The best horse breeds for heavy riders have both heart and heft.
When you’re thinking about learning to ride or buying a new horse, it’s important to consider the type of horse that can comfortably carry you, especially if you’re a bit on the heavier side.
While a lot of people rightly say that balance and riding position are critical factors, they aren’t the be-all, end-all. If you’re 225 pounds, it doesn’t matter how good your balance is—a Shetland Pony isn’t going to be right for you.
Horses are individuals. Although a particular breed may be built for carrying heavy riders, in general, it doesn’t mean that every horse of that type will be able to do so. In this article we’ll look at a handful of breeds that are typically more capable of carrying heavier riders:
- American Quarter Horse
- Irish Draught
- Highland Pony
- Shire Horse
How to Find the Ideal Horse Size for a Rider
When trying to find the right size horse for your weight it’s important to keep these points in mind:
- The ideal horse weighs at least 7 times as much as you weigh.
- Horse height isn’t the key factor — leg strength (in particular, the cannon bones) is far more important.
- Some horses can carry a lot more weight than you might think looking at them. Work with a trusted trainer to assess how the individual horse acts and travels when you’re on its back.
- Consider the type of rider you are too. Being lightweight and unbalanced can be as difficult for the horse as a rider who’s perfectly balanced, but too heavy.
Signs You Are Too Heavy for Your Horse
If you’re too heavy for your horse, he can’t tell you verbally. It’s important to look for these signs:
- If your horse has his ears back, swishes his tail, and/or tries to buck when you’re riding, he may be trying to tell you you’re too heavy.
- If your horse is normally very balanced but struggles to maintain that balance while you’re riding, he may be trying to redistribute his weight so that it’s easier for him to carry you.
- Does your horse throw a hissy fit when you approach with a saddle? It could be an indication that his back is sore from carrying heavier weight.
Best Horse Breeds for Heavier Riders
The American Quarter Horse
One of the most popular breeds in the world, the American Quarter Horse is capable of pretty much everything from pleasure riding to dressage.
Originating in the 17th century from horses that English emigrants brought over to the Americas, the breed has been refined into an excellent work and pleasure horse that’s far stronger than its height and build might suggest.
An important horse in Quarter Horse breed history was a stallion called Janus. He was foaled in 1746 and was the grandson of the Darley Arabian, one of the founding fathers of the Thoroughbred breed.
You might like riding a Quarter Horse if you:
- Enjoy long rides: The Quarter Horse has a great deal of stamina and is happy to spend all day under the saddle.
- Want a versatile horse: Early Quarter Horses were valued for their speed, especially for W, as well as their ability to work cattle. They were used as work horses during the day and raced over quarter-mile distances in the evenings. Both of these qualities are still highly prized today.
- Desire a wolf in sheep’s clothing: Often referred to as ‘a sleepy little critter that can unwind like lightning,’ a Quarter Horse can be calm as a cucumber, suddenly spring to life, then return to completely calm again as needed. The unflappable nature of the makes them a perfect option for , W, and trail riding.
- Love to work cattle: Quarter Horses have a natural ‘cow sense’ and instinctively understand cattle. Plus, they can turn on a dime, so cows can’t easily get away from these amazing horses.
Hold Your Horses: If you’re thinking about buying a Quarter Horse, check if they’re carrying any genetic diseases. Some horses will carry a defective gene that will not only inhibit their performance but also make it harder for them to stay healthy. Horses with these defective genes can be emotionally difficult and have a serious impact on your finances.
Eager to Learn More? Visit the American Quarter Horse Association
The Irish Draught
Considering its name, many assume the Irish Draught is a draft breed rather than a riding horse. In its distant past, it was widely used for farm work. Now though, this breed successfully competes in many English (and some Western) disciplines at the top levels.
When you consider that early Irish Draughts descended from the Connemara Pony crossed with Thoroughbreds, Clydesdales, and Shires, it’s easy to see why they’re more than capable of carrying heavier riders.
You might like riding an Irish Draught if you:
- Want a family horse: Irish Draughts are docile, have great temperaments, and love being around people.
