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How Much Weight Can My Horse Carry?

By Molly Sweeney, Member of the PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee

I have researched this question extensively, as I believe it is intricately involved with the number of hours a horse can work without stress and the workload a horse can handle without harm. The goal is to avoid burnout, but more importantly to work with a happy horse.

The only answer that everyone agrees upon regarding how much weight a horse can carry is: IT DEPENDS. There are numerous criteria to be evaluated, and they fluctuate for a variety of different conditions. Instructors in PATH Intl. Centers with mounted programs have to make these decisions every day when they pair up a horse with a rider. So in the interest of the welfare of the horse, I will offer some ideas here.

The term weight-bearing refers to the horse’s ability to carry its own weight, and weight-carrying refers to the horse’s ability to carry extra weight like a rider, saddle and any other equipment.

The first thing you have to know is the actual weight of your horse. They only accurate way to do this is by using a livestock scale that can be found at most equine veterinarian clinics.
There are several ways of ESTIMATING, repeat only ESTIMATING, your horse’s weight with a weight tape to measure the horse’s heart girth. We would not expect an accurate weight for a human by only measuring the size of their waist, so why should we expect this to work with horses, who come in a much wider variety of sizes and shapes. But it can be useful to measure any weight gain or loss throughout the year.

When you have the horse’s actual weight, or as close as you can get, evaluate the horse’s conformation to see how well he can balance and move under his own weight. Dr. Deb Bennet, equine anatomist, conformation analyst, and an expert in the Biomechanics of the Horse, notes that the primary requirement of a riding horse is to bear a rider's weight on the freespan of his back without strain, and that certain conformational qualities can make that easier for the animal. In her well-regarded book Principles of Conformation Analysis, she offers the following conformation wish-list for weight-bearing and weight-carrying ability:

• An excellent loin coupling (the span from the last rib to the hip) - broad, short, smooth, and strong, yet flexible for rounding up the back in order to oppose and neutralize the weight of the rider.
• The circumference about the loin and groin should be about the same as the heart-girth;
• A short to medium-length back;
• A bone-tendon circumference (measured just below the knee) of 8 inches or more per 1000 lbs. of weight. The heavier the horse (or horse + rider + tack) the more bone density the horse needs to stay sound;
• A neck set high on the shoulder, with a shallow vertebral curve at the base of the neck;
• Moderately high withers, with a peak that lies well behind the horse's elbows;
• A pelvis that constitutes at least 30% of the body length and slopes from 18-22 degrees;
• A total body weight of less than 1,450 pounds (658 kg).

Other internal factors of weight-bearing/weight-carrying ability besides weight and conformation, include the horse's age, breed, body condition, muscling, fitness, balance, health and soundness. Body condition, muscling, fitness and balance can be developed by appropriate schooling. Health can be improved by nutrition. An unsound horse should not be in classes at all for liability issues as well as the welfare of the horse.

External factors of weight-carrying ability include the rider's weight, height, body proportions, balance, fitness and riding skills as well as the rider’s behavioral issues and safety concerns. Also consider the weight and proper fit of the saddle and other equipment; the workload per day/week, repetitive or varied, the duration, nature and pace of work, as well as rest periods between sessions.

Environmental considerations include the weather, terrain, and footing; degree of incline and regularity of footing especially when an equine is subject to maximum weight-carrying capacity.
So after all this, how can it be possible to actually determine the weight-carrying ability and limitations of your horse/s? Any searches on the internet on the horse’s ability to carry weight will bring up the “20% Rule.” But is it really a “Rule” or just another estimate? Research is limited to small sample sizes, with either light weight horses or endurance horses with able-bodied and skilled riders. And it does not accurately apply to ponies or draft horses.

To determine an actual percentage of weight-bearing and weight-carrying abilities and limitations per horse per rider, review each factor and adjust the starting point of 20% of the horse’s weight.

1. Start with a figure of 20% of the horse’s actual weight
2. Go through the list of ideal qualities of the horse and determine if the number is still 20% or less
3. Include the characteristics of the rider and readjust the percentage as needed
4. Evaluate the fit and weight of tack and other equipment
5. Consider the environmental factors that can change daily
6. The maximum workload for that session for that horse and rider can then be determined
7. The maximum daily workload follows from the above and will vary depending on all of the above

And most importantly, listen to your horse. If you are observant enough you will see the signs of discomfort and can then make adjustments accordingly. A comfortable and engaged horse makes for a much more productive session and can go a long way to preventing burnout. 

NOTE: We are planning an interactive presentation on this topic at the 2017 PATH Intl. Conference and Annual Meeting in San Antonio in November and look forward to sharing ideas and information with the PATH Intl. Community.

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