How Much Can a Riding Horse Carry?
Horses are immensely strong, but even they have their limits on how much weight they can carry on their backs. for the physical and mental well-being of the animal, ethical horsemanship will always include attention to the horse’s limitations.
What is the maximum weight a horse can carry on its back? A horse should carry no more than 20% of its body weight, including rider and tack. While some conservative horsemen recommend a horse carry no more than 10-15% of its weight, most of today’s research coincides with the centuries-old recommendation of a 20% maximum.
Keep reading to learn more about the research that has been conducted on the subject, how loads that are too heavy can affect a horse, and what you should expect typical tack to weigh.
How Many Pounds Can a Horse Carry?
Don’t have a scale to weigh your horse? Most equestrians don’t have a scale this big! There is a fairly simple formula to estimate the weight of your horse: (Heart Girth x Heart Girth x Body Length), divided by 330. In most cases, this formula will give you a remarkably accurate estimate of your horse’s total body weight. From there, you will multiply your horse’s weight by 0.2 to determine 20% of the weight, and the maximum weight they should be carrying.
Most light-riding horses weigh between 900 and 1,200 pounds. This means that the total weight that a horse carries, including the rider and tack, will typically range from 180-240 pounds when using the 20% rule. Obviously, a smaller pony or horse will be able to carry less than that range, and a larger horse such as a draft or a draft cross will be able to carry a rider heavier than that.
A Horse’s Weight Limits: What The Research Says
While the question of how much weight a horse can carry on its back has been debated for thousands of years, there is newer research that helps shed light on the issue in a concrete and scientific manner. Here is what a couple of recent studies have found:
Ohio State University’s Agricultural Technical Institute
Researchers from Ohio State University looked closely at eight horses that carried loads of anywhere from 15-30% of their body weight. The horses ranged in size, and each individual and each load was measured carefully to ensure the readings were fair and accurate.
The researchers found that when carrying between 15 and 20% of their body weight on their backs, none of the horses showed any signs of physiological stress. When the weight was increased to 25%, most of the horses began displaying signs of stress, and these signals were intensified when the weight was further increased to 30%.
What signs of stress were the researchers finding? Specifically, the researchers were measuring the rate of respiration and the heart rate of the horses. As the weight on the horses’ backs increased beyond 20% of their body weight, both their respiration rates and their heart rates increased, indicating physiological stress.
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
Dr. Steven Wickler, DVM, led a research team at Cal Poly in Pomona which also investigated the effects of different percentages of weight on a horse using various methods. Here are some of their findings:
- A group of horses was put on treadmills of varying speeds and incline levels. When weight was added to equal approximately 20% of each horse’s body weight, they saw an increase in metabolism of 17.6% across all paces; the increase was greater when the treadmill was at an incline. This means that the horse is expending significantly more energy with a weight of 20% on its back, and would thus require more nutrients.
- Another group of seven Arabian geldings was trained to trot a fence line on voice command. The researchers measured their speed unburdened, and again with an added 20% of their body weight. Researchers found that while the horses maintained their pacing, their trot speed fell from an average of 7.4 mph to 7 mph. The significance of this experiment was that without rider intervention on speed, the horses determined they needed to slow down to accommodate the extra weight on their backs.
- Finally, another group of seven horses (including Arabians, Thoroughbreds, and Quarter horses) were recorded at the trot both unburdened and also with an added 20% of their body weight. When the video was played back in slow motion, the researchers found that the horses left their hooves on the ground an average of 7.7% longer when they were burdened with the extra weight. This causes additional force on the hind legs and shortens the stride.
What do these findings mean for the average rider and the average horse? All things considered, the research team determined that an added weight of 20% of the horse’s body weight did not have negative effects on the horses during the walk, but that less than 20% is ideal with harder work.
In explaining the reasoning behind this, Dr. Wickler explains that because horses are so large, they do not have much “extra” bone density and muscle than what they need for themselves. After all, it would be inefficient to carry around a significant amount of extra muscle than what is needed.
Says Wickler, “Human engineers will overbuild to anticipate extremes. For example, an elevator may be built with a posted capacity of . . . 1,500 pounds. But, in fact, that cable may actually be capable of holding 15,000 pounds – that’s a safety factor of 10. But biological systems don’t do that. Biologicals have a built-in safety factor of around two.” This “reserve capacity” is what the horse uses to accommodate a rider and tack.
