If the title of this post made you feel out rage, anger or any other emotion, believe me…it was meant to get your attention.

In the past couple of years there have been statements made and articles written by certain professionals that have caused anger among the over-weight and have caused the fit to inflate with self righteousness. 

The Pros Talk

In the USET Legends article, George Morris states, “It’s very important for the rider to be on the trim side and fit. It’s a sport, it’s an athletic endeavor, and fitness is very important. I’m quite uneasy when I see people going to jump fences, especially big fences, when they are grossly overweight or when they are out of shape. It’s not fair to the horse. It’s very much a disservice to the horse. I’m not talking about being anorexic, but to be overweight just adds extra poundage, extra pressure, extra burden to a horse. So students have to be fit.”

Likewise Jim Wofford of eventing fame made comments in a Practical Horseman article about weight and fitness. Jim makes fat jokes at his clinics. George makes fat statements in his.

In their articles and interviews, the professionals in question are talking about being fit for a particular sport or competition. I can support those views because they’re focussed on their venues and they know what it takes to win. As far as their fat comments in clinics…attending clinics is a choice. If you don’t like the comments, don’t attend.

Now let’s talk about 66% of America’s population.
That would be 2/3 of the population of adults and children in the U.S. who are overweight.

Since you’re probably not George Morris or Jim Wofford, it’s likely that you teach riders who are over weight, unfit and perhaps fat. Living in my bubble of seeing good in everyone and never meeting a horse who didn’t have potential, I was a bit shocked by the things produced by my research for this post.

I read websites that wanted fat people to commit suicide or be imprisoned and articles that talked about how fat people cost the tax payers too much money. And forums that just plain ranted about how disgusting fat people are. I came away from that bit of research realizing that some people have serious personal issues that are a lot worse than being fat.

In an article in Psychology Today, Carolyn C. Ross, M.D., M.P.H, writes, “All people are created equal—that is, unless they’re fat.”  Ross writes that obesity is the last tolerable prejudice and that, “Overweight people are presumed lazy, undisciplined, dishonest and unintelligent.” She states that 61% of people believe it’s OK to make negative remarks about a person’s weight.

In 10 Frightening Ways We Discriminate Against Fat People the author writes about discriminating against fat children, bullying because a child is fat, job failure and global hatred.  Boy talk about a cruel world!

In 12 Graphs That Show Why People Get Fat, Kris Gunnars points out some of the reasons our society has become heavier. His graphs show that it’s more about the changes in the foods that people eat than it is about people becoming lazy.  One graph shows that people move less at work today.

As a Riding Instructor, What Will, Should or Can You Do About Overweight Riders?

The first step is deciding how you feel about teaching someone who is not the picture perfect, slender and fit rider. This takes thought because there are varying degrees and types of unfit and varying degrees of overweight. I use the word fat in this article because when I gain weight that’s what I feel.  But before we get even this far I would suggest that if you are one of the people who presume that fat people are lazy, undisciplined, dishonest and unintelligent, As Dr Ross wrote in Psychology Today, you change your mind because this stereo type is not true. Or if you are one of 61% of people believe it’s OK to make negative remarks about a person’s weight, you change the way you treat others, because Dr. Ross further states, “Rather than motivating people to lose weight, weight discrimination increases the risk for obesity by as much as 2.5 times.” So if this is true of you, you’re not helping anyone.

Wrong attitudes and prejudices spread like wildfire in barns.  At the very least, I’d urge you to make it a policy to nip unkindness in the bud in your barn. Stop it before it starts.

