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Riding and the Heavy Rider

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Julie first came to me as a riding student at an early age. She was heavy even then, but she had a keen mind and an intense desire to learn to ride. She worked harder than any student I've ever had to acquire the skills necessary to become an admirable equestrian. She had to work harder. She had more to overcome. I knew that her largest obstacles were all related to her weight. I never did find the words or the courage to tell her so. Now she is the student for whom I have the most respect and in whom I take the most pride.

Casual horseback riding is an activity which imposes few physical limitations on the rider and which can be enjoyed by almost anyone with an interest. Recreational riding at a novice level requires little more from a rider than very basic skills and the desire to share time with a horse.

More serious instructional equestrian pursuits and competition, however, are increasingly structured and goal oriented. The overweight student rider interested in more than an occasional weekend trail ride may face certain weight-related challenges in his/her equestrian activities. As a riding instructor, I know that every student brings individual strengths and weaknesses to the riding arena. Though by no means true across the board, the following issues are frequently confronted by heavy riders.

The biggest potential challenge is balance. I have often seen heavy riders work for considerably longer periods of time than their leaner counterparts to find their centers of balance in the saddle. Individuals whose weight is concentrated in one specific location rather than proportionately distributed over the entire body will tend to find balancing in the saddle even more tricky. Riders experiencing rapid weight fluctuations may also find it challenging to keep up with the ongoing shifts in body structure and balance. Growing teens, particularly if overweight, experience similar problems with changing body size, shape, and balance.

Leg position and stability are other elements of riding more difficult for the heavier student to achieve and maintain. Large thighs, particularly if flabby and poorly muscled, will tend to misalign the leg position, further compromising the rider's balance and security in the saddle.

Riding properly requires a certain amount of physical strength, stamina, and agility. Students who work to develop these aspects prior to and during riding instruction will make the best possible progress in their lessons. Exercises concentrating on developing strength in the back and inner leg muscles are particularly helpful for any rider. Working to tone and strengthen the muscles underlying any disproportionately large anatomical features will help to establish a better overall body balance for the heavier rider.

While riding horses appeals to many of us humans as a relaxing way to spend a peaceful afternoon, equestrian professionals know that it is the horse's interest which must be primarily protected. After all, these animals represent a significant financial and, in many cases, emotional investment for their owners and caretakers. To the inexperienced horse enthusiast, the equine animal may seem both imposing and impervious to harm. The fact is, horses face physical limitations just like the rest of us. Conformation and body type, age, general physical condition, and type and amount of use are all factors relative to a horse's appropriateness for a particular rider and activity. A large, middle-aged animal with a short, broad back, quiet nature, and smooth gaits is particularly suitable for the larger novice rider.

It is an unfortunate truth that some equestrian professionals are less than sympathetic to the large rider. In fact, I have known some to be blatantly cruel and demeaning. There is no legitimate excuse for this behavior, and absolutely no reason for anyone to tolerate this sort of abuse. If you, as a heavy individual, have the desire to ride, do not be dissuaded by those who would try to convince you otherwise. Do, however, understand that all stables may not have the horses or equipment necessary to accommodate your specific needs. Just look a bit farther, and you will no doubt find a facility ready to help you enjoy this most pleasurable of pastimes.

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