I occasionally get the following question from clients: "I'm a heavy set person, can I still take riding lessons?" My answer is nearly always, "Yes!"
In the horse world, as in many other sports, there is a social construct which says the participant must be a certain weight, or body type, to be successful or even accepted in their discipline. How often have we been to a horse show and overheard people discussing the weight of a rider on her horse in the ring? Some riding styles are are more prone to this spectator judgement, notably the ones where female riders are expected to wear tight stretchy pants and ride big horses.
Interestingly, you rarely hear people criticize the weight of male western riders, some of whom are quite large with heavy western saddles, on small quarter horses. Personally, I've heard many times that a woman shouldn't be riding her (large, substantial, athletic) warmblood because she's heavy, but I've never heard anyone remark that a large man on a small quarter horse isn't appropriate. That difference is definitely something to notice about how we treat genders in the horse world.
Even worse, I sometimes hear self-criticism from riders. I inwardly cringe when I hear these things because it's so much more valuable to focus on skills rather than a number on a scale. "I'm too heavy to ride", "I know I'm not a lightweight rider", "I'll ride when I lose X amount of weight". I'm eager to debunk some of these negative thoughts because there is solid science that shows horses do much better than we think with heavy riders, especially if the rider is balanced.
In my personal experience, mature horses seem to do quite well carrying a heavy rider. I've worked with many different types of horses, from small ponies to full drafts, and I've found them to be quite capable and comfortable carrying up to about 30% of their body weight. Of course adding the weight of the saddle is a factor if you're using a heavy roping saddle. However, when using a lightweight english saddle, its weight isn't as much of an issue.
said, of course I want my riders to be healthy. Rider fitness is
critical, particularly with disciplines like eventing and endurance which more heavily require physical exertion. But there are many ways and weights at which one can be healthy, and it's worth noting that different fitness levels are required of a pleasure rider in the arena versus an upper level eventer.
I recently read a very interesting book which discussed a concept the authors called BIC, or the Bikini Industrial Complex:
"This is our name for the hundred-billion-dollar cluster of businesses that profit by setting an unachievable 'aspirational ideal' for us, convincing us that we both can and should - indeed we MUST - conform with the ideal, and then selling us ineffective but plausible strategies for achieving that ideal...
The Bikini Industrial Complex, or BIC, has successfully created a culture of immense pressure to conform to an ideal that is literally unobtainable by almost everyone and yet is framed not just as the most beautiful, but the healthiest and most virtuous... The body mass index (BMI) chart and its labels - underweight, overweight, obese, etc. - were created by a panel of nine individuals, seven of whom were 'employed by weight-loss clinics and thus have an economic interest in encouraging use of their facilities.' You have been lied to about the relationship between weight and health so that you will perpetually try to change your weight...
With the time and money we spend on worrying about the shape of our bodies and attempting to make them 'fit', what else might we accomplish?... If you're using up decision-making and attention-focusing cognitive resources on choices about food, clothes, exercise, makeup, body hair, and fretting about your body's failures, what are you too exhausted to care about, that you would otherwise prioritize?" -Emily Nagoski, PhD, and Amelia Nagoski, DMA, Burnout, p107-112
I encourage you to spend your cognitive resources on something that brings you joy, like improving your riding or becoming a better horsewoman, rather than fueling the Bikini Industrial Complex.
I do find that the smaller the horse, the more careful I need to be with my balance. When riding a compact horse I imagine that I'm a Lego person, sitting just behind myself in the saddle. This makes my movements smaller, and changes to my balance less pronounced.
When I'm riding a huge horse, I still try to be careful with my balance, but shifts in my weight don't affect my mount as much when she's that much over 1000 lbs!
Now for the science:
The data from the study linked above shows that when the rider weighs under 30% of
the horse's weight the horse isn't really affected by the weight. So on a draft horse who weighs 1700 lbs, the rider could comfortably weigh anything under 510 lbs. A pony who weighs 600 lbs should have a rider under 180 lbs.
This article linked above discusses the balance component of weight and riding. Horses have a much easier time carrying a balanced heavy rider than an unbalanced light rider. This is why we focus so much on balance and symmetry in our riding here at Bit of Honey, because balance affects the horse SO MUCH MORE than weight does.
This is particularly significant when working with riders with disabilities in therapeutic riding settings for a couple reasons. Riders with disabilities often have challenges with their balance, which we know affects the horse. Also, therapy horses are often smaller than average to allow therapists to reach the rider and physically assist. So it's important to make sure that size of the horse is suitable to size of the rider for mounted sessions, especially if the rider has challenges with balance.
This linked article discusses how changes in rider weight doesn't significantly affect horses, either. This should hopefully bring some peace of mind to riders whose weight fluctuates. Again, balance is more important, so don't sweat it if your weight changes with the seasons. Mine sure does, and my horses handle it quite well!