Consider Your Horses

If you use your own lesson horses for teaching, use a weight tape to determine their weight. Surprisingly, a higher % of ponies are Tapeabused by carrying heavy riders, than are horses. This is because we look at our riders and assume, if their legs are not too long or their upper bodies too tall, they are suited for the pony. A standard is that a horse or pony should not carry more than 20% of it’s own weight, including the rider and the saddle. So if you have a 600 pound pony it should not carry more than 120 pounds.  Weigh your saddle and find out the weight of your rider. Likewise a thousand pound horse is limited to 200 lbs. But 20% is a guideline.  Older horses should carry less weight, as should younger horses. You also have to know your horse and be able read him. He may give indicators about what is too much. If you don’t have a suitable horse, stick to your weight limit.  Never put your lesson horses at risk. In our barn, our smallest pony is 600 pounds and out largest horse is 1860 pounds and while we may be able to suit size, not all of our horses are for every level of riding.

Remember that a beginner who is unbalanced is much harder on a horse, no matter what their weight is, than an accomplished rider who is well balanced. I’ve seen riders who should have been a burden to a horse, carried well just by the nature of their ability and knowledge.

Once you have determined the weight you’re willing to allow your horses to carry, publish it with your lesson information. Ask for the rider’s weight on your lesson application and if someone appears to be questionable, ask to weigh them. Weigh them privately and keep the information to yourself. Remember, you’re not trying to correct their weight. You’re attempting to determine whether or not they can learn on your horses.

If you want to institute healthy eating and fitness standards for your riders, do it for the whole group, not just your over weight riders. Encourage healthy snacks at the barn, form a plan of exercises to build wind and muscle. Healthy food is healthy for everyone and we can all afford to be more fit.

Have riders use a mounting block.

What About Riders Who Exceed Your Weight Limit?

Loving horses is not just about riding. If you have a potential student who is a bit past your weight limit, why not offer ground groomingschool classes? Let them learn to groom and work with horses around the barn until they can bring their weight down to your requirement. Have them tell you when they feel that the scale will be kind to them and allow them go at their own pace.  Ground school is important for all riders and your potential rider can get a leg up on the knowledge and activity before they begin riding. Rather than turn a person away, why not give them incentive and include them in your program? This works for children as well as adults.

Sometimes you’ll meet a potential student that you’re quite sure has a long way to go before they’ll be able to mount up on one of your horses. Perhaps they need to lose 100 pounds or more. A person does not have to ride in order to enjoy horses and derive the benefits of a relationship with an equine. Develop a program of horse behavior or ground work using round pen training methods. Add it to a ground school program and you’ll have a satisfying course for all types of people who may or may not become riders. I find that most adults, whether they’re over weight or under weight, enjoy learning some of the things horse whisperers do because they love the horses and want to learn about them.

What If You’ve Done All of These Things and You’re Still Uncomfortable With Your Rider?

This answer is simple but not easy – You need to address the issue anytime you feel a rider is unsafe.  A heavy rider is more at risk if they fall from a horse. Rider’s that carry excess weight in their upper body are more at risk of losing their balance. If you don’t feel that you can cause your rider to become secure in their current state, you must discuss the issue. If the rider is an adult, speak directly with them.  Offer an alternative to riding until you feel they are in shape to ride safely. If the rider is a child, talk with the parents, also offering alternatives. Develop and outline incentives. Have conversations about weight and other personal issues privately, away from other clientele. Be careful that a child does not appear to be demoted to other children in the barn because if he or she is over weight, they probably already have difficulty in relationships with other kids.

If you can’t get your student to agree to a safer situation and if they’re not willing to work toward a fitness that you feel confident about, you should discontinue your lessons with them. This is an extreme last measure but you must give priority to the safety of your students. No friendship, business relationship or money is worth risking a serious injury that could be avoided. Riding is serious business and it requires reality both from the instructor and the student, and in the case of a child, from the parents.

Even though 66% of Americans are overweight there is no reason why most horse lovers can not enjoy a relationship with horses. Riding instructors have a unique opportunity to help develop realistic goals and offer opportunities to horse lovers. There’s an added benefit to horse activities- it’s activity- healthy movement of the body outdoors in the fresh air.  Activity burns calories and increases stamina, but more important than that – time spent with horses adds peace to the soul.

