“Am I too fat to ride a horse?”


Maybe, maybe not. A “scientific study” has concluded that a horse cannot comfortably carry more than 10 percent of its own weight. I have been looking for the punch line ever since: obviously this is a joke! This would mean 80 percent of the people riding horses today are too fat!

According to The US Cavalry Manual of Horse Management (1941) a horse should not carry more than 20 percent of its own weight. This edict was routinely exceeded, soldier and equipment regularly weighing 250lb.

Researchers at Duchy College, in Cornwall, England, studied horse impact from 50 riders executing 45-minute workouts and they too came up with the 20 percent recommendation. This was ascertained by monitoring the release of creatine kinase, an enzyme present in the muscle and released into the blood to restore muscle damage. This enzyme is triggered when an increasing heart rate releases plasma lactate to levels the horse’s body cannot metabolize.

Of course, the scientists noted that impact on the horses varied greatly. Those with wider loins and thicker cannon bones recovered more quickly. Experienced riders know the fit of the saddle is vital.

For most of the 5000 years men have been riding horses they have used them to go places to kill each other. Pleasure riding, as we know it today, is barely 100 years old!

The earliest warriors rode bareback and all their horses were sore within three days. As weapons and armor increased in weight, so did the structure needed to carry them on the back of a horse. Attila the Hun was the first to use a saddle in war, around 440, figuring spreading the bearing weight over a greater area would make the horse less sore. He was a PSI pioneer!

Attila stole this idea from the Sarmatian women warriors (400 BC) who built a wooden “casing” on a horse so they would not be ejected when they ran a lance through an enemy ground soldier. They invented mounted lance warfare, these women who were feared above all other warriors. They cut off their right breast so they could more easily pull a bow. The Greeks founded the Amazon legend on the Sarmatians, with whom they became aquainted as traders.

Next, Attila stole a stirrup the Chinese used as a mounting aid during the same period. Amazingly it took 800 years for somebody (Attila) to think of putting a second stirrup on the other side!

The Romans soon visited Attila’s discovery but were quick to establish weight limits.  “Cloak bags” were not to weigh more than 35lb, saddles not more than 56lb.  Add this to 200lb of an average armed warrior and the Roman war horse carried 300lb, well over 30 percent of horse weight. Still, they conquered the world.

Over the next thousand years weight increased even more. Knights of old were actually lowered on their horses with pulleys, after two men fitted the saddle.

Advance to the South African War (1899-1902) the average weight of an Allied solider with equipment was around 320 lbs. For the British Desert Mounted Corps in Palestine and Syria (1917-18) the typical weight carried was 290lb, “all day and every day,”  according to saddle historian Major G. Tylden.

Hitler had the most mechanized army the world had ever seen, yet he had three million horses under his command. They carried 250lb to protect his Tiger Tanks.

For the war in Afghanistan, I saddled 130 horses for the US Special Ops, also designing scabbards for their M4s. Those horses packed 250lb.

Today, for the first time in the long man/horse partnership we are not eating them or causing them to die in battle. We are actually enjoying them and, I like to believe, they are enjoying us.

Ironically, all this feel-good stuff has happened when humans have grown substantially. In the last 50 years we have outgrown airplane seats, cars, furniture and houses.  When I started putting Americans in Australian stock saddles in 1979 the average seat size (Australian) was 16”. Today it is 17” and rising.

But the horse has not changed. Clearly, humans and horse are on a weight-impact collision course.

heavy-rider2The good news is people are asking themselves: am I too fat to ride?

I consider reality rather than scientists, who can crunch numbers and come up with any result they want to push an agenda. I suspect much of the weigh-impact-on-horse dialogue is advanced by people who do not want us to do anything with animals other than look at them. It is easy to imagine that in 200 years humans riding animals will be illegal. And we won’t be looking at them in zoos either. Zoos will be banned. We will view them “virtually.”

Another likely agenda is the persuasive prejudice modern cultures have toward fat people. They are discriminated against in jobs, social situations and almost any human interaction. Except in China, where fat people are admired!

