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Trail/lesson horses and rider weight

From: Alexa

Dear Jessica, A problem has come up at our stable and I hope you can help me. We do mostly lessons but last year we began to offer some guided trail rides on weekends. Last month, I had an unpleasant talk with a man who wanted to come on the trail ride and I had to turn him down because he was far too heavy. I am overweight myself so it's not that I don't understand about being a heavy person, but really Jessica, this man must have weighed close to 400 pounds and I was afraid that he would crush the horses. Our horses are just average horses, between 15 and 16 hands and anywhere from 900 to 1200 pounds. I've been looking everywhere online and in my books and calling other instructors and vets to get advice about this matter. The man threatened to sue us for refusing service and being prejudiced against fat people. He hasn't done it yet, but we are all upset and worried about the possiblity. Could he really sue us, and if he did sue us could he win? A lot of my lesson riders, especially the adults, are on the heavy side, and I'm always careful to put them on the horses that are my best weight-carriers, but I don't own a single horse that could carry anyone that size. I have to protect my horses, but I don't want to be accused of discrimination!

I never thought that anything like this would happen to me. Last week a woman called to set up her first riding lesson, and I found myself trembling when I asked her about her height and weight, in case she would get angry with me or threaten to sue too. I'm not a mean person and I hate to tell anyone "no" when they want to go on a trail ride or take lessons, but I love my horses and I try so hard not to overwork or hurt them in any way. Am I being silly? One person told me that horses can carry 30% of their own weight. Is that true? I always thought it was more like 20% and I have always chosen horses for riders based on that idea. Was this wrong? And even if it really is 30%, what if someone comes here who weighs 35% or 40% of the horse's weight, I'll just have the same problem all over again only worse. What can I do? How can I tell riders that it isn't a matter of prejudice against them? I feel sick at my stomach whenever the phone rings or the mail comes. Please help me. I can't even enjoy riding my own mare now. I am thinking about this weight question all of the time. I weigh 25% of what she weighs, and although I have a lot of experience and have ridden for almost ten years and am very fit, and Lara (my mare) is also very fit and never seems to be sore, I am worried sick that I am going to hurt her. Am I too heavy for her? And if I'm not too heavy for her, how can I say "No" to even heavier riders who want to ride my other horses? Alexa

Hi Alexa! As it happens, you are not alone in your concern. In fact, just six weeks ago, I was asked a very similar question by another stable owner. I'm going to give you more or less the same information I gave him, and hope that it will help you. Be warned that this is a long and complex response to what might seem to be (but is not) a simple question. There is no single or easy answer; the best I can do is to provide you with some guidelines.

First, don't look for a chart, because it doesn't exist. Although some breeds and types of horses are, in general, better weight-carriers than others, it's difficult to assign "weight classes" to trail/lesson horses, for several reasons.

One is that the conformation, condition, and soundness of the individual horse are all very important factors: two horses of identical height and weight might have vastly different builds and weight-carrying abilities. Short, strong, and sturdy horses typically have greater weight-carrying ability than tall, narrow, lightly-built horses, but you need to look at each horse individually.

Another is that rider skill plays an important part - a 250-pound rider who is fit, agile, skilled, and considerate can be easier for a horse to carry than a rider who is 120 pounds, unfit, clumsy, unskilled, and inconsiderate.

Terrain is another factor - a horse that could carry a heavy rider around a flat field with good footing, at a walk, might find it impossible to carry the same rider up and down hills.

Gait is yet another factor - a horse that could carry a heavy rider around a flat field with good footing at a walk might find it difficult or impossible to carry that same rider in the same flat field at a trot or canter.

Tack matters, too! After all, it is the interface between the horse and rider. Saddles need to fit both the horse and the rider. If the saddle fits the horse perfectly, a rider for whom the saddle is too large will be unlikely to cause the horse any pain or damage, but a rider for whom the saddle is too SMALL will cause both, and in a very short time. A saddle can fit a horse well, causing it no pain or injury, until it is sat in (or upon) by a too-heavy and too-large rider; at that point, the rider's weight will be in the wrong area of the saddle, and will be causing portions of the saddle to create severe, physicaly damaging pressure on delicate areas of the horse's back.

