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Some notes on Weight Carrying Abilities:

My thoughts on picking horses for large people and keeping those horses sound and comfortable:

1. Pick the horse with the soundest conformation you reasonably can. No horse has absolutely perfect conformation, but generally speaking, avoid the very longest backs and legs that aren't pretty straight and on "each corner."

2. Look for a horse with "substance." Two good indicators of strength are wide loins and big cannon bones. The horse's height has little if anything to do with his weight carrying ability - in fact, being too tall (as in draft horses) works against him.

3. Keep the weight of the tack to the minimum that will sufficiently do the job - avoid the heaviest saddles.

4. Make sure the saddle fits, and buy a saddle with the largest area of contact with the horse for increased weight distribution. Of course, buying a saddle with extended panels won't help, if it pokes into the loins, or make the saddle bridge. With many Icelandics, saddle fit may involve some slight compromises, so probably best for the heavy rider to select a horse with as few saddle restraints as possible. For instance, even though short backs are generally stronger, they also limit the number of saddles that can be considered, especially on a small breed.

5. Be sure to pad and place the saddle appropriately - not on the shoulder nor on the loins, and so that the spine is protected. An off-center saddle is probably even more uncomfortable to the horse if the rider is heavy or out-of-balance.

6. Keep the horse in shape, particularly his back. My vet said having even a smaller person ride the horse between the large person's rides could build and maintain back strength.

7. Watch for the horse to show signs of hollowing his back and get to work on the cause ASAP.

8. The large rider needs to be particularly conscious of his/her balance when riding and the longer the ride, the more important that becomes. Riding position is also important. Overall fitness helps the rider's balance.

9. Avoid riding gaits that have suspension phases (trot, canter, even one-foot support tolt) for very long periods. When you need to trot, be able to post the trot in good rhythm with the horse, and learn to do a two-point seat to help balance your weight for the horse's comfort when trotting or cantering. If you are heavy, have the horse walk as much as you can, unless you and the horse are both really fit and strong.

10. As much as possible, avoid riding in less than desirable footing - mud, freshly plowed fields, deep sand, asphalt, ice, really hard soil, etc. If you need to cross an area with poor footing, walk, or even get off and lead your horse, if it's a long stretch and/or the horse needs a break.

11. Give the horse some breaks on long rides, and get off for a while. If your riding partner is smaller, consider switching horses at some point. Of course, that may create new problems if the saddles aren't exchangeable from horse to horse, or from rider to rider, or if the smaller person's horse is much less fit or is very small-boned. (Nothing is easy!)

It's probably impossible to hit all these items right on the money, and there are examples of durable and sound horses that have not had the best conformation. The worst scenario I can think of is having a heavy, out-of-balance rider who rides only once every few months get on an out-of-shape horse for a long ride on hard (or sandy or muddy) hilly terrain in a 50-pound western saddle that pinches and bridges - cantering the whole way! If the horse is conformationally weak, it's even worse. The shorter the ride, probably the less critical it is that every item be met. I think it might be a good idea if the horse or rider is weak in one of these areas, to try to hit the other items as close to the mark as possible. I'm sure there are other things that I've missed too.

I've accumulated these thoughts from the recent "Beasts of Burden" article in "The Horse" magazine (, Dr. Deb Bennett's Conformation Analysis books, various other articles in "Equus" and "The Horse" that I've read over the years, and conversations with vets, trainers and saddle fitters.  

Please check with these sources and with other sources to confirm what I have generalized here.

- Karen Thomas

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