The Heavier Rider©
By Beverly J. Whittington
One of the taboo topics in almost any social, work or family setting in our society is that of the overweight or obese person. This is especially true within the horse community. One of the ironies that I have personally found on the topic of weight is many horse people are PROUD of their overweight horses, but are self conscious about or ashamed of an over weight rider.
Horses can carry folks of greater weight, and riders can be safe when they carry more weight than the average rider, BUT there are some considerations that must be addressed.
Soundness of the Horse
Of course no horse should be ridden if he is unsound or in pain to perform undersaddle, when you add the consideration of a heavier load on his back the horse must be more than just sound, he must be FIT.
The overweight, out of shape horse must be brought to a fit condition slowly prior to being expected to carry a heavy load. There are an abundance of articles, books and resources that you can access to learn how to slowly condition a horse. 
However a book, by itself, will not teach you to ride, handle horses well, or feed or
"vet" them right. When possible consult with qualified persons who can "hands on" work with you and your horse to establish a routine to bring your horse to as fit a condition he is able to achieve.
One thing to consider; OPINIONS are just that, statements of how a person believes or feels on a subject, not many folks are ALWAYS right. So be sure to seek the advise of various sources prior to establishing what is best for you and your horse.
You should have a qualified farrier take a look, a good look, at the horses hooves. Be sure he watches the horse travel at a walk and in gait, both moving on the straight and in a circle. The hoof should be balanced. Horses with three angles and with different heights on each foot will not bear up as well to weight carrying
requirements. Many horses require being shod to maintain a balanced foot, they will wear their hooves unevenly if left unshod,  determine if your horse is one of these and have him shod if necessary.
Have your Veterinarian perform a THOROUGH Health and soundness check on your horse. Any issues must be dealt with to assure that the horse is prepared to enter a conditioning program or to work under the heavier rider. Ask him or her to be especially thorough in his evaluation of the horses back structure and
the suspensitatory ligaments in the legs of the horse. The "wind and limbs" of a horse should be able to bear up under the exertion required to carry the load you are asking of the horse.
It would also be a good idea to have a qualified horse chiropractor or massage therapist take a look at the horse. They often can pinpoint problem areas that elude Veterinarians and can be a great resource to keep your horse in "tune".
Familiarize yourself with the weight condition-score system as used by veterinarians. A pamphlet with photographs can be obtained by calling Equus Magazine at (301) 977-3900,  back issues of articles on the subject, complete with photographs are also available through them.  Horses are usually evaluated for body condition according to the system described by Henneke et al. (1983; Henneke et al 1985), in which fat cover is appraised at six areas of  the horse's body.
A copy of this scale is posted at:
MANY folks consider a horse that is fit "Needing Weight", remember a horse is an athlete, few athletes are heavy with body fat, their weight often comes from muscle. Now before someone points out the overweight football players or wrestlers, think it through, you need to compare like disciplines.  A horse is more the equivalent of a triathlon competitor and weight lifter combined. Both of these types of athletes tend to be well muscled and carry little excess weight in the form of body fat. Remember a  5 is just fine for a horse in who is in work shape. Often owners keep horses at about a 7 or 7+ on the "fleshy" side rather than in condition. Notice that an 8 is "fat", this is often the weight that you will find many horses.
A means to get the weight of a horse is to measure the heart girth just behind the elbow, taking the reading right after the horse exhales.  Measure body length from the point of the shoulder to the point of the buttocks in a straight line.  A  plastic coated tape works best.  If one is not available, use cord  or string that has no stretch and mark the spot with a pen; then measure the cord with a carpenter's tape or yardstick.
Take the two measurements and multiply the heart girth in inches by itself, then multiply that by the body length in inches. 
Divide the total by 330 for the approximate weight in pounds.
For example, if the horse measures 75 inches around the heart girth and body length is 64 inches:
heart girth x heart girth x body length / 330    = body weight

75 x 75 x 64 / 330 = 1,090.9 lbs.

Susan Garlinghouse of the Equine Research Center at Cal Poly University published some research on the  subject of horse weight compared to riders weight.  In looking at 374 horses, they found that horses can easily carry over 30% of their own body weight for 100 miles and not only compete, but compete well. 
What they found as being more important is the substance of the horse, meaning both body condition and bone structure.  Body condition means that a horse with well-covered ribs performs better than a thin horse, so keep some meat on those bones.  By bone structure, she meant the substance of the total horse, but they
looked primarily at front leg cannon bones. 

