Jennifer specializes in articles about horse training, care, and purchasing.
Beginner riders and first-time buyers often ask how large of a horse they need. Heavier riders may question whether they should ride at all.
Determining the right size for you is a complicated matter. Many first-time buyers may be best-served by simply asking their trainer how big the horses they feel most comfortable on are, which can give a good starting point. However, there are some overall guidelines for the size that is best for the rider, taking into account the following:
The 20% Rule
When researching a horse's carrying capacity, the first thing you are likely to come across is the 20% rule, which states the following:
The combined weight of rider and gear should be no more than 20% of the weight of the horse.
For example, a 1,000-pound horse should carry no more than 200 pounds. (This is the reason for the 200-pound weight limit enforced by many riding establishments, although some will go as high as 250, which is an incentive to lose weight if you can).
This rule works well as a starting point, but there are also some additional rules that should be considered.
Inexperienced riders are harder for a horse to carry. All beginners are sacks of potatoes. Sorry, but it's true.
- For example, an experienced rider who weighs 140 pounds might be carried perfectly well by a 13-hand pony, but a good instructor would never put a beginner of the same weight on the same horse.
- As a rider becomes more experienced, she learns to keep her own balance, carry her own weight, and sit lighter on a horse's back. Weight that moves with you is less of a strain than dead weight.
A horse that is not in good condition should not be asked to carry as much weight.
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- As a general rule when starting a horse, a lighter rider should be sought if possible. A green horse lacks the muscle to carry a rider and will feel the weight more.
- The same goes for a horse that has been out of work for months. (If reducing the weight is not possible, then the duration of rides should be kept short and increased as it gains fitness.)
- Horses with a history of chronic lameness, back problems, or founder should not be asked to carry as much weight as healthy ones.
- Older ones should also not be asked to carry as much weight.
Conformation and Type
A horse's conformation definitely impacts how much weight it can carry.
- Back. A horse with a very long back is likely to be prone to back problems. Thus, the amount of weight should be reduced a little. In contrast, one with an extremely short back may not be able to carry heavy saddle bags as they will be too far back and at the very least uncomfortable for the animal.
- Bone. The key to weight carrying ability is the bone. A horse's bone is measured by running a piece of string or dressmakers tape around the horse's front leg just below the knee. In England, horses are called light, medium and heavyweight based off of the amount of bone—lightweight is 8" and under, middleweight 8" to 9" while heavyweight is over 9". The more bone, the more they can carry and the sounder it is likely to stay. Very tall horses often have insufficient bone.
- Type. Type is also important for taller riders, more so than height. You need one with enough barrel to "take up" your leg. That is to say, your heels should not normally be below the horse's barrel, as this makes it harder to ride and also makes them look too small for you, even if they are carrying you fine. At the other extreme, you do not want one with so much barrel that your heels are hitting the saddle and not the horse.
- Ponies. As a general rule, ponies can carry more weight, in proportion to their size, than horses. Some breeds are known for incredible carrying capacity, most noticeably the Dartmoor and Exmoor ponies in England (no more than 12.2, but often capable of easily taking a full grown man across the moors) and the Icelandic Horse.
- Draft horses. Many heavier riders feel that the answer is to buy a draft horse. After all, they are huge and have plenty of bone, right? The problem is that draft horses are not bred to carry weight on their back, but to pull weight. Their proportions and muscling are different. A high quality cross between a draft horse and a riding horse is better for an extremely tall and heavy rider than a pure draft.
Purpose, Use, and Gear
- Western vs. English gear. It's worth considering that western gear weighs more than English. A western saddle often weighs 50 pounds. An English saddle, without irons, weighs 20 or less. This is a considerable difference that is very noticeable when saddling. If you are trail riding and plan on using saddle bags, you should allow another 15 to 20 pounds.
- Work. The more you plan on working a horse, and the more intense the work, the less weight you should ask it to carry. If all you ever do is short trail rides close to your own property, you can often get away with a smaller horse.
- Showing. For showing, it is very important that you look proportionate to your horse, although in the dressage and saddlebred arenas, very large horses are currently fashionable. It is often felt that if you want to win, you need a tall one.
- Barrel racing and gaming. For barrel racing and gaming, in contrast, the smallest one that can comfortably carry you and do the work is most desirable, as smaller horses can turn more quickly. Barrel racing horses are seldom over 15 hands, but tend to be stocky sprinter types that can carry more weight.
- Racehorses. Racehorses, of course, are burdened with as little weight as possible. (Because of this, it's worth noting that thoroughbreds generally have less bone and are not up to as much weight as their height would indicate, especially taller thoroughbreds bred to go over the longer distances).
Will Your Horse Complain If Over-Burdened?
The answer is maybe.
- Mules. Mules are particularly known for making it very clear to their handlers if they are being asked to do too much and may even lie down and refuse to move until part of a pack is removed.
- Horses. Many horses, however, will continue to work without complaint regardless. Horses will keep going when over burdened, lame or tired, and I have, many times, had to literally stop one from trying to continue to work when it clearly should not. Although I have known horses, especially ponies, to balk or stop and refuse to move if the rider is too heavy, most will not. It's therefore up to the better judgment of the rider to determine when something might be too much.
This is one of the reasons why mule people often insist mules are smarter than horses.
Cowgirl on August 03, 2018:
Very well written. Lots of valuable info in this article. Thanks!!
Debbie Roberts from Greece on February 25, 2012:
I'll admit I've not ridden a horse since my childhood and read your hub purely out of interest. I wasn't disappointed! Your hub is well written, very informative and easy to read and understand.
A good hub and shared.