Meanwhile, horse lovers are taking note. Bayard Fox, owner of Equitours , sends people to dozens of countries to ride horses – but he has a weight limit of 200lb. Still, he does not chisel that in stone, explaining: “In actuality, we have felt that some riders weighing 210 pounds were easier for horses to carry than others weighing only 175 pounds.”

Bottom line: riders who move with a horse are “lighter” than people of the same weight who “ride like a sack of potatoes”.

There is a popular misconception that big people should ride big horses. The reality is that smaller horses can carry a higher proportion of their own weight than bigger horses. In the trench warfare of World War 1 Connemara ponies carried half their body weight all day long. Mules and donkeys do the same today.

Endurance rider Ed Anderson rode his 14.3 hand 900-lb Arabian gelding Primo 2000 miles from Mexico to Canada carrying up to 275lb  – around 36 per cent of the horse’s body weight. “I went solo and unsupported,” he says. “Primo had no problems.”

But as Dr Gary Carlson DMV cautions: “Every extra pound a horse has to carry from point A to point B requires that much more energy.”

As a member of the American Endurance Ride Conference’s Veterinary Committee, Dr Carlson knows reality.

For questions or comments, email Colin on tassc@aol.com or call 818 8896988.

Colin Dangaard is founder and President of the Australian Stock Saddle Company, launched with his wife Linda Fox in 1979. They were the first to bring the Australian stock saddle to the USA.

» Read Colin’s profile

Colin Dangaard

Colin Dangaard is founder and President of the Australian Stock Saddle Company, launched with his wife Linda Fox in 1979. They were the first to bring the Australian stock saddle to America. » Read Colin's profile

24 thoughts on ““Am I too fat to ride a horse?”

  • August 18, 2015 at 11:05 pm

    No way, I had 27lbs too much before I did the “Loaded Gun Diet ” and I had my riding lessons every morning.

  • August 19, 2015 at 4:02 am

    >Over the next thousand years weight increased even more. Knights of old were actually lowered on their horses with pulleys, after two men fitted the saddle.

    This is a common misunderstanding. This was only done for a very small time for tournaments. Tournament armor was much heavier than battlefield armor (after all who wants to be killed at a sporting event) and the horse would be carrying the rider for only a short time.

    A knights armor (called harness) usually weighed between 40 and 80 lbs depending on the time period (lightest early [due to less armor] and late period [due to better technology]).

  • August 19, 2015 at 10:41 am

    Every pound carried requires more energy. That is true from the very first pound. It isn’t a cautionary tale. If energy is the only issue, then advances in nutrition should cover for the issues.

    And no discussion of how the horse is ridden- a well schooled horse, using his abdominal muscles to support his back can carry weight much better than one that is hollow and strung out. That is the real story. When horses had better schooling they could withstand the extra weight.

  • August 19, 2015 at 8:39 pm

    Fat people are not admired in China. Ed Anderson wasn’t that heavy. Your facts are way off.

  • August 20, 2015 at 6:52 am

    People were around 5ft 2″ in the past and food was not available like today. We are taller and heavier so the small ponies are too small for the majority of adults and hprses are being bred bigger to accommodate us. Big bottoms on slim horses does not look right either.

  • August 20, 2015 at 11:27 am

    This article has no mention of the long term impacts excessive weight has on a horses joints, bones or overall health. Common sense tells you that just because a horse CAN carry a heavy weight, over time the excessive pressure and wear and tear will cause problems such as chronic pain and soreness, early arthritis, lameness, spinal issues and more. Carrying someone on their back is very unnatural for a horse and they should be conditioned, trained and only ridden using well-fitted tack and always given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to obese riders or very large loads.

  • August 20, 2015 at 3:24 pm

    This one statement is completely inaccurate:

    >Over the next thousand years weight increased even more. Knights of old were actually lowered on their >horses with pulleys, after two men fitted the saddle.

    As a jouster, and the U.S. Delegate to the International Medieval Combat Federation’s ‘historical authenticity’ committee, I can tell you that this is a pure Hollywood fabrication. Knights were, first and foremost, soldiers. If they could not mount without assistance they were pretty useless if unhorsed. I can mount from the ground in my joust armor with no problem.