The "standard" rule of thumb is that a riding horse "can" carry 20% of its weight (not 30%, and certainly not 35%!). The weight carried would include both the rider AND the tack. I feel that this is as good a general rule as you are likely to find, but I would caution you that it should be regarded in the same light as the towing rating of a vehicle - the fact that a given vehicle is capable of towing a certain maximum number of pounds under ideal circumstances does not mean that it can safely do so at all times or under all circumstances or conditions.

The "20% of the horse's weight" idea is embraced by most stable owners and horse organizations worldwide. It can provide a helpful upper limit for stable-owners and trail-ride wranglers who want to maintain the soundness of their horses, but please don't take it as an absolute - it does NOT mean that every horse can be asked to carry that much weight, or that every rider over that limit is bad for the horse. This "20% rule" is often invoked to justify asking horses to carry more weight than is comfortable or safe for them. The 20% should be an upper limit, not a starting point! It cannot be a hard-and-fast rule, used without any thought for the specific situation and specific horse, or it will be abused ("Horses can carry 20% of their weight, so that's what we'll routinely expect them to carry"). In one situation that I know of, an extremely heavy rider (300 pounds) was put on the back of an extremely overweight horse - the "logic" being that the horse, which weighed 1500 pounds, was carrying "only" 20% of its total weight. This was patently absurd - the horse should have weighed 1200 pounds at most, and was already at severe risk just from carrying 300 pounds of extra weight. When the rider was added, the horse was effectively carrying 600 pounds of extra weight. The horse's owner tried to justify this by citing the 20% figure, but... you've heard the expression, "There are lies, damn lies, and statistics"? This was a case in point. On paper, a 1500-pound horse could safely carry a 300-pound rider; in practice, THAT 1500-pound horse could not. In another situation, in another state, I saw an extremely heavy rider being assigned a terribly thin horse - the stable-owner's "logic" in this case was that the horse was severely underweight and since it really ought to weigh another 300 pounds, it obviously could carry that much more weight, so it could "reasonably" be asked to carry a rider who weighed 250 pounds. The mind boggles... but these things do happen, although they should not.

Each horse, rider, and situation will need to be considered carefully whenever the question of rider weight arises, and evaluated in light of all of the considerations mentioned above. The person who told you that horses can carry as much as 30% of their own bodyweight wasn't entirely wrong, but you will need to take that information in context. It's generally based on one current and one past group of horses and riders. The current ones are endurance riders training for and participating in competitions; the past ones were the riders of the cavalry. The percentage cited for these groups is NOT relevant to most rental-string horses or lesson horses - or to the people who ride them.

The cavalry expected its horses to carry proportionately somewhat more weight, yes, but those horses were sturdy, sound, and extremely fit, and their riders were fit and reasonably skilled. Maintaining the soundness of the horses was a top priority, and an absolute requirement, for every rider. It's simply not realistic to use cavalry standards as universal standards for "generic" riding horses and the general public. The general public is unlikely to be as fit as the riders of the cavalry - and are less likely to accept the idea that they will be doing mostly walking with some trotting, and that the riders will periodically be required to dismount and walk alongside their horses. ;-)

As for endurance riders, the AERC (American Endurance Ride Conference) has five weight divisions for senior riders. The top weight ("Heavyweight") division is 210 pounds and up. The NATRC (North American Trail Ride Conference) has a heavyweight division for adults whose weight AND the weight of their tack combine at 190 pounds or more. And again, these horses are sound, strong, and extremely fit, infinitely more fit than any ordinary riding horse, even one that is worked carefully (not just ridden by neophytes) every day - and conformationally well-suited to their work. Their riders - whatever their weight - are equally strong and fit. Endurance riders are also competent, aware, and attentive riders who are constantly monitoring every aspect of their horses' movement, comfort, and physical condition, from hoof balance and tack fit to hydration levels and heart rates.

A horse that is ill, injured, or recovering from an illness or injury, should certainly not be asked to carry the maximum amount of weight that it can possibly carry without breaking down. A horse that is overdue for a visit from the farrier, and that has less than optimum hoof length and angles, will be at risk for injury if it is worked hard, and will be at even greater risk for injury if it is asked to carry maximum weight. Lacking the conditions associated with the cavalry and with endurance riding - that is, the sound, strong, extremely fit horse with the strong, informed, aware rider - there is no benefit, and there is potentially a great deal of harm, in asking ordinary horses to carry 30% of their own weight.

