Big Bucks: Retailers Miss Out on Sales by Excluding Larger Riders

Photo © Heather N. Photography

By Karen Hopper Usher

Everybody assumes I want to event. I love dressage, foxhunting, and have a background in hunt-seat equitation. It’s the kind of riding resume that makes you think, “maybe she’s just never had access to an eventing trainer” or “it’s hard to event without owning your own horse.”

Those ideas were true enough. I would like to event and wasn’t in a financial position to do so until recently. But when I picked my Pony Club Horsemaster’s track this fall, I veered away from the traditional path and opted for the dressage track instead. And one of the most important reasons for that decision has nothing to do with money or desire—but instead, equipment. 

I’m not allowed to school cross country at most facilities. I can’t ride cross country and stay within Pony Club rules at rallies or in testing. And it’s because I’ve been unable to find a single vest from a reputable company that will fit my 55” chest. Protective vests are required to participate in most eventing competitions.

I’ve looked for custom options. Before I got pregnant with my second child, I was in the middle of an email exchange with one of the major equestrian vest manufacturers looking for a solution. But even if I can find a solution, it’s looking like it will be more complicated than clicking “add to cart” and then entering my credit card information.

Karen took measurements before placing an order for a custom hunt coat. Photo courtesy of Karen Hopper Usher.

This is part of the reality of being a plus-sized rider. A spur-of-the-moment decision to try something new is more complicated because we have to think through whether we can get our hands on the equipment needed to participate. Tall boots with wide shafts might be on back-order, or you may need a custom pair. The same is true for protective vests, show coats, and any number of items that go on the rider’s body.

Why is it so hard to find riding apparel and gear to suit larger riders? We’re out there. I see us in Facebook groups, on TikTok, and scattered across barns everywhere. 

There are a few brands that accommodate us, and I’m grateful for them. But for some of the top brands—the status-symbol breeches—we might as well not exist.

I know there are a lot of logistics that go into designing clothes for a wide range of sizes, but I want to give retailers my money. I will give you my money if you give me warm riding tights with a high waist and a pocket for my phone. I will give you my money if you sell me sturdy breeches in a color I can take into the show ring or in the hunt field. I will give you my money if you sell me obnoxiously colored tights with a pocket for my phone to wear on a trail ride with the girls. I will give you my money… just give me all the breeches!

I see lots of skinny girls wearing leggings instead of breeches. It makes me wonder why the skinny rider is the target market. I’m not sure if they are fat enough to be bothered by a seam in the wrong place, but I sure am. Please sell me breeches that don’t cause me pain and skin irritation. I need them. Unlike your size two teenager, I don’t have a cheaper option. 

I hear it from both ends of the financial spectrum. This year, I got a Facebook message from a friend in high school who is now plus-sized. She signed up for lessons for the first time since our teen years and messaged to ask if I knew of any breeches that wouldn’t break the bank. The $80 breeches she found in her size were outside her budget. But I also hear from plus-sized riders who are frustrated that the higher-end retailers, with beautiful breeches upwards of $200-$300, don’t carry things in their size.

The biggest brands (the ones in your major equestrian retailer catalogs) that do offer extended sizing typically top out at a 2x or a 3x. While I can appreciate that there comes a point of diminishing returns on larger sizes, I suspect retailers are artificially forcing that point in extended sizing. One of the challenges in expanding clothing lines to accommodate larger bodies is that bodies put on weight differently. But that’s not an argument to stop at a 2x—that’s a reason to go larger; some of us just carry it all in our hips or in our stomach. We can pay for alterations if you just make it big enough in the first place.

Ah, yes. Let’s talk about alterations.

Boots have zippers now, yes? So why aren’t boot companies selling inserts that can be zipped into place to widen boot shafts? Or offering easy customization tools on your websites so shoppers can request wider elastic panels? Or anything, really, that will make our shopping experience as easy and hassle-free as everybody else’s?

While the average plus-sized equestrian has more opportunities to be vexed over paltry options for equestrian apparel, the biggest problem—the one with the most impact to the horse—is the saddle.

Few saddle makers offer anything beyond an 18” saddle. Some top out at 17.5”. While there is an argument to be made about the length of most horses’ backs limiting the size of the saddle, it’s not an unsolvable problem. Short or upswept panels can help us get closer to where we need to be.

The lack of information about saddles, however, is a major barrier. When I was looking for a saddle for my horse, I can’t tell you the number of saddle brand websites that buried seat size information deep within the individual listings. That meant clicking on every single saddle to find out whether it came in my size. This problem, too, is not unsolvable. If the saddle makers lack the technical know-how to make their listings filterable by size and style, then at the very least they can add a tab that says “Sizing info” and then list which saddles and models are available in which sizes.

In addition to the lack of information about sizing and scant options for large-seated saddles, I’m also concerned about the culture of saddle-fitting in this country. Business practices that mean saddle-fitters—unless independent and working with used saddles—are tied to brands can be bad news for horses and riders.

Even 27lb kids can use their bodies more efficiently in a saddle that fits them. Photo courtesy of Karen Hopper Usher.

We all have friends who have shelled out $5,000 for a custom-ordered saddle from a known big-name brand only to have that saddle not fit their horse when it finally arrives. Did the saddle-fitter screw up? Maybe. Did the horse’s back change between the time it was measured and the time the saddle finally arrived? Definitely possible! But it’s also possible that there was literally nothing that brand made that would work for this particular horse and if the saddle-fitter was contractually allowed to work with other brands, a better fit for horse and rider could have been found. When saddle-fitters work for brands instead of their customers, horses suffer in tack that fits them poorly.

For the good of horses, saddle-fitters need independence. This matter goes beyond a plus-sized rider issue, but it should be especially dear to those of us who ask our horses to carry more weight. If I had to pick just one thing to fix for plus-size riders, it would be saddle sizing and the independence of saddle fitters. I think it’s the one issue that has the most potential to improve horse health and wellbeing.

Karen charted this diagram of her horse’s back to give an independent saddle fitter an idea of which saddles to bring to the fitting. Photo courtesy of Karen Hopper Usher.

Larger riders have always been around and we’re not going anywhere. While I’d obviously love more options for breeches, accessibility for riding equipment is just as much about safety and comfort as it is about style.

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.