Here's a handy-dandy index they cooked up that seems to be working out well for they so far (planning to be developing this formula further this summer):
1.  Add up the total weight in pounds (kg x 2.2) of the horse, rider and tack.
2.  Divide this number by the circumference, in inches (cm divided by 2.54) of the front cannon--skin, tendons and all---measured midway between the knee and fetlock joints.
3.  Divide THIS number by two.  You should get a number, probably around 75 or so.  Values at or around 75 are ideal, and below 75 is even better.  Values from 75-80 are still okay.  Values over 80, you should probably keep an eye on the legs and train carefully, especially on downhills.  Values over 85  you may need to find a horse with more substance.
Keep in mind that cannon bone circumference increases significantly as LSD (long slow distance) and endurance  miles increase, so if your horse is right on a borderline, say around 80, it doesn't mean you're too big for him---just put plenty of LSD miles on him and let the bone build up slowly---it can take up to
three years for bone to remodel, so be patient. 
Now that you have your horse checked out and in shape you need to consider;


The Saddle
Once again it goes without saying that a saddle must fit a horse properly.
The fit of the saddle is determined by the shape of the saddle tree. The dimensions that affect the mount are: rocker, flare, twist and spread and gullet height. The shape and length of the seat (pommel and cantle) and twist are for the rider's fit.
It is easier to fit a horse properly if  he is summer coat. Once you get a close fit, minor adjustments can be made to the tree if you want. Also, adjustments can be made later to compensate for growth or weight gain/loss.  If the tree is not close in fit, multiple saddle pads will not correct a poor fit. 
Do not try to "fill in" or "build up" where you see shrinkage (atrophy) in the muscles. These muscles must be allowed to build and develop under the saddle. Some folks will try to level the saddle with this method but it only complicates the problem. If you wear a size 9 boot, would you buy a pair of 12's and plan on wearing 4 pairs of socks? Just as this would result in your foot slipping around and being unstable, a loose fitting saddle will also slip around and be unstable.
If  you can, find an equine therapist who can do saddle fit evaluations, or see if there is a saddle fitting clinic coming to your area.  Almost every saddle that poorly fits a horse the trouble will involve the fit on the withers.  The neuro lymphatic reflex centers and acupuncture meridian connectors, along with the certain vertebral subluxations, these are sensitive spots and are exactly where the saddle bars rest. Conditions such as early fatigue, unexplained body soreness, crankiness, tail wringing, REFUSALS, uneven leads and or diagonals, a weak behind,  (HOCKS and LEG problems) loss of lateral flexibility and more, can all be caused by the muscle fatigue and strain of a poorly fitted saddle 
Any saddle must be correctly balanced to allow the rider to sit in a balanced position; with half of the upper body mass on either side of the straight vertical line which will connect the points of gravity. Thus achieving a balanced seat. The points of gravity start with the ear, then the point of the shoulder, then the second
sacral vertebra, then the hip joint, and finally, the ankle.  In other words, if you were to hang a plumb line (like the one surveyors use) from your ear, it would pass each of the above points and land against your ankle. The stirrup bar of the saddle must be correctly placed. The stirrup leathers should hang vertically and
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. 
When the saddle is viewed from above, 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 within each category. The general type of twist you need depends upon the conformation
of your pelvis and the way the femur is attached to it as well as the shape of the inner thigh muscle. 
Women's seat bones tend to be further apart than those of men, but they tend to have fleshier thighs. The shallower and wider pelvis of a woman tends to be more comfortable in a broad twist.  Also the positioning of the femur in women with relation to the pelvis and the shape of the muscle of the inner thigh can cause
pain in the crotch if the twist is too broad.  The narrower the twist, the better the saddle accommodates the greater mass of a womans rounded thigh muscle, letting the rider have the proper amount of support from the thigh.  Men however will be uncomfortable riding a really broad twist saddle but will tend to prefer something with a more moderate twist. 
To properly fit a saddle, you must first ascertain exactly where on the horse's body the saddle should sit. The saddle should rest immediately behind the horse's scapula, be sure not to place the saddle on top of the scapula. To find the scapula is located,  walk beside your horse with your hand on the shoulder blade as
someone else leads him. As the horse moves the scapula will rotate about its axis,  you should be able to visualize its location. Place your saddle just behind the scapula and girth it sufficiently to hold it securely in place. 
A quickie check for saddle fit is to liberally douse the bottom of your saddle with talcum powder and then but it on your horse, without the pad.  The talcum transferred to your horse's back should exactly match the bars of the saddle and should be even (and without the pad the saddle should not rock back to front).
The weight of the rider will be dispersed across the bars of the saddle if the rider is riding correctly.  No saddle, no matter how well it fits the horse will work well if the rider doesn't know how to ride properly.  
