For hundreds of years, horses have carried the heavy burdens humans have put on them without any complaints or apparent struggle. This does not mean that large loads do not significantly impact a horse’s physiology and long-term health.
Horses can safely carry 10% of their body weight. This is a guideline, as the load a horse can carry depends on factors like age, conformation, breed, fitness of the horse and rider, type of activity, and the terrain. They should not carry more than 20% of their body weight.
These figures are not only relevant to horses that perform as elite athletes but extend to backyard and recreational horses too. Consideration of the horse’s wellness should be a top priority for all horse owners and riders. There is a wide range of factors to consider when assessing a safe load for a horse to carry.
Factors That Affect How Much Weight A Horse Can Carry
While the general rule is that horses can carry 10-20% of their body weight, there are several things to consider evaluating what a safe load is for a particular horse:
- Age. Young horses under the age of three years are still growing and should not carry loads. As they get older, they can carry progressively heavier loads. Senior horses over the age of 20 should carry lighter loads as they approach retirement.
- Breed. Saddle-type breeds, like Tennessee Walking Horses, Saddlebreds, Peruvian Pasos, and Welsh ponies are more suited to carrying weight than racing-type breeds, like Thoroughbreds, Arabians, Quarter Horse, or Appaloosas.
- Size. Generally, the smaller the horse, the higher the percentage of their body weight they are able to carry.
- Conformation. A horse’s physical proportions make a huge difference to how much weight it can comfortably carry. A short back and broad loin are features that enable horses to carry heavier loads as a percentage of their mass.
- Fitness of the horse and rider. Horses that are in peak physical condition can carry larger loads more comfortably. Riders that are fit and able to move with the horse, enable horses to carry more weight more comfortably.
- Type of activity or terrain. Horses can carry heavier loads if the ride is at a relaxed pace, on easy terrain, as opposed to trail riding for long distances on challenging terrain.
Every Horse Is Different
Horses all have different limitations and strengths because they are all so different. It is up to the owner to assess their horse, taking all the necessary factors into consideration, and decide on a safe load for a horse to carry.
A shortcoming of estimating a horse’s weight carrying capacity based on a percentage of their body weight is that it ignores many other factors that affect how much weight they can safely carry. It implies that the larger a horse is, the heavier the weight it can carry, which is far from true.
Is There A Weight Limit for Horseback Riding?
Many stables that offer horseback riding adhere strictly to the rule that horses should not carry more than 20% of their body weight. So, for example, if a horse weighs 1000 pounds, it can carry 200 pounds of weight.
If it is suspected that a rider may be too heavy for a horse, the stables will request to weigh the rider. While the idea of being weighed by anyone other than a doctor may be uncomfortable, stables do this to keep their horses healthy and safe.
How Horses Carry Our Weight
In nature, animals maintain a fine balance between growing muscles that allow them to support themselves, run and jump to avoid predators and the energetic cost of maintaining their musculature. Horses in the wild tend to maintain the minimum weight of muscle and bone they need to survive, without much extra, in case of emergency.
When horses carry the weight of our body, the saddle, and other tack, they are using their limited reserve capacity. They accommodate the extra load we place upon them by adjusting the way they move and use their muscles. This has a direct impact on their metabolism.
Horses adjust their gait to help them distribute the weight that there are carrying more optimally. They take shorter strides and leave their hooves touching the ground for longer in between steps to reduce the force on their legs.
Research on How Much Weight A Horse Can Carry
A study published in 2008 in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science focused on horse’s ability to carry weight, based on two indicators of their carrying ability: loin width and cannon bone circumference.
Eight adult light-riding horses were each loaded with 15, 20, 25, and 30% of their body weight and underwent an exercise test with each load. Their heart rate, creatine kinase activity, and concentration of plasma lactate in their blood were monitored before, during, and after the tests. Their muscle soreness and stiffness were also assessed.
It was found that when horses carry more than 20% of their body weight, their heart rate increases significantly more, and they experience significantly more soreness and stiffness in their muscles after exercise. Thus, the maximum load a horse should carry is 20% of their body weight.
It was also found that the wider a horse’s loin and the larger their cannon bone circumference, the higher their weight-carrying capacity, and their muscles experience significantly less pain and tightness.
Effects of Overloading A Horse
From the research that has been done, we know that some of the short-term effects of over-loading a horse include:
- Significantly more stiffness and pain in their muscles. After a long day on the trail, carrying a load heavier than 20% of their body weight, horses will need a few days of rest to recover. Their muscles will be tight and sore after the ride.
- Higher heart rate during exercise. Because their heart beats faster during exercise, their metabolic rate will be higher, meaning that their bodies consume a greater number of calories. The horse will need plenty of good nutrition and water to recover from a long, heavy ride.
