Research which claims that some riders are too heavy for their horses has left a lot of people feeling guilty. A friend claims that riders can be divided into two categories – human cobs, who pile on the pounds at the sight of a biscuit, and human Thoroughbreds, who stay slim without trying.
I don’t actually agree with her, but do think there is more to the weight debate than counting calories. Whilst being overweight is as bad for a person as it is for a horse, putting unwanted strains on vital organs and joints, the fact that you’re a lightweight doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t causing discomfort or even damage to your horse’s back.
First, there’s always an interface between rider and horse. It’s called a saddle, and if it doesn’t fit, it can cause horrendous damage. Sadly, badly fitting saddles – including incorrectly balanced or poorly designed treeless saddles – and/or poor riding technique are an all too common sight in all disciplines, at all levels. Each can cause problems and if you put the two together, the result is horrendous.
At one of the eventing season’s opening affiliated competitions I heard a rider in a novice section extolling the virtues of his new dressage saddle. This, he claimed, helped him “do a decent Carl Hester impression.” His horse wouldn’t have agreed, because as he trotted down the centre line you could clearly see the back of the saddle lifting off and banging back down on the horse’s back every time he rose.
Second, it’s possible to be a light rider who rides heavily or a heavy rider who rides lightly. Rising trot is often the pace that acts as a giveaway: compare a rider who plonks down on his or her backside at every stride with one who allows the horse’s movement to instigate the rise and returns softly to the saddle.
Third, let’s stop referring to horses as ‘good weight carriers’ and assume that if you weight 18stone, all you have to do is go off and buy a heavy cob. A horse might look as if he’s designed to carry a rider, but his back is vulnerable to damage whatever his type. A heavily built but well-schooled horse who has learned to engage his abdominal muscles and use his hindlegs can give you a fabulous light ride, but even he can’t be expected to carry massive weights.
Hopefully, we’re all working hard to prevent our horses and ponies becoming overweight, thanks to experts such as the independent equine nutritionist, Clare Macleod, who make us aware of the dangers and advise on strategies.
If you know you’re overweight to the extent that you can’t get away with describing yourself as slightly cuddly, is it time to look after yourself by shedding the excess? And if you’re feeling slim and smug, are you sure your tack and technique aren’t causing problems?
On that note, I’m just heading off for a session of riding without stirrups. I may be a human TB, but I do tend to put more weight through my right stirrup than my left…