One of the questions we've discussed in class concerns how much weight a horse should be asked to carry. As we've told students, we've heard several different "formulas." So, how do we know which formula to use and which formula is the most correct? Subsequently, we did some investigating and here's what we learned.
A formula used by some folks follows the rule that the more bone a horse has, the more weight it can carry. So for this formula, we would need to measure bone circumference at the cannon bone, or we would simply need to gauge the amount of bone by "eye."
What most people who follow this rule couldn't tell us, is how to translate that formula. In other words, exactly how large would the horse's cannon bone circumference need to be for that horse to safely carry 100 lbs., 150 lbs., 200 lbs., and so on? Aside from that minor drawback, this formula does seem make some sense. It would stand to reason that a large-boned 15-hand horse with good muscling should be stronger and thus, should be able to carry more weight than an equally tall, slender, or small-boned horse. Of course, the question still remains; how much weight?
So, we moved on to a more common formula on weight restrictions. This formula follows the rule that a horse can safely carry 15% -20% of its body weight. So, if we choose the 20% rule, that might tell us that a 1000 lb. horse should be able to carry 200 lbs. Now, this does not necessarily mean the horse can carry a 200-lb. rider. We also need to consider the weight of our tack, primarily the saddle.
Remember that a standard western saddle can weigh 20 or 30+ lbs. Some saddles can weigh much more, as in the case of the silver-covered parade saddles that can weigh in at 75 lbs. or better. Any of these saddles will reduce the size, or weight if you will, of the rider we can place onboard. Thus, if the saddle weighs 30 lbs., the 1000-lb. horse should be able to safely carry a 170-lb. rider; correct?
We could probably say yes if the horse has a nice, strong, back, good muscling, and has good bone density with ample circumference of the long bones. At this point, you might have noticed that the previous statement very nicely connected both of the above "formulas" together.
Now let's say that we own a gelding who weighs 1000 lbs., but 200 of those pounds constitutes excess fat. Should we base the weight our horse can carry on what he should weigh, or can we still go by the amount he actually weighs? If we're being honest, we should probably base our calculations on his ideal weight since excess fat does not take the place of muscle.
Consider this also. The horse has to carry its own weight right along with the saddle/rider combination. In other words, whether a rider is onboard or not, our horse is still carrying around his own 1000 lbs. If 200 lbs. is excess weight, he's already carrying 200 lbs. extra. To remedy this, we can look at decreasing the fat calories in his feed, increasing his exercise, or both. If we reduce some of the weight from fat through diet, or turn the excess weight into muscle via exercise, our gelding should be able to carry a bit more weight in the saddle/rider combination since he'll be leaner and stronger, all other things considered. Thus, fitness and condition of the horse will play a role as well. Obviously, the less fit the horse, the less weight we should ask it to carry until it achieves an adequate level of fitness.
Another thing we can look at is the rider's skill level and riding style. Jennifer Oldham, FEI Level International Competitor, Trainer, and BHSI riding instructor, has told us that a skilled, balanced, 180 lb. rider can ride "lighter" than a stiff, unbalanced, 120 lb. rider. Now there's some food for thought. It does make sense if you consider that a lighter unbalanced rider with, say, 70 lbs. on the left seat bone and 50 lbs. on the right seat bone is going to be bouncing around quite a bit. This will cause a number of problems for the horse; not the least of which is stress on the back. On the other hand, a 180 lb., strong, balanced rider can carry his/her weight evenly from side-to-side through the seat and thighs, thus not over-stressing the horse's back.
Additional factors that may play a part in how much weight a horse can safely carry include the saddle and how well it distributes the rider's weight over the horse's back. This, of course, relates to saddle fit, which will be covered in a later article. Obviously, the less fit the horse, the less weight we should ask it to carry until it achieves an adequate level of fitness.
Now you know some of thoughts that abound in answer to the question of how much weight a horse should be asked to carry. Certainly we haven't hit on them all. However, for a rough gauge, you can always use the "bone circumference formula," the "15% - 20% formula," or a combination of the two. Whichever you choose, don't forget to factor in some of the additional points we've made above. Once you get started, we know you'll think of other points that can play a role as well!
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