Scientists are preparing to tackle one of the thorniest questions around horse welfare, delving into the issue of rider weight.
The researchers hope to develop guidelines for appropriate rider weights as a result of a riding study planned for September.
Discussions around rider weight inevitably stir emotions and sensitivities, with online debates regularly raging on the subject.
Leading British veterinary and scientific research charity The Animal Health Trust says there is a complete lack of reliable scientific research on which to base guidelines for appropriate rider size.
However, the trust says there appears to a growing problem of riders who are oversized for their horses and it has become a hot topic within the industry.
Excessive rider size has clear welfare implications for horses and ponies in all types of work. Riders who are too heavy for their horse or pony can cause chronic back pain and lameness, as well as giving the horse a negative association to being ridden as they pre-empt pain.
There is therefore an urgent need to start to provide some evidence-based guidelines to the equine industry as to what constitutes excessive rider size, under different circumstances, it says.
The aim of the study is to investigate whether there are any short-term measurable differences when horses are ridden.
During the study each horse will be ridden by four competent riders of different weights.
Subjective and objective assessments of gait and behaviour will be made when ridden, as well as measurements of forces under the saddle, heart rate during exercise and recovery, cortisol levels and back dimensions before and after exercise.
The study does not query what size or weight a rider should be, but will investigate the effect of different rider-to-horse weight ratios.
This will enable vets, owners and trainers to determine an appropriately sized partnership.
A rider can be heavier than another and still work a horse in good balance and posture.
However, regardless of the competency of the rider, if they are too big or too heavy and the horse does not have the core strength to support that excessive pressure, injury will occur. No one wants to see a horse caused discomfort or pain, so this is a step towards a practical solution to an increasing problem.
The trust is asking owners to volunteer their horses for the September study.
It is seeking horses that weigh 450 to 550kg (around 15 to 16 hands) who are in regular work and are capable of working two 30-minute sessions a day. They must be capable of working on the bit in walk, trot and canter.
The horses will need to be available from September 3-8 and will be stabled on site throughout the study at World Horse Welfare’s Snetterton centre, where they will be under the care of an Animal Health Trust team. All participating animals must be vaccinated against influenza and tetanus.
Owners of the horses taking part will have access to free advice from experts in their field, including vets, saddle fitters, nutritionists and professional riders. Each horse will be given a free saddle-fit assessment and any adjustments will also be carried out free of charge.
“If you horse is able to take part, they would be helping to take the weight off many other horses’ shoulders, for which they and the AHT would be very grateful,” the trust said in a statement.
Those interested can either email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01638 751908.