If you get in touch with some reputable guest ranches and "dude" ranches, or contact some of the international riding vacation programs, you will find that most of them do assign weight limits to their customers, to protect the horses (and to protect the riders as well). Depending on an individual stable-owner's or ranch-owner's level of knowledge and experience, on the quality and suitability of the horses, and on the terrain to be traversed and the conditions of travel, the upper limit for rider weight might be as high as 220 pounds or as low as 160. You may find indivdual businesses that allow riders to weigh up to 240 pounds or even more, but those will certainly not be in the majority.

Remember, the subject here is RENTAL horses and lesson program horses, not privately-owned horses. A good rider on a well-conditioned horse, using a saddle that fits the horse well and helps distribute the rider's weight over a large area, might weigh considerably more than this without harming the horse.

For most ranches, the cost-benefit analysis will quickly reveal that it's not worth putting a horse at risk for the sake of accomodating any individual customer. It takes time and effort to find, train, and condition horses for a good guest ranch, and those horses must be looked after if they are to continue their work year after year. Most programs are careful to protect their horses' backs and legs, and most stable owners realize that carrying too much weight will break a horse down, sooner or later. Granted, there are still a few "horse rental" businesses that have no rules other than "go where you like, gallop if you like, just give us your money and be back in three hours", but the "standards" espoused by individuals who derive their income from cheap rental strings are strictly bottom-line driven, with the horses viewed as inexpensive, expendable ATVs, and with horse welfare nowhere on the owner's list of priorities. In addition, stables that operate in this manner are generally doing so without benefit of insurance - so this sort of thing really isn't an option for the careful, conscientious, insured stable owner.

Most ranches that offer trail rides as an activity, and many commercial stables, state their rider weight limit clearly in their rules and brochures. (They also usually state a minimum age and height for child riders - and those things aren't negotiable either!) Some of them keep a doctor's scales just outside or inside the stable, and weigh riders before allowing them to participate in riding activities. Some years ago, I met the owner of one such facility, and she explained to me that the scales were prominently displayed - but hardly ever used. Her wranglers and guides rarely had to weigh anyone, because (a) most people respected the weight limit, and (b) those few individuals who clearly did NOT respect it (e.g., the 300-pound person who chose to ignore the posted "180 pound limit for all riders") would see the scales and suddenly lose all interest in riding. And yes, both the weight limit AND the scales were mentioned in the brochure. Since then, I've seen and heard of this same arrangement at other stables, so perhaps it's an option that you might find useful at your own facility.

The same facility offered pack trips, and they had weight rules there as well. Their pack horses were allowed to carry 150 pounds for a full-day trip, and 175 pounds for a half-day trip. Some ranches set much lower limits - another local ranch had a pack-weight limit of 60 or 80 pounds per horse, if I remember correctly - but the owners of this ranch were very proud of the skills of their staff, who were exceptionally good at building stable, balanced packs. Horses can carry a great deal more weight if the pack is positioned and adjusted correctly so that it stays level and balanced on the horse's body. If you offer trail rides and lessons on your horses, you may find it useful to evaluate potential riders in the context of a heavy pack - a skilled, balanced, stable rider would cause less stress and injury than a rider who was unbalanced, unstable, constantly shifting forwards and backwards and from side to side. Whether your horses are carrying packs or humans, you have to be able to make judgement calls about the amount and nature of the load.

