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: http://www.ohahs.org/Henneke.htm
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
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
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
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;
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
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
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!
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.
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
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
"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.
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
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
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!