Here’s to many hours spent in the company of a good horse!

Thanks for reading the riding instructor.

Barbara Fox



sources I used while researching this post:








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Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
  • Sorry but horses shouldn’t suffer because someone is overweight. Maybe take up driving monster trucks if you’re a large person and leave animals alone.

    • Hi Patrick,
      I agree with you that horses shouldn’t suffer because someone is overweight, but as I point out in this article, a person doesn’t have to ride to enjoy being around horses. If an overweight person can enjoy having a dog, could they not enjoy groundwork with a horse? Or should overweight dog lovers take up monster trucks as well? Thanks for your comment. Barbara Ellin Fox

  • I know this is an old article, but just thought I’d add; if you have a mini horse or small pony, you can do in hand lessons for things like jumping or showmanship. 🙂

  • Hi! Read the article as my boyfriend is currently learning and he, while fit and strong and well balanced (for a beginner), is overweight. In the UK, many riding schools have reduced hte acceptable limit from 20 per cent of the horse’s weight to just 10 per cent! Most riding schools here now run a weight limit of under 12 stone!!!! This puts many males of the species — even slim ones — out of the range considered acceptable, and as a result, few adult males are able to learn to ride, even if keen. This is a great shame.

    • Fleur,
      10% seems drastic to me but perhaps the schools are looking at long term effects. It seems at that percentage only teens would be riding the average Thoroughbred at 16 hands. At 12 stone even my fit men would not be able to ride. It’s encouraging that your boyfriend has found a good place to ride.

  • I am one of “those” hated fatties and haven’t been on a horse in years because of it. There is more than pushing away from the table to losing weight but that is not what I am posting about.
    There is another option, driving, and even the quite large can drive minis as well as ponies, horses, drafts. It opens up a new world and lots of opportunities. You can drive for fun, we trail drive. Also drive in the show ring, there is driven dressage, and combined driving as well.
    Granted, instructors need to know what they are doing but they might want to think hard about learning, society is aging and driving can keep people active with horses long after they can no longer ride. I actually heard of a lady in her 80’s who straps her oxygen tank on her carriage and gallops off on the cross country course and she has a blast.

    • Jody,
      What a great addition your idea is! I’ve watched with longing the combined driving at our local horse park – kind of eventing on wheels! I wish there were more hours in the day! A friend who has MS does the combined driving as para olympics. Way cool! Thanks so much for sharing your solution for being able to enjoy horses regardless…

  • Very timely article. Thanks Barbara. Our solution here has several parts. One element is a 15 Hand steady Belgium cross that can carry weight but is small enough to be easily mounted and dismounted. Another aspect is a very clearly expressed requirement of commitment contained in our motto, “it’s a sport, not a hobby”.

    If riders who are overweight can commit to a sport and all that goes with it, then we will offer lessons to them. Our requirement is, “Get stronger, not lighter”. If we put the focus on increasing strength, riders have a better chance of staying with the program. As an instructor, it is easier to address times and conditions in a lesson when the rider’s physical strength fails them than to just say you are overweight to a student. For example, if a student cannot hold a 2-point over a very low cross rail at a walk and trot, they clearly lack the strength to ride safely.

    Until the student can demonstrate specific strength requirements like the cross rails, they are not allowed to go further in learning the entire skill set for beginners. As a result, the drop out rate is very high. People come with an idea of riding across the countryside with the wind in their hair. These students have a passenger mindset and we shatter that mindset. We demand and we coach. Four lessons is the typical drop out point.

    So, why take the time and make the effort for only four lessons? Because once in a while someone sticks with it. They get stronger and lose weight as a side effect of increased strength training. Some go on and buy a horse and ride happily ever after. Sometimes you have to kiss a lot of frogs.

  • What a terrific blog post. I like your tactful approaches.

    Years ago, I had a smaller horse, and he gave my sister incentive to lose weight so she could ride him–and she never put it back on.

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