By Karen Hopper Usher
From body awareness to gymnastics exercises, here’s what helped.
Every rider needs a suitable horse and every rider needs to keep their own fitness in mind when asking their horse to perform. That’s true at any size, but carrying extra pounds has some specific challenges.
For me, there are shining before-and-after moments where I felt my riding and fitness improve. For riders who have had consistent training and access to horses, some of this might be a bit obvious. But when you’re a re-rider—you rode as a kid but are returning as an adult in a now-adult-sized body—there may be gaps in your education or body memory. That was certainly true for me.
Now I’m going to share with you the five most important things that helped me. Some of it takes a lot of work. Some of it takes money. But hopefully, my experiences will help you take the next leap, no matter your size.
1. Loving and accepting my body as it is.
This one takes time and the money for therapy. And honestly, the thing that made the biggest difference in feeling confident and happy with my body was giving birth. That’s neither appealing nor an option for some riders.
But here’s why accepting your body is important for equestrians—and not just from a mental health perspective. If you’ve grown up with anti-fat messaging and have internalized fatphobia to the point of self-hatred, you’re going to have a messed-up relationship with your body. For me, the notion that my body was bad but that I have “a good heart” created a disconnect, where I never really felt that my body was truly me.
You better believe this translates to trouble in the saddle. If your body isn’t really “you,” how are you supposed to know that your left buttock is tight? How are you supposed to truly move with the horse if your body feels like it’s three strides back?
I know for some riders, simply riding is enough to improve confidence in their own physical skills. That has never been true for me and causes another shame spiral. I start to worry that I’m the worst sort of rider, the kind who is in it for ego instead of connection. I couldn’t begin to explain to you what keeps me going, except to acknowledge that sometimes I don’t keep going. But I can tell you that over the years, the memory of those few brilliant moments keeps me coming back.
My jumping as a teenager never progressed past the long crest release. I liked that the mane is thicker farther up the neck and easier to grab. But when I returned to riding and jumping at 26 after an eight-year break from jumping, I’d gained 60 pounds and the long crest release wasn’t doing me or the horse any favors. My gut meant there was even more weight on the horse’s forehand during take-off and the long crest release (plus grabbing mane) meant that I was scrambling to get back off of the horse’s front end upon landing. It was a mess and it was scary and I thought about giving jumping up entirely.
Then one beautiful day my trainer set up a simple grid. Just a low pole, a bounce, a stride and we did it over and over. The exercise was—I’m sorry if this is overwrought for seasoned horsewomen—transcendent. My brain shut off. I got into position and waited for the horse to come to me. Things moved too quickly for me to fuss with the mane. I just… rode.
My core muscles paid for it the next day, but it was worth it. In the months after that lesson (before my career situation forced a years-long break from riding), I was much braver in the ring and cross-country, being willing to try bigger fences and more jumps generally. My mount was happier, too.
3. A saddle that fits me.
The same summer that gave me the fateful gridwork lesson, I was also on the hunt for a saddle that fit my butt and my shark-fin withered draft-cross leased horse. Then a friend lent me his saddle and the bells rang and the angels sang. My legs! They just hung in place with no special effort on my part! My posture was just, like, relaxed?! Nothing hurt and everything was beautiful (thank you, Vonnegut). Was riding this … easy for everybody else?
I re-learned this lesson this summer when we got my first horse a new saddle and I sized up again. My horse moved freely with much less struggle on my part. Seriously, I know I’ve harped on this before, but get thee to a saddle fitter.
4. Dismounting or talking to trainers about my own pain.
There’s a world of difference between how we talk to young athletes and older athletes about pain. When you were a kid in the 90s and early aughts, adults were much more likely to tell you that pain meant your muscles were developing. Working through the pain was a good thing. Ignoring pain proved your toughness and your dedication and that improved the opportunities available to you.
I think that attitude still exists, even for older riders. I certainly carried it with me during the early months of being an adult re-rider. I was ashamed to tell my trainer when my body hurt. I was afraid she would see it as a sign that I was fat and lazy and undeserving of riding. Eventually, I realized that the pain was affecting my riding whether I kept going or not. So I started fessing up.
When I’m riding on my own without a trainer, it’s easy to simply accommodate my body without a thought. But it was emotionally very hard to tell my trainers when my body just wasn’t up to the job that day. It requires trust in my trainer and confidence in my own self-worth.
It also helps when a trainer is flexible in their thinking and their lesson plans. A lot of trainers are good at understanding horses and horse bodies but don’t know anything about non-traditional riders. You need, at a minimum, a trainer who cares about you and your very human body.
5. Finding a lesson-to-riding ratio that builds confidence.
Finally, I’m happiest and most relaxed as a rider when I ride on my own more than I ride with a trainer. But I’m more effective as a rider when I’m consistently riding with a trainer. I need, generally, a two-to-one lesson ratio. I need a lesson, a ride without the trainer around to process the lesson and see if I can make things work without someone coaching every moment, and I need one ride to goof off on the trail or generally have the goal be enjoyment, not improvement.
That ratio may be different for you. Maybe you have time to ride every day but not the budget for two lessons a week. Barn friends are handy there. Sometimes it’s nice to have someone around to ride with and say “did this look right?” or just generally talk things through. Your mileage may vary depending on barn culture and your own extroversion. Maybe one private lesson a week and one group lesson will work.
For me, if every ride is a lesson, I lose confidence in myself and my horse and look to the trainer too much. I go into student mode and try to perform instead of just listening to my horse and body; too many lessons for me are counter-productive. But no lessons at all means that my riding stagnates and sometimes slowly worsens because I fail to recognize changes in my horse’s attitude or fitness that could have been addressed if I’d had another set of eyes on us.
For other riders with different personality types or different issues, a lesson-heavy schedule may be ideal. Maybe you thrive off of constant learning. Maybe you just really love your trainer. Maybe leasing or ownership isn’t a possibility and the only way you can ride at all is if it’s in a lesson. That’s okay! You’re not failing if you’re not able to execute the perfect riding schedule. The larger point is to understand who you are and what you need and to figure out a way to get as close as possible to that.
I hope these five points gave you some food for thought. The more I write about being a plus-sized rider, the more I think that the plus-sized part is the smallest factor in horsemanship. Everybody benefits from having a healthy relationship with their body. Everybody benefits from gymnastics. Everybody needs a saddle that fits. Everybody should listen to their body and work with professionals that care about them. Everybody needs lessons. Every body is a good body.