|While the smooth ride and easy-going nature of many gaited horses may
seem to be the perfect match for the heavier rider, there are a few simple,
yet critical, caveats to consider to keep both horse and rider safe, healthy
Be Sure Your Horse Measures Up
The U.S. Calvary published “The Cavalry Manual of Horse Management”,
by Frederick L. Devereux, Jr., in 1941. He recommended that the collective
weight of rider and gear not exceed 20% of the total weight of the horse.
These were horses in top condition whose riders’ very lives depended on
the horse's ability to carry them long miles, often at speed. It stands
to reason that if they were to incorporate a margin of error, it would
be on the side of the horse being overly capable of carrying its rider,
rather than less so.
Comparably, a study of 374 competitive trail riding horses compared
horse/rider weight relationships. They concluded that these horses can
easily carry over 30% of their body weight for 100 miles and not only compete,
but compete well. As would be expected, good body condition and bone structure
were found to be paramount. Bone structure was evaluated using the front
leg cannon bones as representative of general structure.
1. Add up the total weight of the horse, rider and tack. (See
TGH Summer 1998, page 37.)
Our example: Damascus, Lady + tack = 1188 pounds.
2. Measure the circumference of the cannon bone midway between
the knee and fetlock.
Our example: Damascus, 7.5 inches.
3. Divide this total weight by the circumference.
Our example: 1188 ÷ 7.5 = 158.4
3. Divide the result by two.
Our example: 158.4 ÷ 2 = 79.2
Values near 75 are great, below 75, even better. Values from 75/80
are acceptable. Values over 80 indicate weaker legs and a need to train
carefully, especially downhill. Values over 85 suggest you need a horse
with more substance.
Damascus rates near the end of the acceptable range, but should
still be able to carry Lady in style, comfortably.
*Note that cannon bone circumference (as overall bone
substance) increases with the horse's fitness level, so if he is borderline,
like Damascus, it doesn't necessarily mean you're too big for him. By “racking”
up Long - slow - distance (LSD) miles, which builds up bone over time,
he may measure up yet. Be patient: it can take up to three years for bone
Condition Your Horse
Obviously no horse should be ridden if he is unsound or in pain. Add
a heavy load on his back and the horse must be more than just sound, he
should be fit.
The overweight or out-of-shape horse must be conditioned, slowly, prior
to carrying a heavy load. Consult with your trainer or vet for the best
way to condition your individual horse. Unfortunately, the average “back
yard horse” is generally not in any better condition than the average “weekend
rider”, which includes a lot of us. Such horses should not be expected
to carry more than 20 to 25% percent of their body weight. Add a rider
who is heavier, and possibly less balanced and/or athletic, and it becomes
obvious that the stouter and/or better conditioned horse will be more able
to carry the load comfortably, safely, with less chance of injury.
Have your veterinarian perform a thorough “soundness” exam. Explain
that the horse will be carrying extra weight and ask him or her to be especially
thorough in his evaluation of the horses back structure and the suspensory
ligaments in the legs.
Next, have a qualified farrier look at the horse's hooves. Be sure
he watches the horse travel at a walk and in gait, moving straight and
in a circle. The hoof should be balanced, as odd angles or heights increase
the stress on his feet, legs and back. Many horses need to be shod to maintain
a balanced foot, as they wear their hooves unevenly if left unshod.
Prevent Saddle Soreness
Saddle fit is a hot topic, and crucial for the heavier rider and his
or her mount. You must consider both the saddle fit to the horse and to
The way the saddle conforms to the horse's back is determined by the
shape of the saddle tree. The dimensions that affect the horse are: rocker,
flare, twist and spread and gullet height. The shape and length of the
seat (pommel and cantle) and twist affect the rider's fit.
To see if your saddle fits your horse, first be sure you are placing
it in the proper spot. The tree should sit immediately behind the horse's
scapula, not over it. (Although it is fine if the leather part of the saddle
extends over it.) To find the scapula, walk beside your horse with your
hand on the shoulder as someone leads him. As the horse moves, the scapula
rotates about its axis, and you should be able to feel and see it.
Place your saddle just behind the scapula and girth it sufficiently to
hold it securely in place. Too tight a girth can make your horse uncomfortable.
Too loose, makes the saddle unstable, allowing it to shift.
