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Rider weight

by Marlen Fischer
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Rider weight is a hotly debated topic. How heavy can riders be and when is there too much weight on the horse’s back? In this article we discuss the ratio between rider and horse weight. When is a rider too big? How much weight can different horse breeds carry on average and what are the percentages of rider and horse weight?

Happiness lies on the back of a horse they say. Yet sometimes that back has to carry too much. When large or overweight people get in the saddle, it always prompts the issue of equine welfare, as too much rider weight can prove detrimental to a horse. However, there are big differences between the various breeds, some horses can carry more weight and are more suitable for “bigger riders” than others.

Rider weight — What the German Veterinary Association for Animal Welfare says

The Veterinary Association for Animal Welfare e.V. (in short: TVT) published a factsheet and study on the topic of “Rider Weight: Assessing the Weight Load of Horses from an Animal Welfare Point of View” and makes recommendations on the topic.

The TVT recommends that a rider should weigh no more than 15 percent of the horse’s weight. Further studies have shown that the width of the loin and the circumference of the cannon bone are the most important factors. The broader the loin and the larger the cannon bone’s circumference in relation to the horse, the less permanent damage could be observed due to additional rider weight.

How heavy can I be for my horse?

How heavy a rider is allowed to be for his horse depends on the horse’s cannon bone loading index.

Calculating the “Optimal Weight” with the Cannon Bone Loading Index

Even though there is no “calculator” to determine the maximum weight, the so called “Röhrbeinbelastungsindex” provides an answer. If the horse’s third metatarsal bone, the cannon bone, has a thickness of more than 20 cm per 450 kg, the horse can carry a relatively large amount of weight.

Which rider weight for which horse?

How much weight a horse can carry depends on various factors such as physique, training, equipment, etc. Each horse can carry a different rider weight.

The maximum carrying ability of different horse breeds

You often hear, “This horse is a weight bearer” — But what does that mean? How much weight a horse can carry depends on the type of horse, the discipline and most of all the conformation. Horses with short to medium length, non-sagging backs can usually carry heavy loads without any problems. Strong legs and a deep girth also have a positive effect on the its “weight-bearing capacity”. On the other hand, horses with a particularly long, curved or even drooping back should not be used to carry weight. Other important factors are the rider’s ability, the horse’s level of training and constitution. Equipment such as the saddle also plays a key role and must be fitted to the horse.

The Veterinary Association for Animal Welfare has prepared a table showing the average weight-bearing potential of different breeds. Some breeds that are often considered to be good weight bearers are not necessarily so.

However, bear in mind these are only average values, there can be deviations within the breed and each horse should always be assessed individually.


Breed Body weight in kg Cannon bone in cm RI
Mini Shetland-Pony 120 11,4 9,5
Shetland-Pony 190 14,0 7,4
Welsh B-Pony 330 16,0 4,8
German Riding Pony 380 17,0 4,5
Icelandic Horse 380 18,0 4,7
Norwegian Horse 420 21,5 4,4
Arabian Horse 450 18,3 4,1
Thoroughbred 460 20,3 4,4
Quarter Horse 470 18,2 3,9
Haflinger 520 18,8 3,6
Knabstrupper 560 19,0 3,4
Württemberg Warmblood 590 20,0 3,4
Hanoverian Warmblood 600 22,0 3,7
Trakehner 650 20,0 3,1
Southern German Heavy Horse 770 23,0 3,0

There are clear differences between the breeds, which often come down to the original use and breeding intention. Mountain horses such as the Haflinger were bred with the aim of transporting heavy loads across the Alps. Shetland ponies are from the Shetland Islands in Scotland, where the climate is harsh and the food supply scarce. In order to provide for other horse breeds, the Scottish mini-ponies pulled heavy carts or carried great loads for many years. Shetlands are one of the strongest horse breeds of all, they can carry up to 60 kilos or an average of 30 percent of their own weight.

Special mention must also go to the Icelandic horse, which have been bred for centuries to be ridden by adults. Despite their relatively small size and lower weight compared to other small horse breeds, Icelandic horses have developed some special qualities that enable them to carry relatively heavy weights without suffering any damage. Even today, adult riders on Icelandic horses is a common sight.

Furthermore, the table shows that breeds such as the Quarter Horse or the Southern German Heavy Horse do not have a particularly high RI. This may come as a surprise, especially with regard to the heavy horse. Warmblood breeds such as the Hanoverian or the Trakehner, which are often used in sport, also have a rather low RI.

How much can you weigh for an Icelandic horse?

In relation to their small size, Icelandic horses can carry quite heavy loads. On average, they can carry about 20% of their body weight.

What effect does too much weight have on a horse?

If a horse has to carry too much weight on a permanent basis, it can have considerable health impacts. The TVT conducted a study in which six horses weighing between 500 and 600 kg were ridden by four different riders with a body weight between 60.8 and 142.1 kg. In the case of the heavy and very heavy riders, the horses showed discomfort, pain and lameness, so that riding was stopped early. The weight load here was 20% or more of the horse’s body weight.

This clearly shows the health implications on horses loaded with too much weight. They often show signs of tension and stiffness. Especially weight loads of 25 or even 30% of the horse’s weight cause damage to the muscles and permanent damage to the back or the entire musculoskeletal system — contrary to animal welfare.

Is it possible to ride at a weight of 100 kg?

Riders weighing in at 100 kilograms can ride, but the horse should be able to withstand the load accordingly.

Conclusion – Are some riders too heavy and is there a maximum rider weight?

The bottom line is that there is no such thing as a maximum rider weight, but there are important guidelines that should be followed for the wellbeing of the horse. How much they can carry depends on numerous factors such as the body weight of horse and rider, age, training level, ground conditions and equipment.

If you are unsure whether you are too heavy for your horse, we recommend that you consult your riding instructor or veterinarian. This way you can decide together and always respect the health of your equine partner.

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