The effect that a rider’s weight has on their horse is a topic of regular debate. A primary concern surrounding an increased weight in riders is that it will have a negative effect on a horse’s health and overall performance. Yet, a new study in the journal Animals suggests otherwise when a rider’s weight is increased between 15% and 25%.

Conducted on 20 horses actively involved in riding and competition, the test measured for the stress hormone, cortisol. If levels of cortisol increased with the weight of the rider, this would suggest the higher weight as a stress inducer. Other factors that the team monitored were variability in the horse’s heart rate, as well as behavior and gait symmetry.

Upon exercising at a low intensity, the cortisol levels of all horses increased as expected. However, the unpredicted outcome was when cortisol levels showed no change when the weight of the rider increased as high as 25%. Likewise, the heart rate and gait symmetry did not vary between either test.

The team notes that an important aspect to keep in mind is that their study focused on a standard dressage test, providing low-intensity exercise. In extensive, high-intensity exercise such as racing, other studies have shown a direct correlation between increased rider weight and a negative impact on the horse’s health, specifically regarding changes in physiological and gait parameters.

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It is also important to add that many factors beyond rider weight can present a threat to the horse’s welfare. Individual saddle fit and the skill of the rider are two crucial components when considering the effect on weight-bearing capacity and conflict behavior. Acknowledging these factors separately from each other will help riders identify any particular effects of increased rider weight. 

The nearly identical heart rates of the horses in the different treatments suggest that up to a 25% increase in the weight of regular riders did not create a heavier workload on the horse and therefore did not suggest any short-term risks. Even so, there may be long-term effects, and the team states that further studies are required to determine what those would be.

For more information on this study, check out the team’s research article published in Animals.


Christensen, J.W.; Bathellier, S.; Rhodin, M.; Palme, R.; Uldahl, M. Increased Rider Weight Did Not Induce Changes in Behavior and Physiological Parameters in Horses. Animals 2020, 10, 95.