"Discriminatory" is, unfortunately, an emotionally loaded word. Imposing a weight restriction on riders is not a matter of prejudice against heavy persons, any more than the weight allowance for luggage on airplanes is a matter of prejudice against heavy suitcases. It's a matter of safety, and in the case of horses and riders, it's also a matter of the soundness and health of the horses involved. Breaking down a horse may not be as obvious or as spectacular as breaking down an airplane, but it makes sense that neither machine nor animal should be stressed to (or over the edge of) damage or destruction. Obviously there are many exceptions - riders who own their horses, and private pilots with their own planes, are free to take any risks they care to take, and in the case of a one-off such as a mercy flight or a horse and rider trying to outrun a fire, greater risks would be necessary for survival and therefore more acceptable. But for routine commercial flights and routine rides, it's essential to protect the integrity of the (mechanical or live) conveyance. The practical difference here is that passengers on an airplane, can, under certain circumstances, carry more weight. They often have the option of paying more and having their overweight luggage accompany them, or - if it's their personal size (not weight!) that's the issue, of occupying and paying for two seats instead of one. Size isn't an absolute - it will make no difference to the airplane whether two adjoining seats are occupied by two 150-pound humans or by a single 300-pound human. WEIGHT is an absolute. It WILL make a considerable difference to the airplane whether ALL passengers weigh 150 pounds each, or whether ALL passengers weigh 300 pounds each. If you think of the airplane as a two-person, twelve-person, twenty-person, two hundred-person, etc. conveyance, and of the horse as a proportionately smaller and more delicate ONE-person conveyance, the idea of restricting the rider's weight will not be so offensive. Weight can make the difference between a safe flight and a crash - or a safe ride and an accident - or a sound horse and an injured, unsound horse. Asking a horse to carry the maximum amount of weight it can carry without breaking down immediately is not a good policy - like towing a trailer when the weight involved is at or beyond the upper limit of the vehicle's towing capacity, it's a burning formula for trouble.

If what you really want to know is "Can I be sued for not allowing a very large person to get on one of my horses?" and you operate a commercial stable, then the easy answer is "Yes." Of course you can - you can be sued for anything. But there are two things you should consider here. One is that many people respond to every inconvenience by announcing loudly "I'm going to sue you!" - you can't afford to change your business practices and personal or professional ethics just out of fear that some annoyed or angry person MIGHT follow through on such a threat. Another is that although some people may attempt to sue for being turned down, there are other questions you should be asking. Try this one: "Can I be sued if I allow a very large person to get on one of my horses and the horse stumbles and the person falls off?" The answer here is also "Yes." We're a litigation-prone society, and frivolous lawsuits abound. You can take every safety precaution in the world, be as careful as possible to have the best horses and the best wranglers and the best equipment in the world, but something can always go wrong somewhere. As long as there are people who view a lawsuit, however unjustified, as a potential source of free money in the form of an insurance company settlement, there is always a risk of being sued.

My advice to you is that you discuss this with two professionals in the industry: the agent for the company that insures your equine-related business, and a lawyer who specializes in equine law. You already know the name of your insurance agent. For a lawyer, I highly recommend Julie Fershtman, Esquire, an experienced, skilled, and personable Michigan-based specialist in equine law. Here is her contact information:

Phone: 248-644-8645
Fax: 248-646-2557
Address : 30700 Telegraph Road, Suite 3475, Bingham Farms, MI 48025-4527
Hours of operation: 9 am - 6 pm, Eastern Time (with after hours voice mail)

She should be able to help you evaluate and compare the various risks involved in meeting or refusing unreasonable customer requests. Keep in mind - and I expect that both your insurance company and your lawyer will confirm this - that whereas someone may threaten to sue if you don't allow him or her to ride your horses, allowing that person to ride does not mean that you'll avoid a lawsuit. And - you can check for precedents on this - it's my understanding that even in a progam for handicapped riders, refusing to take a rider for either medical reasons or safety reasons is not considered to be discrimination. I believe that NAHRA (North American Handicapped Riding Association) limits the combined weight of rider and tack to 200 pounds, and most of the hippotherapy programs with which I'm familiar set the same limit. These horses work in an arena, on soft, reliable footing, and most are led by trained handlers and (often) accompanied by sidewalkers. They aren't asked to trot, canter, or go up and down hills or negotiate uneven terrain - yet these programs have rules for the safety of the rider and/or the horse.

Carry on as you are - continue to protect your horses. Don't do things that risk their health and soundness. If riders want to gallop your horses on the highway, the answer is NO. If a 400-pound rider wants to ride at any speed, the answer is NO. It's not about the highway or the rider - it's about your horses. You are personally responsible for their health and welfare.

