This is quite a common question posed by self-conscious riders of all shapes and sizes. Especially here in the UK, there is a strong tradition of children riding ponies and ‘moving up’ to bigger horses. This has caused many adults to question whether they should be riding ponies and many children, especially as they enter their teenage years, want to move to larger horses because they think this makes them more ‘adult’.
But to what extent does growing up really limit what size horses you can responsibly ride?
The most obvious reason you might want to ride a larger horse is height. If your feet are dragging on the floor or hitting poles when you are jumping, you should probably consider a larger horse…
It is also true that riding a smaller or narrower horse can be more unbalancing than riding a wider or larger one and the gaits of larger horses differ from those of smaller ones. For the most part, however, an experienced, confident rider should not be limited by their height in terms of the horses and ponies they ride.
However, one way in which a rider’s height might influence their horse’s suitability is saddle fit. A taller rider may require a longer saddle and this might not be possible on a smaller horse or one with a shorter back. This can be a problem because of how it could influence the rider’s weight distribution.
How much you weigh is the most important factor to take into consideration. Carrying a rider too heavy for them will cause a horse to become sore and uncomfortable and could lead to long term damage.
A study from 2008 looked at how horses coped with different loads on their backs. The horses ranged from about 400kg to 625kg and had to carry loads between 15% and 30% of their body weight.
What the researchers found seems to agree with a long-standing cavalry guideline that says that horses should not carry more than 20% of their body weight. When the horses carried 25% of their body weight or more they began to show more obvious signs of physical stress. They breathed faster and had a markedly elevated heart rate as well as showing other signs such as elevated lactate levels. When muscle soreness was assessed a day after trotting and cantering, these horses were uncomfortable and sore and had tight muscles.
Horses with wider loins fared better than those with narrower loins. The loins are the area of the back between the back edge of the saddle and the croup. These horses showed the least soreness following exercise regardless of weight carried compared to narrower horses. This does not mean they were unaffected however!
The conclusion drawn from this study is that horses should generally not be asked to carry more than 20% of their own body weight. And certainly not on a regular basis. However, this isn’t a hard and fast rule and new research could still lead to this being revised in the future. Regardless, the calculation has to include tack and equipment worn by the rider. And the horse’s weight should be its ideal weight. In other words, an overweight horse cannot carry more just because it is fat!
We have put together a calculator to help you calculate your horse’s weight and help figure out whether you are an appropriate weight for your horse.
A well-fitted saddle that distributes weight effectively is essential for ensuring your horse does not become sore when carrying you. This is true regardless of your weight – even if you are well within the limits. More balanced riders will also be less likely to cause strain on a horse’s back and of course some activities are more strenuous than others!
However don’t rely on your horse to ‘let you know’ if you are too heavy! Horses are prey animals with an instinct to hide weakness and discomfort. Many will remain stoic and suffer in silence. It is your responsibility to be honest and take appropriate measures to prevent long term injury to your horse.