  • August 21, 2015 at 1:45 am

    It would be nice if we could have a formula for this (weight of rider vs. weight of horse) but it is not that simple of course. An important part of this issue is the long term impact of weight bearing on the horse’s structure. There are some recent studies coming out on the condition of the horse’s back due to riding and speed, and also some research coming out on detecting pain in horses (unfortunately, something we are not good at, as a rule). So to simplify this to a percent of the horse’s weight is not the answer. Rider ability, the build of the horse, the fitness of the horse, the balance of the load, the speed of the horse, fit of the saddle, how long the horse will be ridden each time and over the years with that weight/speed and many other factors are important here as part of the discussion for the welfare of the horse. Thoroughbred horses are ridden by very light individuals but can have serious back conditions as shown by the research done the vertebral column. The percentage of rider weight vs. horse weight can be helpful of course but does not provide the complete answer to prevent problems for the horse.

  • August 23, 2015 at 1:51 pm

    This article raises some challenging points. However, most of the cited examples are incomplete because they have no follow up as to the effect on the horse. To follow these examples as sound reasoning would be like saying that there was no point in reforms for industrial safety because after all people have worked in mines and sweatshops for well over 100 years. Yes, people have engaged in hard physical work for centuries but yes, they were and are often crippled by it if the work overtaxes joints and muscles. The fact that the horse can carry a certain weight without collapsing does not mean that it is either comfortable or healthy for the animal. One English study evaluated the effect of the weight of well-trained riders in a standardized “riding lesson” format. The people that conducted the study evaluated the horses for soreness in the back. That’s more convincing than partial anecdotes without any supporting reference. It is worth remembering also that work and cavalry horses were expected to wear out (and be sent to slaughter) at what we would consider a relatively young age. When I was young, few buyers wanted horses over 8 and a 20 year old was considered ancient.
    Here is my personal experience — I put a sweet, but obese woman on my 16 h. 1000lb. TB in an well-fitting Aussie saddle. She admitted to weighing 232 pounds. The horse sagged at the knees when she mounted using a mounting block but carried her through a half hour lesson at walk and trot. She had ridden a lot and had even taught riding at summer camps but she was unfit. After three lessons, the horse visibly dreaded her appearance at the barn. Could he physically carry her? Sure. Are any of my horses now carrying someone over 200 lbs? No unless that person is an excellent horseman.
    And the “this must be from some animal rights extremist” bogeyman argument is used by many people who want the freedom to mistreat their animals. “Gosh if they make me provide my horse with food and water or won’t let me beat it to death, pretty soon they’ll outlaw riding altogether.” Feeble, very feeble, especially as the author has no evidence of any bias on the part of the authors.

    • October 11, 2015 at 2:31 pm

      The difference between the mine workers and horse riders is that the workers were almost all, obviously sickened and/or has obvious physical ailments from their work.
      People who ride horses these days who others say are too fat to ride them, are not in most cases in any way, harming the horse.
      You can see that the horses can carry the weight and are still healthy and fit afterwards.
      Unless someone can prove in individual cases, that the individual horse in question had it’s joints and muscles overtaxed, that is just the same kind of false boogeyman that you mentioned.
      And speaking of such, you make the outlandish “fat people riding horses, will mean anyone can beat their horse to death” boogeyman claim that you are complaining about.
      And the one you are complaining about is invalid because what the author of the article, said is provable.
      All you have to do is go look at the YouTube video by the video on YouTube by “bite size vegan” titled “is horse riding cruel, is it vegan?”.
      And her conclusion supposedly supported by science, is that it is cruel and should be totally outlawed.
      And she is not the first or only one I have ever heard, say that, either.
      There might not be many who say that, but 59 years ago there were not many who said that riders who they think are too heavy should be killed for being “cruel” either, yet the comments under many videos with “overweight” riders say they should be.
      And since most people believe in evolution, they should believe that in the many thousands of years people have been riding, the horses have adapted and evolved to carry the extra weight.
      And Icelandic ponies have been bred specifically to carry the weight of a full grown man with heavy armor and weapons.
      So those ponies at least, can without a doubt carry very heavy riders because that is what they have been bred for a 1000 years specifically to do.
      The fanaticism you dismiss as a “boogeyman” is very real, and there in videos and comments, for all to see.
      And the boogeyman you created that “allowing fat riders means horses will be beaten and starved to death” is far from real.