If there are heavy riders in your lesson program and on your trail rides, as there undoubtedly must be, you'll just need to pay great attention to your horses. Watch them carefully for early signs of discomfort and stress. Be sure that you have mounting blocks everywhere - tall ones - and that you SUPERVISE when riders mount horses, because even a very balanced and coordinated heavy rider can strain a horse's back whilst mounting. So can an unbalanced, uncoordinated rider of ANY weight - but the combination of uncoordination and extra weight can cause damage in a single moment. It might be helpful if you were to add a line or two to your brochures and lesson contracts to the effect that your program enrollment is open - WITH EXCLUSIONS to those whose weight or size exceeds the carrying capacity of your trail/lesson horses. That way, it's a case-by-case judgement call on your part, you can exercise discretion, and if you acquire some exceptionally strong, sturdy, weight-carrying animals, you will be able to offer your services to some heavier riders without having to have your brochure reprinted.

Here's a sampling of sentences from the brochures of some ranches and riding programs:

"We have a few horses that can carry riders of 200-240 pounds, but they are in great demand as you can imagine, so please call ahead to ask whether those horses are available on the day(s) you wish to ride."

"For the comfort and safety of the horse and rider, weight limitations are in effect."

"Please note that to ensure horse and rider safety in mountainous terrain, we enforce a rider weight limit of 180 pounds."

"The maximum rider weight for our altitude and horses is 180 pounds."

"Most of our horseback riding is at a walking pace. Due to the terrain over which we ride, we have a 200 lb. rider weight limit."

"For the comfort and safety of both horse and rider, weight limitations are in effect. Accurate height and weight information is required on booking for each rider in the group. Please refer to the maximum weight chart below. Maximum weight 5' 145
5'1" 150
5'2" 155
5'3" 160
5'10" 195
5'11" 205
6'0" 215
6'5" 240
Management reserves the right to request verification of the information given. Exceptions may be made at our discretion."

As you can see, the maximum weight varies according to the individual ranch, stable, and program, but most programs DO set an official maximum weight for riders, even though the rides are all supervised and are generally slow. So - take a good look at your horses, your tack, your terrain, and the type of trail-riding and lessons you offer, talk to your insurance agent and a good equine law specialist, and decide what you must do.

I'll leave you with two more points to discuss with these experts. First, if you're looking for good weight-carrying horses for your program so that you WILL be able to accomodate heavy riders in the future, let those riders know! Instead of "We can't accomodate you", you could say "Right now we don't have any horses that would be suitable for you, but we're planning to add more horses to our program, and we might acquire something suitable. If you will leave your contact information, we will be glad to notify you." That allows you to leave the door open - if you want to.

Second, there may be times when you want to close the door for reasons that have nothing to do with a rider's weight, so it might also be useful for you to specify in your contracts that you reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. Whether the potential customers you turn down are too heavy for your horses, too obnoxious for your facility, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or whether your experience and instincts simply tell you "This one will be trouble", you should be able to say "No" to anyone at any time. I realize that it's never a comfortable position in which to find yourself, but you have an obligation to the animals in your care, and an obligation to yourself and the preservation of your livelihood. You shouldn't be asked to put these things at risk without a truly compelling reason, and if you ARE asked, you should certainly be allowed to say "No".

Good luck - it's a difficult question, and there isn't any single easy answer. Get the best professional advice you can, and go from there. As you learn more about this and work with your insurance and legal professionals, you'll find that you can go back to answering the phone with happy anticipation instead of dread.

Oh, and one more thing - when it comes to your own weight, stop worrying! You're an experienced and skilled rider, and you know your mare. If and when she becomes sore or sour, you will be the first to notice. You may weigh 25% of her weight, but when she carries you, she is carrying skilled, balanced, centered weight that is very unlikely to make her sore. You need to keep in mind - as do HORSE-SENSE readers generally - that your main question and this discussion were all about lesson horses and trail-ride rental horses, NOT about privately-owned animals with a single caring, conscientious rider of any weight. It's necessary to be more conservative with horses that have to accept many different riders with widely varying sizes, shapes, weights, skill levels, knowledge, and consideration of the animals. Healthy, sound, well-conditioned, privately-owned horses with good owner/riders can carry those riders for many miles, over all kinds of terrain - again, look at the Heavyweight division at endurance rides if you need proof that a balanced, skilled rider weighing 200 pounds or more won't necessarily impose any hardship on a horse. But the standards for rental and lesson horses DO need to be different, for the horses' sake. Even if the establishment is wonderfully well-run, and the horses are kept at a high level of training and conditioning and equipped with the very best-fitting tack available, there will always be a key difference: They aren't ridden exclusively by skilled riders who put the horse first, as horsemen always should.


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