It’s a weighty issue which is threatening to unsettle the genteel world of horse riding. Under new guidelines, stables may soon ask riders to dismount if they are too hefty for their horses after a pilot study showed animals are being injured by the excessive load.
The study, which involved monitoring six horses while they trotted and cantered with four people of different weights, found there was a ‘substantial impact’ on gait and behaviour when the rider was too heavy.
Experts said it was crucial that the rider and horse ratio was matched to avoid injuring the animals.
Jan Rogers, Head of Equine Development, at the BEF said: “It is a concern, because the preliminary results show that heavy riders do have an impact on the welfare of the horse.
“It’s not about saying that heavier people can’t ride, it’s really about educating people in what’s best for the horse and matching the correct horse to the correct rider.
“We found that people who weighed more often carry their weight in a different way, and that can place pressure on certain points. So it may be a matter of encouraging people to get fitter so that some of that pressure is removed.
“Obviously it is a sensitive area, but I think most riders are concerned about the welfare of the horse and will realise why we are doing this.”
The BEF say the problem is more complex than ‘fat riders’ and want to educate stables into choosing appropriate horses for individuals.
However Britain’s obesity rates are soaring, with 58 per cent of women and 68 per cent of men now overweight or obese, meaning it is likely that horses are increasingly saddled with the strain of heavier riders.
Currently there are no guidelines governing the ratio of horse to rider, although some veterinary experts believe a human should never exceed between 15 - 20 per cent of horse's weight.
Dr Sue Dyson, an equine veterinarian from the Animal Health Trust (AHT) who led the new study said: “We can confirm that there was a substantial temporary effect of rider weight as a proportion of horse weight, but not necessarily body mass index per se, on gait and behaviour.
“It appears that any adverse influence of less than ideally fitting tack was accentuated markedly by heavier riders.
“This study does not mean that heavy riders should not ride, but suggests that if they do they should ride a horse of appropriate size and fitness, with a saddle that is correctly fitted for both horse and rider.”
According to the British Horse Society, there are around 1.3 million regular riders in Britain, with women making up 74 per cent of equestrians.
The BEF said it will now be consulting with its member groups, which include The Pony Club and Riding For The Disabled, and World Horse Welfare to draw up new guidelines. They are also planning to carry out more research into the issue to scientifically determine the correct human to horse ratio.
However organisers at some events, such as the Great Yorkshire Show, are already insisting that riders and horses are properly matched and have been asking riders to dismount if they look too heavy.
A spokesman for World Horse Welfare said: “If the overall ‘picture’ of the horse and rider looks wrong then it is right to take a closer look and action if appropriate.
“It makes sense to believe that if a horse is overloaded by carrying a rider of a weight that is too heavy for them, then injuries may be more likely to occur.
“We are not discriminating against anyone, nor wishing to bring criticism. No matter what size or shape, horse riding is a sport that is and should remain open to everyone as long as you are matched appropriately with the right horse.
“The issue is one which will always cause much discussion in the equestrian community, but it has so far been welcomed and well-received with everyone clear on the fact that guidelines based on scientific evidence are much needed.”