The Weight Debate—Untangling the Truth about Pounds and Horses

Jamie is not fit to ride—at least that’s what some traditional equestrian guidelines would have you believe. The 26-year-old hunter/jumper rides at least three days a week, occasionally competes at the amateur level, and eats a healthy, balanced diet. But never mind all that. Jamie’s weight is around 200 pounds, and that puts her near the so-called 20 percent rule that some veterinarians and riding experts use as a benchmark—that is, a rider should not weigh more than 20 percent of a horse’s overall mass.

The issue of rider weight is, understandably, loaded. In a culture that prizes pin-thin models—and in a sport that has a reputation for caring about the way its riders look—it can be hard to separate fat from fact. The trainers, nutritionists, and veterinarians we spoke with emphasized there’s no ideal body type for equestrians. In fact, what you weigh may be far less important than how you throw that weight around—both literally and metaphorically.

Beyond The Number

It’s easy to obsess about the scale, but for riders, there’s something more important than a single number—and that’s balance. Being balanced in the saddle is vital for riders of any size, says Bridget Braden, a dressage instructor and owner of BioRider Fitness. “I tell riders as long as they can support the weight they have, physically through their center, and they keep their core balanced,  they can be whatever weight,” Braden says.

So rather than worry about counting calories, Braden works on the core. “Larger riders tend to fall off balance and they don’t even realize it,” she says. And once off balance, “they have so much to do trying to get themselves back, centered, that they lose a couple strides and they’re not aiding the horse.”

Core work gets to, well, the core of solid riding, no matter a rider’s weight. “You could be 120 pounds and still be ‘skinny fat,’” Braden points out. “Those riders can’t support themselves and they’re moving all over the place.” It comes down to engaging what Braden calls your “core girdle” for the duration of your ride.

Within Limits

So if a rider is to ignore the scale, what should she make of the oftquoted 20 percent rule? “I would never weigh a rider!” Dr. Kirstin Bubeck, a sports medicine veterinarian at the Tufts University Hospital for Large Animals, says with a laugh. “It’s a really traditional measurement, and rider fitness is more important.”

Bubeck describes one recent study that examined riders who weighed 15 percent, 20 percent, 25 percent, and 30 percent of a horse’s mass. “When [the horses] were carrying 15 to 20 percent, their heart rate was the same,” says Bubeck. When the weight of the rider nudged up, however, so did the horses’ respiratory rates and temperature. “They still recovered well from that, and it wasn’t dangerous,” Bubeck says. The horses were just working harder, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

It makes sense, Bubeck explains. “When a human carries a backpack, they have to work to carry it,” she  says. “If your muscles are not prepared, they can get sore.” Without proper conditioning, Bubeck warns horses can develop painful back issues such as kissing spine.

But that also means that it’s possible to prepare a horse for a heavier rider, particularly if the two are frequent partners. To slowly increase a horse’s workload, Bubeck advises starting with walking, then moving to trotting, then cantering. Another technique: “Trotting over poles because it loosens up all the muscles in the legs and the back,” she says. Ditto forward and downward stretches (with the aid of a carrot), which are an easy way to condition.

Still, more important than an arbitrary percentage is how a rider carries her weight. (Serena Williams anyone?) There are true advantages that come with girth (within reason, of course). Carrying a few extra pounds allows you to anchor yourself in the saddle. “You can hold yourself in if you have a horse that tries to pop you up,” says Braden, who laments that being naturally thin can put her at a disadvantage. “Your body is the biggest tool you have in the saddle, so if you can have a good, large muscle mass, you have a lot of control and power.”

Spread Too Thin

The flip side of the scale—weighing too little—is also a health worry for equestrians. It’s a not-so-hidden secret that disordered eating and riding can go hand in hand—and it’s not surprising in a sport where riders are judged, at least in part, on their appearance. A study several years ago looked at Division 1 college equestrians in English and western disciplines at seven universities and found a whopping 42 percent of riders had evidence of an eating disorder—38.5 percent for English riders, and 48.9 percent for western riders. Disordered eating jeopardizes riders “from an energy standpoint, from an immunity standpoint, and from a performance standpoint,” says Kelly Pritchett, assistant professor of nutrition and exercise science at Central Washington University, who has studied the nutrition knowledge of college athletes.

That’s something Kate Kosnoff knows first-hand as founder of the group Riders for Well-Being. “Being an equestrian usually means you’re also a perfectionist, and I saw a lot of young women holding their bodies to incredibly high and unhealthy standards,” says Kosnoff. “I was not only fed up—I was sad for all of the riders who had to grow up feeling like they weren’t good enough because they didn’t look a certain way, myself included.” Kosnoff’s mission is to raise awareness about the prevalence of eating disorders, skewed body image,  and low self-esteem among horseback riders everywhere. “At the heart of it, we’re all just horse lovers,” Kosnoff says. “It’s good to remind ourselves that our equine partners don’t care about what we look like or what we wear.”

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