One plus-sized rider’s perspective from 25+ years of being in and out of the equestrian world
BY KAREN HOPPER USHER
I’ve been riding for 25 years. First as a chubby, then fat, then obese equestrian. Along the way, there are things in my barn communities that I have found helpful and others that have made it even harder to ride.
There are two sides to this experience. Plus-sized riders often need to learn how to advocate for themselves. Trainers can feel flummoxed over how to help larger students, or see plus-sized students come and go, seeming “less committed.” My hope in sharing my experience is to identify some bottlenecks for all and lead to a more size-inclusive environment—whether you’re plus-sized or a straight-sized rider who wants to be a better friend to larger riders.
It’s the Horse First
The first thing is the horse, as it should be. I’m not advocating for 250lb riders to ride a 900lb out-of-shape horse over fences, but I can tell you that I had a pretty successful walk-trot-canter lease on a 900lb Mustang when I weighed 220lbs. I think one of the troubling things happening in the broader culture right now, not just in the equestrian world, is that people look for black and white rules. If you fall on the wrong side of the line, you’ll be ostracized and ridiculed. But real life and real horses don’t work like that.
There are horses that can carry more than 20% and there are horses that need to carry less. There are horses that are fine walk-trot-cantering with heavy riders but not jumping. There are horses that would be comfortable with a heavier rider if they had a nice warm-up first with a lighter rider. There are horses who have a hard time carrying large riders in arenas where the footing is barrel-racer deep, but those same horses are comfortable carrying larger riders over sod.
The very first step you can take to be size-inclusive in your barn is to know your horses really, really well. Manage their fitness. Keep them in work. Ask yourself “what-if?” and “why?” for your horses. Bring your vet into the equation. The most important thing, regardless of the size of any rider, is to always put your horse’s welfare first.
“No Riders Over…”
Many businesses have a firm policy of no riders over 200 lbs. That’s their right, but please don’t make a joke about it on your website. And don’t put the blame on the rider. In many cases, it’s not that a rider is too large for horses but instead a facility doesn’t have suitable horses for them. If there is only one suitable horse for larger riders, we’d rather you be upfront about that than outright banning us.
You could say something like, “Sammy is our go-to horse for riders over 200lbs but we can’t guarantee his availability. If he is unsound or missing a shoe or ill or just needs a break, larger riders may have their lessons canceled. Alternatively, they may opt to have a groundwork lesson instead.”
Or maybe you want to have a policy of no beginner riders over a certain weight for certain horses but experienced, balanced riders would be acceptable. That’s fine, too—I just encourage trainers to leave the door open to the possibility that there are bigger riders that might fit into your program.
This goes both ways. Plus-sized riders aren’t the only ones who should be asked to find suitable mounts. One of the biggest barriers to many larger riders in lesson programs isn’t that there aren’t any large horses in the barn that can physically carry them—it’s that those horses are popular. Other riders want to ride them too. Not to mention that height isn’t the only factor when it comes to how much weight a horse can carry. When we indulge peoples’ sizeist attitudes (towards both riders and horses) we end up with 17h messes selling quicker and for more money than 15.1h powerhouses. Plus-sized riders and horses alike are counting on instructors and trainers to hold the line on rider-horse suitability.
We Are Not a Before Picture
Even when they express interest, the plus-sized riders in your life should not be your personal weight-loss projects.
I’m not proud of this, but many, many times over the course of my life, my “interest” in weight loss was strictly performative. As a fat person, I feel social pressure to want to be less fat. To the world, my fatness seems like the biggest possible problem. If I’m not trying to solve it, I’m lazy or oblivious. In reality, sometimes I was throwing all my spare energy at one of the thousand other things normal human beings care about. And still, I’d murmur, “I’ll have to give that a try” or “I’ll research that” when somebody tried to sell me on their weight-loss or exercise program.
It’s exhausting. At the barn, I’d rather be tired from riding or caring for horses, not from performing the role of being a “good fat person.”
I love giant mounting blocks—especially the permanent ones made out of wood that and are solid and sturdy, made for stepping onto the horse. I think most educated equestrians have come around to the idea that mounting blocks are better for horse’s backs and for the longevity of the saddle, but a taller mounting block, in particular, is really helpful for larger riders.
One, weight carrier horse types are often taller. A two-step rubber mounting block for an average height woman is usually not going to work when the horse is taller than 17h. Second, a taller mounting block can help ease the nerves of a plus-sized rider who might otherwise be tempted to over-tighten the girth. Falling while mounting is scary. If the saddle slips, you can knock your head on the block while getting your soft bits stepped on. Taller mounting blocks are thus safer for both horse and rider.
Horses are a passion that can be enjoyed by riders of all sizes. With careful thought, planning, and consideration of horse welfare, there is a place for everyone in our sport.
Karen Hopper Usher has a Master’s degree in journalism from Michigan State University and attended Mount Holyoke College for undergrad. She bopped around hunter jumper, dressage and foxhunting lesson barns as a kid and then as an adult, leasing horses as opportunity and money afforded. Karen finally bought her first horse in January of 2020 just shy of her 37th birthday.