Many gaited horse riders tend to place the saddle too far back on the
horse, in the tradition of saddle seat equitation. “Wisdom” holds that
placing the weight behind the center of gravity forces the horse to pull
his hindlegs under himself and to ventroflex (head up, back lowered) his
body. In actuality, this more often hinders the natural gait of the horse
and places undue strain on the back and kidneys. Multiply this by a heavier
rider and the horse may well suffer needless pain and damage.
It is easier to fit a horse properly in summer coat. Rest the saddle
on the horse's back without padding and look at it from all angles. Avoid
those with gaps around the withers or spine. If the tree is not close in
fit, padding will not correct a poor fit. Do not try to "fill in" or "build
up" with padding where you see shrinkage (atrophy) in the horse's muscles.
If you are conditioning a horse, then these muscles will develop under
the saddle as the horse's fitness level improves. Otherwise, realize that
trying to level the saddle with padding is like buying a pair of size 12
boots, when you wear “9"s, and compensating by wearing four pairs of socks.
Most saddle-fit problems involve the withers, which is often belied
by white hairs growing on either side, or points that come into contact
with the bars of the saddle. Problems such as early fatigue, unexplained
body soreness, crankiness, tail wringing, refusals, uneven leads, weak
hind quarters, loss of lateral flexibility and more, can all be caused
by the muscle fatigue and strain of a poorly fitted saddle.
A properly designed saddle affects not only the rider's comfort, but
also balance. The stirrup bar of the saddle must allow the stirrup leathers
to hang approximately 6" or 7" forward of the deepest part of the seat.
This corresponds roughly to the measurement from the ball of the foot to
the heel. The twist of the saddle is the narrowest portion of the seat,
located just behind the pommel or cantle. Generally, saddles have either
a narrow twist or a broad twist, with great variation possible. The twist
you need depends on the shape of your pelvis, the way the femur is attached
and the shape of the inner thigh muscle. Because of the shallower/wider
shape of a woman's pelvis, women tend to be more comfortable in a broad
twist, whereas most men prefer a more moderate twist.
If your saddle doesn't fit either you or your horse properly, invest
in one that does.
In over 25 years of giving riding lessons many of my students have
been on the heavy side, so I understand their needs and difficulties.
Talk to your physician, tell him the level of riding activity that
you hope to enjoy and get his opinion. Ask him for a conditioning routine
for you if you have any health problems that may come into consideration
with increased activity. LSD (long slow distance) is as good for
human conditioning, as it is for your mount. Take it easy and gradually
build up the time or distance you perform any conditioning activity.
To increase leg strength and general flexibility, consider the
Exercise 1 - Hamstring Stretch
Stand on a step, with the ball of your foot on the step and your heel
extended over the edge. Hold onto a rail or wall for stability. Push your
heels down slowly, below the level of the step. SLOWLY bring them up to
level and continue until you are standing on your toes. Repeat for 5 repetitions
as often as possible.
Exercise 2 - Hip Flex
Lie on the floor, belly up, with hands under your hips to support your
lower back. Raise your legs a few inches off the floor, pause, lower to
just above the floor without letting your heels touch, until you have completed
at least 5 reps. Work your way up to 50 repetitions. Beginners may prefer
to raise one leg at a time as this puts less stress on your lower back.
Exercise 3 - Extension Step-Ups
As simple as “Step up, step down”. All you need is a stair, step-stool
or sturdy box and you are in business. For more effect, add ankle weights
for gravity resistance. Start with 5 reps per leg and move up to 100 or
Exercise 4 - Squats
Stand with feet pointed out at about 45 degrees at shoulder width,
squat down until your thighs are about parallel to the floor. Don't let
your knees project beyond your toes - to avoid excessive force on your
knees, which can lead to injury - they should be over your ankles. Keep
your back vertical / your weight supported by your hips, not your back.
Extend your arms, or lean back against a wall, as you slide up/and/down,
to help maintain balance. As you straighten up (extend), push from the
heels. Don't do squats with your heels raised, as that pretty much insures
an improper knee position.
Exercise 5 - "Thigh Master" Ball
This one requires a piece of equipment / a beach ball. Put it between
your knees, and try to pop it. You can do this while sitting, standing
or laying down. Hold for the count of 10, repeating for 5 reps in the beginning,
on up to 50 reps.
Exercise 6 -Astride jumps
Stand with feet together - knees slightly bent. Bounce on your toes
to move your feet out to each side, to about shoulder width apart. Then,
bounce on the toes and bring the feet together again, repeat 5 times, working
up to 50 reps.
