Will improving our fitness rather than waistlines make us healthier and better riders?

Are you fit to ride?

There have been a number of discussions recently about overweight riders on too small ponies.

A working group under the chairmanship of the British Equestrian Federation, with support from World Horse Welfare, has now been formed. The Animal Health Trust has planned a research project into optimum loading levels for next year. The University of Sunderland is in the early stages of developing software to help correctly calculate the optimum loading ratios. 

The equine industry would seem to be tackling the problem from a very scientific point of view with the welfare of our horses and ponies at the forefront of their minds.

This is excellent news, as increasing the welfare standards in our country is something that we are passionate about.
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But what is “too fat” or “too thin” and where is the line between remaining healthy and becoming obsessed with our body image?

In a society already burdened by unrealistic body expectation, which is pressurising children into unhealthy eating habits, do we really want to bring the fat/thin argument into our industry?

To a certain extent – yes – we have to. Firstly riding is a sport, therefore by definition we are athletes. Athletes need to assess their bodies in a scientific way to make sure they are at their peak fitness, this is not being judgmental or obsessive, it is simply understanding that you are asking your body to excel at its sport and to do so it needs to be healthy. 

Secondly the debate is not about the definition of “normal” bodyweight, it is about your bodyweight in relation to your horse or pony’s. As our nutritional intake increased since the post-war era our skeleton has increased in size, and hence our frames our getting bigger. Hence the ponies that we ride will need to be bigger.

A recent study, published in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, suggests that the rider should weigh less than 15% of their horse's body weight. This means a 1500-pound horse should be able to carry a rider of 150 lbs or less. It is not to do with the rider’s weight, it is to do with the relationship between the horse and the rider.

However there is a variation caused by how well balanced you are, so a heavier but better balanced rider, will be less of a load than a lighter but unbalanced rider. Indeed a riding school I used to visit over 20 years ago, had a weight chart for each horse that had two maximum weight each riding school horse could carry, one weight for beginners and another (heavier) weight for the more experienced rider. So this issue is not entirely straightforward.

On the other hand, the fitter we are the better we will ride, as the fitter we are the better our muscles, body and brain works, so if we concentrate on improving our fitness rather than our waistlines – we will be healthier, better riders.

And a quick tip to help boost your fitness and improve your horse’s wellbeing – dismount half a mile from home, providing it is safe to do so, and walk your horse back. You will get the added benefit of a short walk, and your horse will have a chance to cool his muscles down.

For more information and top tips visit www.thehorsephysio.co.uk and sign up to our newsletter. Sue Palmer is a Chartered Veterinary Physiotherapist, an Intelligent Horsemanship Recommended Associate and a BHSAI. (image shown copyright Free Images)
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