Suitable rider weights and riding light

There is a lot if debate about how much riders should weigh to ride different types of horses and this is something I have touched upon before, especially in regards to showing and new rules being put in place.

However, there are lot of different ideas of what the ideal weight is and the misleading and confusing terms of riding light or balanced can confuse people. So in this post I will discuss suitable rider weights based on the weight of the horse, based on research. I will also look at the idea of riding light and what this actually means and why this affects the horse. And finally I want to touch upon the idea that these guidelines and ideas are not enough by themselves. That we also need to consider other factors when determining suitable rider weight.
Suitable Rider Weight
The rider weight issue first became a hot topic in the pony showing world with adults riding small ponies. However, as silly as a 6 foot person may look on a 12 hand pony, the horses height shouldn’t be the first consideration in finding a suitable rider. A chunkier type is capable of carrying a little extra weight than a finer type of the same height. Therefore the horses weight is what you should consider.
Studies suggest that the best way to determine whether a rider is a suitable weight is to use a percentage of the horses weight. The studies differ on what the idea percentage is, but they vary from 10-20%. Below you can see a table which demonstrates a riders maximum weight based on the horses weight and which percentage you use.
Rider weight
Horse weight
(kg)
10% 15% 20%
400 40 60 80
500 50 75 100
550 55 82.5 110
600 60 90 120
650 65 97.5 130
700 70 105 140
800 80 120 160
I personally feel that 15% is a good one to use as a guideline as I feel like it is one of the most realistic. This is because if we look at average healthy weight for people at different heights, taller riders would be too heavy for most warmblood type horses based on the 10% guideline. See below,
Height Weight
5′ 52.65
5′ 2″ 54
5′ 4″ 57.15
5′ 6″ 61.2
5′ 8″ 64.8
5′ 10″ 68.4
6′ 72.9
6′ 2″ 76.5
6′ 4″ 81
Just look at taller event riders like Mark Todd and William Fox-Pitt, for them to be at a healthy weight for their height, they would need to be riding horses weighing 700kg+. Most of the horses Mark Todd rides are fine thoroughbred types which I would guess weigh around the 550kg mark. I don’t think anyone would say Mark Todd is too heavy for his horses or that they weren’t coping with the high level of work they compete at.
However, I also feel that the 20% scale is too high, even if that includes tack etc. I would put Scottie’s weight at around 580kg, and I wouldn’t be happy with someone weighing 110kg getting on him.
Riding Light
However, it isn’t just about how much you weigh, it’s also about how balanced you are in the saddle. Research in biomechanics has shown that an experienced, balanced rider has less of an impact on the horse’s way of going than a lighter rider who isn’t as balanced. This is what people mean by “riding light.”
However, this phrase is confusing, giving the impression that being balanced makes you lighter. This simply isn’t the case. It simply makes you easier to carry. For example, if I gave you a wriggling toddler to carry and then a bag of flour weighing the same, you would find the flour easier to carry as it moves less and when it does move, you can predict how it will move.
The same goes for a horse. Research into biomechanics has shown that the horses way of going is impacted less by a heavier but more balanced rider than a lighter inexperienced rider. Studies have also found that horses find it easier to carry a sack of potatoes than an inexperienced rider!
So while riding light is a good thing, it doesn’t justify someone riding a horse they are too heavy for. However, saying that, I personally would choose an experienced, balanced rider slightly over a horses ideal weight ride than an inexperienced rider just under the horses weight.
Other Factors
As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, there are also other factors which should be considered when discussing ideal rider weights. I will briefly discus some of these factors and why they should be taken into consideration. But there are plenty of other factors out there too.
Horse’s age:
There are certain times when I would want a lighter rider on a horse. When a young horse is starting it’s ridden career, it will probably have very little top line to support a rider, plus the growth plates in their spine will still be open. Therefore I would want a lighter rider than a mature horse. Older horses also start to loose muscle and would probably benefit from having a lighter rider.
Horse’s condition:
Condition is another really important factor. Ex racehorses coming out of racing with little or no topline are not capable of carrying the same weight they would after having time to develop that topline. It is also to point out that horses which already lack topline will find it harder to develop that muscle with a heavier rider.
But it’s not just muscle you need to look at, the horses general weight condition is important too. Underweight horses are not going to have the strength to carry a heavier rider whereas overweight horses are already carrying the extra weight and a heavier rider will put even more strain on their bodies.
Level & duration of work:
It’s logical that the more intense and longer the work, the harder it is for a horse to carry a heavier rider. Therefore, while a 600kg horse should be more than capable of carrying a 90kg rider for general riding activities, for more intense work they may need a lighter rider, especially if they don’t regularly do that type of work.
Saddle Fit:
Studies have also shown that with a heavier rider, good saddle fit is even more important. While I would hope that all riders now know how important a correctly fitting saddle is, some saddles will fit better than others and with some horse conformations you may never get a perfectly fitting saddle. So when you know a saddle doesn’t fit as well as it could, you may need to reconsider the maximum rider weight for this horse.
For all these factors, I would think about lowering the maximum rider weight to 12-13% for horses identified as being unable to carry the rider weight the horse’s body weight suggests. But there are plenty of other factors out there which may be important to consider for different horses.
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5 comments

  1. Very interesting article! I have noticed this subject has become popular in the horse world, and it makes sense that “riding light” and being balanced would make a big difference in how much weight a horse could comfortably carry.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is such a hot topic right now and a topic I really struggle with. I have had to stop myself from commenting on these posts on social media due to some of the terrible things being suggested!

      Like

  2. Such an important issue! I attended a small local show recently and was horrified by the number of massively overweight riders on too small horses. Some of them barely fit in the saddle, it was pretty shocking. Similarly it’s pretty worrying when you see horses advertised as a “weight-carrier”.
    I’ve recently had to stop riding my mother-in-law’s older boy as I’m probably too heavy for him now he’s getting on a bit, you’re completely right to draw attention to these extra complicating factors! It’s so often the case that one rule doesn’t always work for all circumstances.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a tricky one because I truly believe that most people can ride most horses (within reason.) I think we need to stop obsessing about the weight and start considering the other factors. End of the day, a small child with no balance and a horrible fitting saddle is going to do more damage than a slightly overweight, balanced adult in a perfect fitting saddle.

      Liked by 1 person

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