- Staggering or shaking. Horses carrying loads that exceed their physical capacity may trip, stagger, or shake from the exertion.
Regular over-loading of a horse has several long-term consequences for their health:
- Horses may develop early arthritis. The extra strain and impact on bones and joints may cause horses to develop arthritis or other joint issues, years before it would set in due to natural aging.
- Unexpected collapse. Even if a horse has been carrying extreme loads for years without complaint, they may suddenly break down one day due to the strain on their bodies. Being chronically overworked causes microfractures in the bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments, which can accumulate and lead to a disastrous break.
How to Evaluate a Horse’s Weight Carrying Capacity
The 20% guideline for how much weight a horse can carry, based on their body weight, is all good and well, except that most people do not have a scale that is big enough to weigh a horse on! How else can one figure out how much a horse weighs and how much it can carry?
- Equestrian shops sell a graduated measuring tape that can give you a relatively accurate weight estimate based on their girth measurement. One can also use an online horse weight calculator that is based on a horse’s heart girth and body length. The second method is slightly more accurate.
- Once you have calculated what 10% of the horse’s weight is, you have a baseline for how much weight they can safely carry. Next, consider a horse’s age, size, and conformation:
- If a horse is under the age of 5 or over the age of 20, stick to letting it carry only 10% of its body weight. If it is in its prime years and is healthy, fit, and strong, it can probably carry 15-20% of its body weight.
- Consider the horse’s size and conformation. A 14-hand horse that has a short back and wide loin will be able to carry a heavy person (250 pounds) more easily than a 16-hand horse that has a longer back and narrower loin.
- Lastly, it is important to take the type of riding activity and the terrain into consideration. Are you going to be jumping for an hour or two or taking a day-long trail ride? If the activity is strenuous, limit the load to 10% of the horse’s body weight.
How to Lighten the Burden of Heavy Loads on Horses
Before a big, heavy ride or a horse camping trip into the backcountry, horses should undergo training to get fit. Gradually increase the speed, distance, and amount of weight that they carry over a period of time and train regularly. Ensure that horses are not themselves overweight – there is an old saying that goes: “a lean horse for a long pull”.
The best thing one can do to reduce the impact of a heavy load on a horse is to be mindful of how you ride. It is important not to be dead weight on the horse’s back but rather to ride actively and to move in sync with the animal. Improving your overall strength and fitness through training will make you a better rider.
Ensure that weight is distributed optimally on the horse in relation to its center of gravity. A horse’s center of gravity is relatively far forward, about a third of the way up their body, behind their front leg. Pack a horse so that most of the weight is as close to its center of gravity as possible and not behind the saddle. Placing heavy loads behind the saddle, over the horse’s kidneys, is not healthy.
Take the weight of the saddle, tack, and your pack into consideration. Some saddles are much heavier than others. For example, Western saddles that are made of leather are much heavier than endurance saddles made from synthetic material. If a horse has to carry a heavy rider for a whole day on the trail, use a light, synthetic saddle and be conscious of how much extra weight is carried in backpacks or saddlebags.
Can Mules Carry More Weight Than Horses?
Donkeys have much more robust musculature and heavier bone structure than horses. Mules – the hybrid offspring of a horse and a donkey, are therefore stronger than the average horse, enabling them to carry more weight (as a percentage of their body weight).
Mules generally weigh between 600 and 2000 pounds and can safely carry 25-30% of their body weight. They are stronger than horses and donkeys.
In Santorini, Greece, tourists have famously been carried up the steep hill to the town on the backs of donkeys. Today, 95% of the donkeys have been replaced by mules due to the ever-increasing weight of the average tourist.
For the sake of a horse’s long-term health, it is essential to calculate what a safe weight is to carry. If horses are consistently over-loaded and overworked, they can develop joint problems like arthritis. Carrying loads that are too heavy will cause a horse to be very sore and stiff in its muscles after a ride.
As a general rule, horses can safely carry 10% of their body weight. This figure includes the weight of the rider, saddle, tack, and backpack. Horses should not be loaded with more than 20% of their body weight to avoid excessive strain on their muscles, joints, ligaments, and tendons.
Owners and riders should contemplate a range of factors to evaluate a horse’s carrying capacity. Their age, size, conformation, the fitness of the horse and rider, and the type of activity being undertaken should be considered.
There are ways that we can reduce the impact of a heavy load on a horse. Using a lightweight saddle and distributing pack weight so that the majority of the load is over the horse’s center of gravity is beneficial. One should also work with the horse when riding, moving along with it, instead of sitting in the saddle as dead weight.