Be sure you can mount a horse fairly quickly without hanging on the
side of the horse or "plopping" down into the saddle. Any rider who gets
their foot in the stirrup then struggles up the side of the horse, puts
undue stress on the horse's shoulder and back. Use a stable mounting block
when possible to reduce strain to the horse, however, don't consider it
the ultimate answer. Unless you have a physical handicap that precludes
it, for safety and convenience sake, you should be able to get on your
Make sure you are mounting the horse correctly. DO NOT pull yourself
into the saddle. Place your left foot into the stirrup, toes pointing towards
the horse's head so as not to “jab” him in the side, push off on the right
leg and raise yourself up in one smooth motion by straightening the left
knee. Then swing your right leg over the horse’s rump and settle gently
into the saddle.
To dismount slip both feet from the stirrups, turn in the saddle and
hop down. This requires some finesse on your part, but is much easier on
the horse’s back that pulling all your weight to one side as you climb
Improve Your Seat
A balanced seat means having your weight distributed equally on either
side of the horse, while having your body aligned along the points of gravity.
A plumb line dropped from your ear should intersect the point of your shoulder,
the second sacral vertebrae, hip and ankle.
One of the easiest ways to adjust your leg position to keep the proper
muscle groups of the inner thigh in contact with the saddle is to 'roll'
your thighs. Sitting with the ball of your foot in the stirrup, reach
down and grab the fleshiest part of the back of your thigh and pull it
back and out. This rolls the flattest muscles of the inner thigh against
the saddle resulting in a much more secure seat. If it feels uncomfortable
at first, persevere. Your muscles are not used to being used properly and
may protest. With practice you will find that the aches will go away and
a more secure seat becomes easier to maintain.
Balance is Key
Proper balance dictates that you carry your weight evenly distributed
through the buttocks and thighs. Do not carry excessive weight in the stirrup.
An old Calvary rider that I was fortunate enough to have as a riding instructor
when I was very young, stressed that the stirrup was not there for me to
stand in. He said to visualize a raw egg placed between the bottom of my
foot and the stirrup. Keep your stirrups without breaking the egg. Use
this visualization the next time you ride; you might find that you place
too much weight in your stirrups.
Stirrup length strongly affects balance. You cannot achieve a balanced
seat if your stirrups are too long or too short. Allow your feet to hang
out of the stirrups, then pretend you are Fred Flintstone. Yup. Remember
how Fred stopped his car? He had to push his heels down and straight below
him. Push your legs straight down, heel towards the ground, as if to touch
it. The stirrups should hit you in the ankle bones, if not, adjust them.
Balance is the difference between a good rider and a poor one, a safe
rider and one in peril. It is also the division between a horse comfortably
carrying a heavier rider and a horse straining under the load. Make sure
you have your weight evenly distributed from one side of the saddle to
the other, sit straight (but relaxed) and keep your shoulders even. A dropped
shoulder often means a more heavily weighted seatbone on the same side.
Balance is the difference between a good rider and a poor one, a
safe rider and one in peril. It is also the division between a horse being
able to carry a heavier rider and a horse forced to overexert to carry
Dress for Success
Make sure that your clothing fits you properly, clothing that is too
loose or too tight can be counter-productive. Many plus-size women are
comfortable in sweatsuits. While these are fine for everyday wear, they
are not appropriate for riding. The fabric is very slick in the saddle.
The last thing you need is to have achieved a proper, balanced seat, only
to slide out of it because of the fabric on your pants!
Pants that are too loose can chafe the inside of the thigh and
calf. Too tight a fit can be worse. Obviously if you can't lift your foot
to the stirrup because your pants are to tight, you have a problem. Clothing
should fit comfortably, with just enough space to allow freedom of movement.
Always wear hard-soled, fully enclosed boots or shoes, with enough
heel to prevent your foot from slipping through the stirrup, and a helmet
whenever you work around horses.
Weight and Gait
Often a heavier rider will cause a horse to become pacey. The extra
weight causes the horse to ventroflex, pushing his back down and head up,
a factor of the pace and to some extent at the rack (paso llano, tolt,
paso corte, etc.). One trainer laments of a pacey horse which she had trained
into a good fox trot for her owner, a fairly light weight man, only to
see him give the horse to his wife, who outweighed him by a good 100 lbs.
The extra weight coupled with the lack of expertise of the new rider, made
the horse instantly revert to a hard pace.
One of the reasons people seek out gaited horses is that they
think they are easier to ride. Often these are people who are injured,
not very athletic or merely overweight. However, to get and keep, many
horses in gait requires skill, flexibility and athleticism.