Helping Horses Carry Larger Riders

Photo © Heather N. Photography

By Karen Hopper Usher

Not every horse is suitable for larger riders, but those that are still need careful consideration. A proper warmup can go a long way. 

I’ve been overweight for most of my adult life and have ridden off-and-on during that time. Most of the horses I’ve swung a leg over were chosen for me by other people and were comfortable with my weight. But there was one notable exception.

A local cowboy had a cute buckskin for sale and he thought the gelding would be up to my weight. The horse went nicely for the cowboy. But under me, his steps were mincing and unsure. I checked my position. I tried to relax. No luck. I was pretty sure that the horse wasn’t up to my weight, but my certainty collided with what I’d been told about the horse by the professional—that my weight wouldn’t be a problem. If not my weight, was it my riding? 

I showed a video of us to my trainer, and though she put it more tactfully, her assessment echoed mine. “He’s not going well for you, for whatever reason,” I remember her saying. 

This leads me to my first piece of advice for larger riders (and all riders, really)—if the horse is telling you no, listen. 

My anecdote about the buckskin sales horse, however, isn’t conclusive. “No” doesn’t always mean “lose 20 pounds and then we can talk.” Things are often more complicated than that, and it’s not always about the rider. 

Three years later, when I finally had my first horse, we moved to a new barn 180 miles south of our old barn. I suddenly found him telling me “no” and “ow” when he never had before. I worried that he wasn’t up to the increasing workload I was asking him to do. I worried that, with my weight, he was only comfortable in light work. But the vet, farrier, new trainer, and saddle fitter had a different take: the footing at our new barn was a lot harder than it was in sandy northern Michigan. His soles needed more support. We put him in shoes and pads to support his feet while we reshape his hooves, gave him a few weeks off and some stretching exercises, and he was soon going comfortably again. While I worried about my weight, I forgot a central tenet of horsemanship—no foot, no horse.

That’s my second piece of advice: Horses that carry larger riders need regular attention from the farrier. Many horses can perform at high levels while barefoot, but many can’t. I think a good rule of thumb is to treat a horse that is carrying an overweight adult rider like the horse is being asked to perform a level or two above their category. If the horse is going training level, act like they’re going prelim. I can’t vouch for the technical accuracy of this advice; it’s conceptual more than it is factual. But the bottom line is, you’re asking for more, so give the horse more.

My third piece of advice is that just as you should look at a horse’s build and fitness to determine whether it’s fair to ask them to try to carry a larger rider (we’re looking generally for a well-balanced horse with substantial bone and in good fitness), you also should look at the particulars of the rider’s physique and fitness to match them with a horse. For example, I do great on horses with wider barrels but struggle to stay centered on a horse with a narrower barrel. It’s not so much the width of the horse’s back for me as it is the body supporting my legs underneath me. In fact, a very wide back can be hard on my hips. I’ve seen other riders of similar weight but different builds have very different experiences on the same horses.

That leads to my fourth piece of advice, which is that yes, sometimes it really is about the rider. “The rider needs to be fit and balanced” has become an almost meaningless aphorism in the plus-sized rider world. 

What is “fit?” It’s a spectrum. There’s no black-and-white, fit-or-not-fit. The question is whether you’re fit enough for what you’re asking your body and the horse to do. I think that’s important to keep in mind because otherwise, the notion of fitness turns into mean-spirited and harmful gatekeeping. Right now, I personally am fit for flatwork at the walk and trot, mild trails, and a small amount of cantering. I could keep a two-point over a log or two but I don’t feel up to a full course.

I have the brain to do more but not the fitness. For both our and the horse’s safety, we must ride for the bodies we have, not the bodies that exist in our imaginations.

We do a lot of walking. As much stretchy walking as I can convince him to do. And I practice two-point as long as my muscles are capable of lowering me gently back into the saddle; if I’m too tired to do it gently, then I’m too tired. The good news is, walking is great for horses, both in terms of fitness and in terms of keeping their brains in a healthy, ammy-friendly place. 

Photo courtesy of Lauren Mauldin

Though long warm-ups and walking is great, the larger rider must take length into consideration. In many of the studies that blame rider weight for horse pain, the horse’s reaction isn’t immediate. It comes around the 20-minute mark. Does that mean that plus-sized riders get a 15-minute warm-up at the walk, five minutes at the trot, and then they’re done? No cantering, no jumping, no flying changes, not ever?

Not necessarily. I’m grateful for science and I think these studies should continue with larger samples and better controls. But I also think the studies should look for solutions—ways to keep larger riders in the tack and to keep horses comfortable. At the same time, I know that horses and people are individuals. Just like medication may cause side effects for you but none for your best friend, your horse may do better or worse than the average horse in the studies. So to reiterate: listen to your horse. That remains the very first thing.

The next thing is to look at ways you can avoid pain by changing the workload. Maybe somebody else warms up the horse while you do jumping jacks/squats/wall-sits and lunges. Maybe you do long walk-sets with shorter trot and canter sets. Maybe you dismount mid-ride for some lunging work. Maybe you start with lunging work. Maybe you look at boots or shoes for your horse. 

If all of this seems excessive and perhaps unsustainable, I agree. But also, at least for me, there comes a point where you’re riding often enough to keep your horse in happy, steady work and get your own fitness to meet your horse at that level. If that never happens, there’s no shame in letting the horse find a new partner and trying to find one more suitable to you. 

The reality is that some horses are just not suitable for larger riders. But if you put the animal’s welfare first, listen to your trainer, vet, and farrier, and are realistic about your fitness levels, you should be able to enjoy many happy hours of riding.

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.