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Am I Too Big for my Horse?

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

Just take a scroll through your local horse riders Facebook group and no doubt you will see this question pop up time and again.

The question usually comes from a concerned rider who has perhaps received negative, sometimes hurtful comments about their size or maybe they just have a sneaking suspicion that they are too large for their horse.

As horse owners we love our four-legged partner and no one wants to feel that they are doing anything but the very best for their equine friend.

Rider to horse size ratio is an important component to your horses’ long term comfort and wellbeing and should factor in to your horses management plan.

Let’s first start off by saying that horse are incredibly strong, athletic animals and many horses are physically capable of carrying weight, especially those who are fit, lean and well trained. Research suggests that a maximum rider to horse weight ratio should be below 20% - this means a horse who weighs say 500kgs can; in theory, carry a rider (including clothes, boots and saddle) of up to 100kgs!

Phew, I’m in the clear I hear you thinking!

However, while the weight bearing capacity of a horse is high there is more to be considered. One area which is often overlooked is the available surface area we have on the horse that is suitable for carrying said weight.

To protect the comfort and longevity of the horse; the rider must be able to fit in the saddle which, in turn should be able to fit within the saddle support area.

So maybe a more pertinent question we should be asking is ‘Am I too Big for my Saddle?’

We know that horses were not designed to be ridden and so we must be everything we can to ensure our impact is minimally detrimental. A huge part of this is the correct fitting of our saddlery so our bit, bridle, saddle and accessories.

One important aspect of correct saddle fit is the saddle length. The saddle should distribute the riders’ weight over the ribcage without loading the weaker lower back (we call this the lumbar spine).

The length of the back will vary from breed to breed and also by height and conformation of the horse.

We measure the horse back length in inches and we do the same for the rider.

If our riders seat requirements exceed that of the horses’ saddle support area then we run into problems.

Many riders say ‘as long as my saddle fits my horse I don’t mind being uncomfortable’. This is well intended but unfortunately doesn’t solve the problem. The rider must be able to sit correctly, in an appropriate position and mobilise their pelvis to help protect the horse.

Riders who are too big for their saddle will place excessive weight at in the cantle which can cause pain and discomfort in the horse and can be linked to hindlimb issues.

Similarly, a saddle which is too long for the horse will exert pressure onto the lumbar region and again can cause the same problems – pain, discomfort and hindlimb issues.

So how do we solve this issue? Sadly there is no perfect solution. There are a few techniques your saddle fitter can use to help the situation such as slightly shorter panels, short pommels and flatter seats but overall a compromise will need to be made somewhere.

A very important part of determining the saddle support area is to consider the horses working shape. A horse who lifts it’s back when ridden will in effect lengthen through the spine and increase the saddle support area. A horse who hollows their back will have the opposite effect.

Every ridden horse should be encouraged to engage their core and lift through the back regardless of the job they are being asked to perform and this becomes increasingly important when riding the short-backed horse. If this is something you or your horse finds difficult it is worth discussing it with your trainer and physio. A lift in the back can achieve a significant increase in saddle support area and may help to resolve your saddle length issues.

When it comes to riders’ size thigh length plays into this as much as overall body shape therefore this is by no means a weight specific issue. A lean rider of healthy weight and body composition can be just as detrimental to the horse as a larger rider if they chose a horse with an unsuitable back length. Whereas a larger rider on a horse with a suitable back length will create no more concerns than a smaller rider on a shorter backed horse.

So how do we help protect the horse?

One way this can be addressed is for horse owners to factor in the available saddle support area when viewing prospective horses and using this as part of their requisite for horse suitability.

If you already own or ride a horse who has a saddle support area which is shorter than your seat requirements then you can do one of two things: you could stop riding the horse, or (more commonly) continue riding the horse. If you chose the latter it is important to be mindful that your horses lower back and gait may require additional attention and you should work with your vet, saddle fitter, equine physiotherapist or body worker to find an optimal solution.

In conclusion; if your saddle seat requirements are longer than your horses saddle support area OR your weight (including saddle and clothing) exceeds 20% of your horses ‘fit’ body weight then it may present a problem.

Your saddle fitter will be able to assist you in this and will do their very best to find a workable solution. Just be mindful that there is only so much your saddle fitter can do as they will always be bound by certain physical, anatomical and mechanical limitations.

If you are concerned about the fit of your saddle for either yourself or your horse please reach out to a saddle fitter who will be able to carry out a thorough assessment of your needs and help you to find a solution.

For saddle fitters we have a specific CPD course available on saddle length and fitting the plus sized rider. Click here to access the CPD course

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