The Effect of rider weight on Horses

It’s been a long term debate; does it really matter? And if it does, what are the repercussions of too much weight on your horse’s back?

Its Saturday morning, the lorry is loaded, you’ve just pulled into the grounds. You unload your string, tack them up. Grab a quick energy drink, hop on, stick and ball for a few minutes. The line up is called, the ball is thrown in, off we go! Sound familiar?!

Did you and your horses warm up? Stretch? Have you been doing your sets (in the gym) this week? I didn’t……used to.

Only recently, in their vying quest for success, have we seen teams turning up with trainers to warm players up, create specific programmes to improve the muscular control of their body to not only hit the ball further but improve riding and style, and also help control players weights. 

You shouldn’t be waiting to reach the steeped heights of 10 goals to improve your overall fitness, it should be a concept that runs through every facet of the sport. Its no coincidence that top teams like La Indiana (2018 Queens Cup Winners) and El Remanso (2018 Gold Cup Winners) are leaps and bounds ahead in their performances on the pitch, it is, in part, down to the countless hours they spend with elite trainers like Martin Perez of Fitness for Polo, who oversee their diet and training. It is said polo is down to 10% of the rider, and 90% of the horse, so why isn’t this discipline and attention to detail filtering through to the lower levels, to help aid the real heroes of the game, the horses.

A recent study has shown that rider weight can have “a substantial temporary effect upon the gait and behaviour of a horse when taking into consideration the rider weight as proportion of horse weight”(Dyson, 2018). Put simply, the heavier the rider, the more likely the summative effects on performance of the horse.  The same study has also confirmed that excessive rider weight can cause temporary lameness and discomfort. This supports the notion that “not all back problems in the equine spine are secondary to lameness, but, can also be causing them” (Denoix). Excessive rider weight has been shown to:

  • Decrease stride length
  • Massively effect the gait cycle of the horse
  • Causes temporary changes in the curvature of the equine spine
  • Affect proper movement of the limbs
  • Cause short term, but larges increases to heart rate, breathing frequency and effect recovery from high lactic acid levels.

In a world where were are facing an obesity epidemic, its becoming increasingly evident that something needs to be done to address the weight issue of riders in all equine disciplines; that includes polo.

In my work as a sports and equine chiropractor in all levels of polo, I see the effects of excessive rider weight daily, not only of the horses, but the riders too. Think of all of your polo playing friends, you’ll be lucky to not have at least one playing with or recovering from an injury. If you are an unhealthy, unfit, rider at a heavier weight, you are putting yourself at increased risk of injury and poor performance when on the field.

Excessive rider weight can massively effect the proper biomechanics of both the horse and the rider by changing their normal way of moving. A horses spine is integral to their locomotion, therefore improper or excessive loading can effect how it moves, thus affecting the performance and most importantly, wellbeing of the animal.

The equine spine is very similar to ours; most of their rotation and lateral flexion comes from their thoracic spine (upper and mid-back), where the saddle is placed. Adding excessive weight to that area has been proven to cause lateral stiffness, so next time your horse won’t turn as quickly, maybe its time to stop blaming the bit or poor schooling?! Decreasing your weight and increasing your fitness and the movement in your thoracic spine and hips will also make your riding and swing exponentially better, and, make you less prone to non-traumatic injuries.

Saddles play a massive role, by properly distributing the rider’s weight, but as I’ve seen and heard in many yards and by the sides of many fields, having a saddle fitted to every horse becomes extremely expensive and can be deemed impractical to say the least.

The figure of 20% (meaning the total rider and tack weight should be equivalent to 20% of the total weight of the horse) is banded around a lot in equine sports, but there is varying evidence around that figure. A 2008 Ohio State University study found that horses ridden for 45 minutes carrying 15-20% of their body weigh showed minimal signs of stress, however muscle soreness and tightness, heart rate, respiration and temperature, which are all signs of increased or excessive physical exertion, were significantly higher when carrying 25% -30%. Increasing rider weight also increases blood lactate (lactic acid builds up in the muscles and causes soreness after exercise), which, studies have shown, does not return to normal levels, even after 30 minutes rest. Think of how that translates in relation to split chukka’ing your horses! Would you want to run a quick 5km with a heavy backpack, then run again after a short break? I certainly wouldn’t!

The one exception to the rule that it well publicised and discussed, and one that I think needs taking into consideration is riding ability and style and their overall fitness levels. Weight doesn’t always equate to health or fitness and the ability to control your body, as we all know, muscle weighs more than fat and someone with increased muscle mass is more likely to train, having better muscle strength, proprioception and co-ordination than the untrained individual.

The equestrian world is one full of old wives tales and hearsay, some of which, as we can see, bear some kind of relevance. One thing that is very clear to me as I continue to look after players and their strings of amazing horses, is that rider weight does have a huge impact on the overall health and condition of the animal and the rider.

It is without a doubt, that for the longevity of both the horses and the players career, that a healthier self, will no doubt benefit both and make the rider/horse bond stronger, with the animal not only performing to the best of its ability, but it will be happier and will keep it on the field for longer, with less musculoskeletal issues arising along the way.