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How much weight can a horse comfortably carry?

- Posted by in Pet Care
How much weight can a horse comfortably carry?

Horses are big, powerful animals, but they do have their limits when it comes to how much weight they can carry. Researchers have identified a suitable rider weight threshold of 20% a horse’s bodyweight, including the weight of the tack. Beyond this and a horse will be under strain, making injuries more likely and reducing the horse's ability to perform.

While most healthy horses will be able to carry a rider and saddle, when the load exceeds 20-25% of their bodyweight, a horse will start to show physical signs indicative of stress and soreness.

Researchers found that the horses in their study carrying 15-20% of their bodyweight managed it with ease and showed very little indication of stress. In contrast, those carrying 25% of their bodyweight seemed to struggle more, and those carrying 30% loads slowed clear signs of strain.

These signs included faster, more laboured breathing, higher heart rates, and muscle soreness following exercise. Horses with wider loins were less affected, but still struggled under 30% loads. It has been suggested that for optimal performance, horses should carry no more than 10-15% of their bodyweight.

Interestingly, while some people will say that weight is only part of the problem and that other factors affect a horse’s comfort while being ridden, this research concludes with the same guideline as the US Calvary Manuals of Horse Management published in 1920.

Therefore, the 20% rule has been an advisory, backed by a wealth of research, for nearly a hundred years. As the average weight of the population continues to increase, the capability of horses to saddle such weights has become a growing concern and something riding schools, shows, and other organisations have started taking notice of.

Of course, many horses will be able to carry heavier loads, and it will also depend on the fitness and muscle development of the horse, as well as the type, speed and duration of the work, and the terrain the horse is ridden on.

The experience, skill and fitness of the rider should not be overlooked as a huge contributing factor, as a lighter rider with poor balance and coordination will have more of a negative impact than a heavier rider with greater skill. Uneven weight distribution on the back and landing awkwardly in the saddle can lead to lameness and other problems, so it's important to focus on this as much as the weight of the rider.

Roly Owers, Chief Executive of World Horse Welfare, said "It is common sense that rider weight impacts equine welfare however many might not fully understand or recognise this. What is desperately needed is basic guidance to help riders identify a horse or pony that is right for them and this research is a vital step in that direction."

[Note: calculating 20% of your horse's bodyweight should be based on the 'ideal weight' of your horse, rather than the current weight if a little on the heavy side.]

Do you think rider weight restrictions are necessary? Share your thoughts with our other readers by commenting here.

Written by: Hannah Dyball


3rd May 2018

A light rider on an ill fitting saddle will cause more problems than a heavier rider on a superbly fitted saddle too, no matter how well or badly either one rides. Never forget the importance of getting your saddle checked. Sensible weight guidelines are good, but who is going to enforce these guidelines? At the moment anybody can buy a horse, with no checks made at all. What we really need is a licensing system, where potential owners have to prove they can adequately care for their equine.

3rd May 2018

Rider weight restrictions are absolutely necessary. Twenty per cent is the maximum, not a 'more or less', and this is for moderate to light work. Horses and ponies working harder or for more than an hour or so, young and elderly horses should all carry significantly less than 20 per cent, more like the 10-15 percent recommended in your write-up. This issue was always regarded when I was young - a long time ago - but humans were not generally so overweight or big as they are now. I should like to see weight restrictions enshrined in law, when firmer scientific proof is available, because this is definitely a welfare issue.

3rd May 2018

Yes I think a persons weight should be taken into consideration, however its not just based on what one looks like on a horse. I ride a 14.1hh pony and at 10.5 stone thought I looked too big for her but in actual fact my weight is well within her weight bearing capabilities. Also a horses back has a bearing on weight bearing, i.e. short or long back. Thanks so much for the article. Very informative and carung.

4th May 2018
Customer Since: October 2015
From: Northamptonshire, United Kingdom

Yes I think Judges at shows, and Vets should tell riders that they are to heavy for their horses, this is of great concern for me as it is a growing problem.

4th May 2018

Interesting information, as some people go a bit OTT with the light weight thing but if a rider is skilled and keeps fit and healthy with the horse, as muscle weighs more than fat, they may be considered a little overweight but this information proves the point about how a skilled rider will sit, so these people should not worry too much. I think 15-20% is a good rule to stick with.

4th May 2018

No comment has been made of the age of the horses. Surely this is also relevant. Youngsters and old horses do not fit in this one size fits all formula. Many older animals are still in work thanks to improved veterinary procedures.

4th May 2018
Customer Since: February 2015
From: Powys, United Kingdom

Very good point that using 20% of ideal weight, as a guide, includes not just rider and tack weight but any horse overweight which adds to the load. Fit not fat applies to the ideal for both horse and rider.

4th May 2018

I think there should be reasonable limits, especially as so many overweight riders seem to have overweight horses, so the poor horse is already under extra strain before being ridden. Managing all this, though, would be a nightmare, with accusations of 'fat-shaming' and all the rest of it.

4th May 2018

I strongly believe that too many horses are being ridden by frankly obese riders, & would like to see weight restrictions enforced

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