    • January 11, 2017 at 12:14 pm

      We also have a weight limit of 200 pounds which was instigated along the same lines as the anecdote that you shared in your comment. In fact, almost word for word.
      A lot does have to do with the physical fitness and skill level of the rider, but much more, IMO, depends on the breed and build of the horse. A thoroughbred is too lightly built to carry that much weight day in and day out. An old-style Haflinger, for instance, can carry a decent sized person quite easily, so long as you find the correct fitting saddle to use. Therein lies the rub for the smaller horse with a wide and shorter back: finding a saddle that fits that horse’s physique AND the posterior of the rider without having everything sitting back on the horse’s kidneys. On many, a western saddle is out of the question and an english saddle will require a fitting from an experienced saddle fitter.

  • September 12, 2015 at 9:51 am

    Isn’t it kind of obvious that horses don’t want fat people on them? Would you rather carry the heavier pack or the lighter one? I’m not saying you have to be super skinny to ride, just have some empathy and don’t choose the Shetland pony please. Pick the horse that suits you. If you are really fat maybe just stay in bed you probably wouldn’t have the energy to ride anyway

    • September 18, 2015 at 8:44 am

      @ duh. I am “really” fat. I am close on 220 lbs. I have tons of energy. Did you know that some manic people can be “really” fat, too? Probably not, so this is an education, I’m sure. I am not ashamed of my strong, fat, useful body. It’s a good thing my horse doesn’t think I should stay in bed all day, or no one would muck out the barn.

      • December 8, 2016 at 11:07 am

        220 might be fat or overweight for your height and age but that isnt heavy….. could i ride a horse safely for the horse @330 lbs…. before the gear…. tons of iding posts says 250~ is top end so i am guessing at 220 + gear ur still a light weight.

    • November 9, 2015 at 4:13 am

      You must be a special kind of jerk.

    • April 14, 2017 at 6:38 am

      What a terrible response! My best friend has been a lifelong equestrian. Foxhunting was her passion. After the birth of her second child, she developed Type II Diabetes and has suffered from Metabolic Weight Disorder ever since. She is 5 feet tall and weights around 250. “Stay in bed you probably wouldn’t have the energy to ride anyway.” What an idiot you are. She could probably out-lift, and out-swim you. She is very fit but the weight will not go away. I despise people like “duh.” Why? Because they are stupid.

  • October 7, 2015 at 5:02 am

    I don’t know what the limit is, but to say that most of us are too heavy for our horses sounds ridiculous to me in a time when horses are working sounder and living longer than ever before. MSU study?

    • October 11, 2015 at 2:35 pm

      I think you are right.
      I said something similar, though I did not mention the longer life expectancy of today’s horses, and I appreciate you adding that insight.

  • November 10, 2015 at 10:32 am

    Have compation for the poor horse! Can ride no matter how heavy you are but please don’t be cruel to the horse when you know you’re too heavy. The question is are you too fat to ride the answer is no for yourself and yes for the horse

  • May 23, 2016 at 5:32 pm

    We should also take into consideration that short backed compact horses can also carry more weight. The Arabian horse in most cases has one less vertebrae in their back and although they are usually smaller then many breeds these days they can, pound for pound, carry more weight comfortably then bigger horses with longer backs.

  • June 1, 2016 at 2:41 am

    The study was done at
    And they say a horse should NOT carry more then A 1/4 of its weight.. read it for yourself

  • June 29, 2016 at 11:14 pm

    Really fat people, especially the 1st picture of that big women on that poor horse, who do you think you are putting poor animals through that

  • January 10, 2017 at 7:00 pm

    I think you have to use common sense. It depends on the size of the horse, of course. My quarter horse is large boned and even though only 15 hands, he weighs almost 1300 lbs. but is not fat. He’s stocky and can carry a larger person than my 800 lb. Arab/Welsh pony who is fine boned but sturdy. You can tell if the person is too heavy just by looking at if and how the horse/pony moves and if it labors under the weight. I believe that you must have a heavier person ride with a saddle and not bareback.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Send this to a friend