Bareback riding is something I would not recommend for the over weight rider. I am reminded of a John Wayne movie every time someone asks me about riding bare back. John Wayne was telling his adult son to put a saddle on the horse. His son stated that it was OK, he could handle bareback. John Wayne retorted " I
am not worried about your butt boy! I am worried about the horses back!". So USE a properly fitted saddle!
The Rider
I have given riding lessons for some 25 years, and many of my students have been on the heavy side, so I have some understanding of their needs and difficulties. Many of the situations that the heavier rider has to address are the same that any rider have, and then there are those which apply to the weight factor.
If you have followed the guidelines set above, you now have a  healthy, fit horses with properly fitted tack. Why would you not apply the same to yourself and your health and attire? Overweight does not preclude horsemanship, out of shape and health limitations may.
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 considerations that may come into consideration with increased activity.  LSD (long slow distance) is often a good route for the human  conditioning as well, just take it easy and build up gradually the time or distance you perform any conditioning activity.
I would recommend that any over weight rider endeavor to increase their leg strength and general flexibility to aide them with the skills they will need for the activity of riding a horse. 
One thing to pay attention to, is if you can mount a horse fairly quickly without hanging on the side of the horse or "Plopping" down into the saddle. ANY weight rider who gets their foot in the stirrup then struggles up the side of the horse puts undue stress on the horses shoulder and back. Use of a mounting block is
NOT the long range answer. You should be able to GET ON any horses you choose to ride, unless you have a physical handicap that precludes this. What if you have the occasion to get off the horse away from the stable area and your mounting block? Use of buckets, rocks, the side of a fence etc.. are just an accident
waiting to happen. It may be years before the accident occurs, but these crashes can be rather spectacular, with the rider ending up UNDER the horse, who is often spooked by the displacement of his rider from beside to under him, and is scrambling to get away!
A few simple exercises to strengthen your leg muscles can go a long way to assisting your mount. Start all exercises with only 5 reps, but do them several times a day, like in the morning, at lunch and in the evening.

Exercise 1
ON THE BOTTOM step of a staircase, stand with the ball of your foot on the step and your heal hanging over the edge. Be sure to have a firm grasp on the banister to avoid a mishap. Then allow your heels to slowly drop as low as they can below the level of the step. Now once again SLOWLY bring them to level and then to
the point where you are standing on your toes.  Repeat in 5 repetitions as many times as you can a day. Those of you with stairs in your home, take a moment to perform this exercise every time you go up and down the steps and you would not believe the improvement you will see in your mounting ability in less than a month! Those of you without steps on you home, need to find a secure, level object to use to practice on, or build your own "step" out of a piece of board to practice with, do at least a minimum of 3 repetitions a day, more if possible.
Exercise 2 hips flexion 
Leg Raise - Lying in a belly-up position, with hands under your hips (to help support your lower back), raise your legs a few inches off the floor, pause, lower to just above the floor. Don't let your heels touch the floor until you have completed your set (start with sets of 5 reps and work up to 50 reps).  Note that for beginners, it is recommended that one leg at a time be used (less lower back stress). 
Exercise 3 extension exercise
Step-ups - This is really an extension exercise, but if you add ankle weights, the step up is resisted by more than gravity. You need something to step up on. Stairs at home work; so does an aerobic "Step," or a box (not cardboard). Step up, step down. Do all of your planned reps on one leg, then switch; or alternate legs on
each step. 
Exercise 4
Free-standing squats, stand with your feet  pointed out at about 45 degrees at about shoulder width,  "sit" until your thighs are about parallel to the floor. Don't let your knees project beyond your toes, they should be about over your ankles - to avoid excessive shearing force on your knees, which can lead to injury. Keep
your back as vertical as you can - your weight should be supported by your hips, not your back. Sometimes extending your arms as you squat will help you maintain balance. You can also lean back against a wall or door, and just slide up-and-down. As you straighten up (extend), you push from the heels, so don't do
squats with your heels raised, that pretty much insures an improper knee position. 
Exercise 5
"Thigh Master" Ball - It requires a piece of equipment - a beach ball. You know the kind - about the size of a basketball, but much lighter,  it only costs about $1.50. 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 then repeat for 5 reps in the
beginning, up to 50 reps.
Exercise 6
Astride jumps - knees slightly bent, start with feet together, bounce on the toes and move your feet out to each side about shoulder width apart, bounce on the toes and bring the feet together again, repeat 5 times, working up to 50 reps.
As with entering any exercise routine, check with your doctor first!
