Monday, March 25, 2013

When Bigger Isn't Better

Hey everyone!  Spring Break is over and so I am back to writing, and thought I'd jump right back in with a subject that is bound to make some people uncomfortable: rider weight.  In the US, and the world over, people are getting larger, and while there is a lot of pressure in the media to be thin, the truth is that the average person is not only taller, but bigger in overall size and carries more fat than an average person 50 years ago.  Dealing with our weight in an honest way can be difficult; no one likes to talk about their faults, and we also don't want to seem rude in talking about someone else's either.  But when we are talking about the weight of a rider on horseback, my feeling is that we MUST talk about it, because the horse cannot.

A friend recently posted an interesting article out of the UK that proposed that only 1 in 20 riders is the optimal weight for their horse, and that a horse should only carry 10% of their body weight.  This differs from other articles I have read on the subject in that many say that horses can comfortably carry 20% of their body weight, but it did get me often do people actually weigh their horses, and then weight themselves with all of their tack?  I would suppose that this rarely happens, especially in barns where riders ride western exclusively.  Only in extreme cases, when someone is either obese or extremely tall, is the rider's size mentioned, or sometimes, in the case of a horse being very small or old is a rider not allowed to ride it if it is a lesson horse.  Many owners and trainers don't want to say, "You are too big for that horse," and risk hurting someone's feelings.

What do we risk for this political correctness?  Our horses well-being, both physical and mental!  Horses carrying riders that are too heavy are often plagued by lameness issues, such as suspensory injuries, dropped pasterns and joint soreness, as well as sore backs.  They may try to evade the discomfort by displaying behavior problems, such as bucking, head tossing, rearing, stopping with refusal to go forward, and by pinning their ears when asked to perform.  The horses who have the unfortunate combination of a too-heavy rider and a saddle that doesn't fit well will end up with nerve damage (sometimes characterized by white spots on the back and withers), will have trouble with their leads, and may even develop the habit of 'pulling back' when they are being saddled.  All of these problems are fairly common, but are usually blamed on something else - conformation, equipment, bad attitude - but have you ever heard someone say, "this horse bowed his tendon because the rider was too large?"

It should be said that the ability to carry a heavy rider is greatly affected by the fitness level of a horse, as well as breed.  Horses who are out of shape should not be asked to carry a heavy rider; if they do, they will often display discomfort much more quickly than a horses that is well legged-up.  Breed and conformation play a part in that animals that are long in the back will have a harder time with a heavy rider, as well as horses that are fine boned, or have less-than-ideal angles in their legs. Experience of the rider can be a factor too; a new rider may be unbalanced in the saddle, leaning in such a way to put excess stress on the horse.  An experienced rider can easily "sit light" on a horse by staying balanced over the horse's center of gravity.

Here's something else to think about.....young horses are the most vulnerable to injury due to the fact that their bones, tendons and ligaments are still developing, their front and back halves grow at different rates, and also because they are still learning to carry a rider and may be awkward and clumsy.  Yet, quite often young horses are sent to colt-starters that are quite large men!  This is very apparent to me in the reining industry.  Many of the top trainers (and plenty down the ranks) are very big guys, and reiners are not supposed to be big horses - they have to be in the 14.2 - 15.1 hand range in order to be quick enough to turn and short enough lengthwise to stop well.  If they mature bigger than that, being a reiner becomes a lot harder on their bodies, even if it does mean that they can carry their 5'11", 250 lb trainer a lot easier.

What I have noticed is that many reining trainers compensate by bulking their horses up to the point of being fat so that they can look as if they are bigger. Many people think that a big tank of a Quarter Horse is well-suited to carrying a large person, but I'd say this is a misnomer. Consider that in that situation, not only is the horse carrying the rider's excess weight, the large, heavy western saddle required for the performance, but also their own excess weight.  This is extremely stressful on a horse's joints, and here we are, asking them to spin as fast as they can, and run fast only to drop into a sliding stop.  Is it any wonder that many reining horses get used up and go lame so early in their lives?  Some Quarter Horses may have thicker leg bones than say, the average Hackney pony, but many do not (especially those that have Thoroughbred blood, halter horse bloodlines or are from certain reining lines), and even if they do, I think that it gives people a false sense of security.  They are still a large animal on fairly spindly legs, compared to its total body weight.  When you look at other animal's ratio of leg to body weight, most animals who have long, thin legs are lighter in body weight, such as a deer, or have thicker legs to support their weight, such as an elephant. Many Quarter Horses have been bred to be large, muscular animals on top of legs barely bigger that a table leg, and then are asked to maneuver at speed.

A couple of years ago, I took a very knowledgeable horsey friend who had never been to a reining event with me to the NRHA Futurity, and after spending several hours watching patterns, she commented several times about the size of some of the trainers, and that she could hardly believe that the horses we were watching were 3 yr olds - not only because of what they were able to do as a 3 yr old, but also because all of the horses looked really bulked up.  She said, "none of them look like babies."  My gut reaction was that when the horse is carrying a large man or woman, the "reiner way" is to make the horse look like it is capable of carrying that weight, even if doing so means that the horse won't be sound beyond the age of five.  Very few reining horses continue to compete and stay sound beyond the age of 7 or 8.  This isn't only because of rider weight, but I would like to pose that it should be part of the discussion.  One article I came across gives a mathematical equation on figuring out if a rider is an appropriate size based on the thickness of the horse's cannon bone. While it was applying that equation to gaited horses, I do think that way of thinking would be applicable to other breeds and uses, including reining.

Now, what should we do with this information?  First, if you are planning on sending a young horse (or any horse) into training, consider the rider's size in relation to the horse's.  Don't be afraid to ask how much someone weighs - your horse's health and success are dependent on it.  If you are confronted with a situation where a large person wants to get on your small horse, find a tactful way to dissuade them, or substitute a larger, more appropriate, horse.  And let's also take a look at ourselves.  We are, as a society, getting bigger, year after year.  This isn't healthy for us - studies have shown that the children of today will be the first generation whose life spans will be shorter than their parents, mostly due to the obesity epidemic and the weight-related diseases that accompany obesity.  Getting fit, not for the sake of being thin, but just for the sake of our hearts, our joints and our longevity, makes sense.  And as riders, it could make a huge difference for the health and longevity of our mounts. They are worth it, right?