a common problem for many, because what fits the horse’s back does not necessarily fit the riders. 

How they did it 

Each horse was ridden twice by the rider with light and moderate weight and once by the heavy rider. The very heavy rider rode five of the horses once and one of the horses twice. Each of the horses were subjected to the same workout, consisting of 30 minutes of light dressage. If the horses showed signs of lameness, the trials were abandoned, and the same happened if the horse showed signs of pain.  

Dyson and her colleagues reported that out of the 13 dressage tests performed by the heavy and very heavy riders, all were abandoned along the way – 12 on the basis of the horse showing signs of lameness and one on the basis of behavioral signs of pain. Only one of the 12 tests performed by the moderate riders was stopped on the basis of limb. The light riders completed the tests.    

“The results do not mean that heavy riders should not ride, but suggest that if they do, they should ride on a horse of appropriate size and condition, with a saddle that is properly fitted for both horse and rider” 

Dr. Sue Dyson, Head of Clinical Orthopedics at the Animal Health Trust’s Center for Equine Studies, Newmarket

All horses were healthy and well after the tests, indicating that the lameness was provoked by the weight of the riders. The researchers thus concluded that heavy riders can induce temporary lameness and trigger behavior in horses, pointing in the direction of musculoskeletal pain. 

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The findings: 

  • The research showed that horses carrying more than 15% of their body weight showed signs of lameness or pain affected behavior. 
  • Different body proportions require different types of saddles. There is not necessarily a connection between which saddle is right for you and which saddle is right for your horse. 
  • The research also suggests that horses with poorly adjusted equipment, show signs of pain, when ridden by riders heavier than 15% of their total body weight. 
  • In calculating how much horses and ponies can carry, the weight of the saddle should also be included. Many saddles weigh about 6-8 kg, which should be added to the rider’s weight. 
  • One should consider what type of work the horse is doing. If you weigh more than 20% of the horse’s weight, you should not, as a rule, do very intense training.

This article was originally published in September, 2020 and has since been revised and edited.

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