The effect of rider weight on equine welfare and performance requires further investigation. The objective of this prospective, cross-over, randomised trial was to assess gait and behavioural responses of horses to riders of similar ability, but different bodyweights. Six nonlame horses in regular work were ridden by each of four riders: Light (L), Moderate (M), Heavy (H) and Very Heavy (VH). Saddle fit was assessed subjectively throughout the study. Each horse was ridden twice by riders L and M, and once by rider H. Rider VH rode five horses once and one twice. Each horse-rider combination undertook a standardised, 30-min ‘dressage-test' which was abandoned if we observed lameness grade ≥ 3/8 in one limb, grade ≥ 2/8 in ≥ 2 limbs, or ≥ 10/24 behavioural markers of pain. Horses were reassessed in hand 45–60 min after any abandonment. Mean rider bodyweights, body mass index (BMI) values and rider:horse bodyweight percentages for the L, M, H and VH riders were respectively: 60.8, 77.8, 91.0, 142.1 kg; 23.2, 28.0, 26.3, 46.9 kg/m2; 10.0–11.7%, 12.8–15.0%, 15.3–17.9%, 23.6–27.5%. All 13 H and VH rider tests (lameness, n = 12; behaviour, n = 1) and one of 12 M rider tests (lameness) were abandoned. Lameness was confirmed using inertial measurement unit data. All horses trotted sound after test abandonment and completed the study moving well when ridden. Limitations of the study were saddle fit was not ideal in all horse-rider combinations and abandonment criteria were subjective. The conclusions and clinical relevance of the study were that large riders can induce temporary lameness and behaviours consistent with musculoskeletal pain. This may relate to rider bodyweight and/or weight distribution. Riders M and H had similar BMI but markedly different test abandonment rates, therefore bodyweight is likely to be more relevant than BMI. Further work is required to determine if horse fitness, adaptation to heavier weights and better saddle fit for heavier/taller riders will increase horses' weight-carrying capacity.
- body mass index