The Maximum Weight “Rule Of 200”
You may have seen a rule posted at a lesson or trail ride facility that the riders cannot weigh more than 200 pounds. This is a commonly stated rule, as it is easier to understand and requires no calculation on the rider’s part. 200 is 20% of 1,000, which is considered an average weight for a riding horse.
The National Park Service does not allow riders who weigh more than 200 pounds to ride their mules into the Grand Canyon. As a more regional example, our local trail riding facility has a rule that riders who are 5’9” or taller cannot weigh more than 250 pounds, and riders under 5’9” cannot weigh more than 200 pounds.
They likely have a horse or two that is larger and can accommodate heavier riders, and consider balance to be an important factor for the rider’s safety. Someone who stands at 6’2” and weighs 250 pounds will have a larger weight distribution and therefore balance capabilities than someone who weighs the same but is a foot shorter.
These facilities do not post these numbers as “guides,” but follow them; if a potential rider “appears” to weigh more than 200 pounds, they will ask them to step on the scale that they keep at the facility. They do not take these rules lightly, as it is their horses that are affected.
How Much Does Horse Tack Weigh?
A common mistake when calculating how much a horse can carry is to consider only the weight of the rider. When it comes to pounds, however, the horse’s back does not discriminate between the weight of the tack and the weight of the rider. Tack can be relatively light, or relatively bulky, and the additional weight must be added to the weight of the rider when determining whether a particular horse can accommodate that load or not.
As a general reference, most English saddles will weigh between 11 and 26 pounds, while most Western saddles will weigh between 20 and 50 pounds. Western saddles are much more substantial than English saddles, and the horse will feel the difference. It would be safe to add another 5-10 pounds further when considering the saddle pad, the stirrups, and the rest of the tack.
An example calculation here would be: a 900-pound horse can safely carry 180 pounds using the 20% rule. If riding Western, subtract 50 pounds (the average weight of a Western saddle and additional tack) from 180 – this leaves you with 130. Without considering the tack, you would assume that a 180-pound rider can safely ride this horse. Considering the tack, however, significantly reduces the weight of the rider that this horse can carry. It’s a big and important difference.
Horse Breeds That Can Carry More Weight
Some horses are so big that 20% of their body weight is actually a lot of weight. Other breeds are uniquely built to be able to carry more than 20% of their weight. Check out these breeds:
Any Draft Horse Breed
Draft horses usually stand between 16 – and 18 HH and can weigh as heavy as 2,000 lbs! 20% on 2,000 lbs is 400 lbs, which is much heavier compared to your average light horse. Draft horses can easily carry heavier riders and their tack.
For one thousand years the Icelandic Horse breed has been refined to become one of the most pure and unique horse breeds in the world. These horses were developed to survive in formidable climates as well as to live alongside the Icelandic People. They are sure-footed, resilient, smooth to ride, and incredibly strong.
While the average Icelandic Horse stands under 14 HH, grown adult men can easily ride these horses. Studies have been done to show that Icelandics can routinely carry up to 35% of their body weight.
Gaited Horse Breeds
Gaited horse breeds include the Missouri Foxtrotter, the Tennessee Walking Horse, the Standardbred, and the Rocky Mountain Horse. These horses are built differently than your average horse, having larger shoulders and stronger backs. Their way of moving is unique and smooth to ride, but most importantly, it makes it easy for them to cover a lot of ground with ease. Gaited horse breeds have been known to carry up to 30% of their body weight.
The Horse’s Discomfort vs. The Rider’s Discomfort
Anyone over the age of five understands it is a social faux pas to inquire about someone’s weight, and yet this is vital information for equestrians. If you attempted to go on a trail ride and were asked your weight, or were even asked to step on a scale, try not to be offended.
There is almost certainly no judgment in the question, but simple concern for a horse’s skeletal structure, muscles, and physical comfort and well-being. It is crucial that we are good stewards of our animals, and knowing their physical limitations is part of keeping them safe and healthy.
Are you looking for a horse that can carry a lot of weight? Check out my article Top 8 Biggest Horses & Horse Breeds.