Alarming numbers of the U.S. human population are now deemed either seriously overweight or obese. Research indicates that around 76% men and 65% women in the U.S. are overweight, with up to 20% of this number classified as clinically obese. Obesity presents serious risks to human health including increased risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, joint issues and respiratory problems. But, this article wasn’t written to discuss the risks to the overweight person, an issue that gets plenty of play in every day news articles and on television. The focus of this article is on those horses being ridden by riders who exceed the healthy weight bearing limit for their horse. As more riders become heavier, more horses are dealing with excessive strain being placed on their backs and joints. Now, we know that no one wants to hear that they are too heavy to ride their horse. It’s genuinely a tough situation to face. But, if you truly love your horse, it may be time to take a good hard look at the scale numbers.
Think about how it feels when you carry a large bale of hay or buckets of water: -carrying excessive weight is tiring and can be painful on your joints, right? For us, this discomfort is short term, but, for a horse, bear the weight of an overweight rider may be part of an ongoing training regimen. Regularly carrying this excessive weight can result in serious problems such as back pain and lameness. In turn, the pain resulting from the increased weight can cause behavioral problems such as rearing and balking. A Japanese study analyzed the weight bearing abilities of their native Yonaguni ponies. Within the study, weight burdens were increased to demonstrate their impact on the pony’s movement. When these small ponies were required to carry a 154 pound burden, it caused a less symmetrical and unstable gait even after the ponies were again, unburdened by the weight. This suggests that excessive weight can cause chronic issues. A similar study of Quarter Horses in the US found that as the horse carried increasing weights, although the horse took the same time to trot, the length of time each foot stayed on the ground got longer and the suspension phase became shorter. It isn't just the movement that changes. It appears that carrying excess weight causes pain and discomfort. Horses carrying up to 30% of their bodyweight displayed physiological signs of muscle breakdown, seen as creatine kinase in the urine. Although physical signs weren't present, there were high levels of creatine kinase associated with both muscle breakdown and tying up. The horses also showed signs of soreness and tightness. Particularly when burdened with between 25% to 30% or more of their bodyweight.
It should also be considered that a heavier rider can affect the fit of the saddle, adding greater pressure and impact on the horse’s back during the mounting process, particularly from the ground. This can have very negative consequences for the horse fitness and soundness.
Unfortunately, there are no official guidelines for calculating a safe bearing weight for horses. It can vary based on a variety of factors including: breed, height, health status and age. A study carried out on 152 horse and rider pairs tested the proposal that the ideal weight of rider to horse was 10% of weight of the horse. The results were hotly debated but suggested riders who weigh up to 15% of the bodyweight of the horse were still well within a safe threshold. However, when riders weigh 20% or more of their horse’s weight, they posed a potential risk to their horse’s welfare. Given the issue of weight problems in humans in the U.S., the issue of weight isn't likely to disappear soon. With increased awareness about relative human weights and their potential impact on equine well-being, here’s to more riders doing their part in making things fair for their equine partners. If decreasing your weight doesn’t seem doable, it may be time to trade up to a bigger, draft type horse.
*Image courtesy of Dollar Photo Club
An interesting article, thank you.
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