Once you have begun an exercise routine, you need to make sure that you are mounting the horse correctly. First and foremost is that you DO NOT pull yourself into the saddle, instead you use the left leg to propel you in plane. By straightening the knee you will lift yourself up, pushing off the right leg to allow yourself to
"step up" to the stirrup and then swing GENTLY into the saddle. I do mean GENTLY, any weight rider should settle into the saddle with the same or less "plop" that a feather would have settling on  the saddle surface.  Once you are on the saddle take time to get adjusted!
Make sure of your stirrup length. You can not achieve a balanced seat if your stirrups are too long or too short. A quick check is to allow your feet to hang out of the stirrups, then pretend you are Fred Flintstone. Yep you heard me right, remember Fred? The only way he could stop his speeding car was to push his heels down and straight below him.  That is what you need to do, push your legs straight down, heel pushing to the grown as if to touch the ground below the horse. The stirrup should hit you in the ankle bone, if they don't adjust then so they do. Now you should have to raise the toe slightly to be able to place your foot in
the stirrup. 
ROLL your thighs!
One of the easiest ways to adjust your leg position and to assure that you have the proper muscle groups of the inner thigh laying against the saddle is to 'roll' your thighs. To accomplished this you sit in the saddle with your stirrups properly adjusted, and the ball of you foot in the stirrup, then allow your hand to fall
straight down at your side. Reach and grab the fleshiest part of the back of your thigh and pull it back and out. This will roll the flattest muscle groups of the inner thigh against the saddle and will also align the ankle with your hip. This position allows you to have a much broader muscle laying against the saddle, which results in a MUCH more secure seat! If it feels uncomfortable at first perservere, the muscles are probably not used to being used properly and will protest. With practice you will find that the aches will go away and a more secure seat will become easier to maintain. As an added bonus this will help to trim the
thighs of those with more bulk in that region than they would like!  
If you feel insecure in your seat, you should seek out a qualified instructor to work with you. One of the easiest ways to become secure is to have a way to GET OFF that horse if you feel like you are in jeopardy of falling. Seek out instruction for and become familiar with a form of emergency dismount, practice till you are competent with the procedure at a stand still and then at a walk.
Balance is very important, you must carry your weight evenly distributed through the buttocks and the thighs. You should 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, told me OVER AND OVER that the stirrup was not there for me to stand in. He told me to visualize a raw egg placed between the bottom of my foot and the stirrup. I was to keep my stirrups WITHOUT breaking the egg. If you will use this visualization the next time you ride, you will probably find that you tend to place far too much weight in your stirrups! 
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 caused to over exert to carry the load. Make sure you have your weight evenly distributed from one side of the saddle to the other, sit up
straight (but relaxed) and keep your shoulders even for a dropped shoulder will often be followed by a more heavily weighted seatbone on the same side.
Proper Attire
One thing I require of all my students is that they wear proper head gear, get a good helmet and use it. EVERY TIME!!! Very few accidents occur when you expect them, that is why they are called accidents, so wear one each time you handle your horse, even when grooming. Most fatalities that occur in horse related
incidents occur when the handler isn't even on the horse. think about it, if you fall off a horses, you may or may not break anything, IF a 1000 LB or better animal comes crashing down on you while you are on the ground, odds are that you will break SOMETHING, with  a helmet at least it won't be your head.
You need to make sure that your clothing fits you properly, clothing that is too loose or too tight can be counter productive.  Many women who are overweight prefer sweatsuits as a form of comfort wear.  While these may be good for everyday wear, they are not appropriate for riding. The fabric go most sweatsuits is
very slick when it comes in contact with a 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 are not functional .They may very well cause chafing on the inside of the thigh and calf, and secondly they seldom allow the firm contact needed for a secure seat. The other side of the coin is the individual who wears clothing that is too tight. Obviously if you can't lift your foot to the stirrup because your pants are to tight you have a problem. Clothing should be fitted, enough space to allow some freedom of movement but not hanging on your frame.

Footwear, DO NOT WEAR ATHLETIC SHOES. Hared soled, fully enclosed boots or shoes please! 
OK, so now you have a sound, conditioned horse with a rider who can mount and ride a balanced seat and you are both outfitted for comfort and safety. Continue to educate yourself on proper riding of the breed you have chosen. Make frequent checks of the horses fitness and tack. Adjust as needs dictate.
Riding horses is a good activity to help condition anyone, the heavy rider does NOT need to be out of shape just because they do not meet the standards of todays weight conscious society. Keep in as good a shape as you can, weight loss may be one of your goals through the increase of activity of riding, but it doesn't have to be. The mental well being that comes with a good relationship with our equine companions is often benefit enough!