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This article was originally published in The Gaited Horse Magazine.

The Heavier Riders’ Guide
to Comfort and Safety with Gaited Horses
By Beverly Whittington and Rhonda Hart-Poe


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 and comfortable.

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. 
 
Measurement Test
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 to remodel.

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 rider.
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.

Start Sensibly 
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 following:

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 more.

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. 

Mount Kindly
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 horse.
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 down.

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 the load.

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. 
 


 
 

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