- Enjoy an intelligent horse: Irish Draughts are very intelligent and easily trained in their youth.
- Like horses with strength: As well as their ability to carry a heavy rider, Irish Draughts can also pull heavy loads. In the past, they were ridden and used for farm work, doing the sort of work that tractors do now.
- You’re a budding show jumper: Irish Draughts have a great jump and extremely tough feet. They’ve been crossed with Thoroughbreds to produce world-class competition horses for jumping and eventing.
Hold Your Horses: Irish Draughts can be rather lazy. They’re more than happy to simply plod down a trail or around the farm. If, on the other hand, they love doing a particular activity (e.g. jumping), they’ll happily do it all day long with gusto.
Eager to Learn More? Visit the Irish Draught Horse Society of North America
The Highland Pony
You might think that a “pony” isn’t going to be able to carry the weight of a heavy adult, but the Highland Pony is no ordinary pony. Despite its height (normally under 14.2 hh), it has the heart and strength of a lion and can carry most adults without batting an eyelid.
Believed to descend from the horses that lived in Scotland after the last Ice Age, Highland Ponies display a lot of primitive characteristics, such as a dorsal stripe and zebra markings on their forelegs.
You might like riding a Highland Pony if you:
- Want a pony that won’t panic: Having been used as a war horse during the First World War, the Highland Pony is a calm breed that won’t spook easily and isn’t phased by loud noises.
- Enjoy trail riding: Highland Ponies are very surefooted and light on their feet. Even today, they’re used in Scotland to stalk deer, proving they’re capable of moving quickly and quietly over rough ground.
- Want to ride and drive: Highland Ponies are just as happy in a harness as they are under saddle, and their thick manes and elegant frame make them a beautiful sight pulling carts and carriages.
- Like to feel like royalty: Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom is a huge fan of the breed. As well as being the Patron of the Highland Pony Society, she also has her own stud at Balmoral Castle in Scotland.
Hold Your Horses: Highland Ponies are easy keepers and have a tendency to put weight on easily. You may need to restrict their grazing time and watch for signs of laminitis.
Eager to Learn More? Visit the Highland Pony Enthusiasts Club of America
You might think of the Percheron as a heavy driving horse rather than a riding horse, but they can make very good riding horses. This breed has the build and strength to carry larger riders.
Note: In some countries, Percherons have more of a heavier build, while they’re slightly smaller in America.
Percherons used to be mainly grey before being imported to America in 1839. Now, black is gaining popularity.
You might like riding a Percheron if you:
- Want a horse that’s easy to keep: Percherons are easy keepers and are just as happy in the snow as they are in the desert.
- Love a horse with a good nature: As any owner of a Percheron will tell you, they’re super laid back.
- Don’t like feathers: Unlike most other draft or heavy horse breeds, Percherons don’t have any feathers on their legs.
- Like gentle giants: The Percheron is an extremely quiet breed and is happy around children, adults, and other animals.
Hold Your Horses: Like a lot of heavy horse breeds, the Percheron is prone to equine polysaccharide storage myopathy, which means its muscles can’t store glucose properly. This means that over time, their muscles can become damaged. Sadly this is incurable, but careful diet and exercise can help to minimize the effects.
Eager to Learn More? Visit the Percheron Horse Association
The Shire Horse
The biggest horse breed in the world, the Shire Horse, isn’t often thought of as a riding horse. It can make a great mount for a heavy adult though. During the Middle Ages, they would regularly carry knights in heavy suits of armor into battle.
The biggest horse on record was a Shire Horse called Sampson. Foaled in Bedfordshire, England, in 1846, he stood at a massive 21.2 hands. By the time he’d reached the age of four, he’d already been aptly renamed Mammoth.
You might like riding a Shire Horse if you:
- Like bigger horses: Not only does the Shire Horse have superior height, but it also has a hefty build to match. They’re not only the tallest breed, but they’re also the heaviest, with geldings and stallions weighing as much as 2430 lb. They’re ideally suited to heavy and tall riders and are strong enough not to be easily unbalanced.
- Appreciate calm horses: As you would expect from such a ‘gentle giant,’ the Shire Horse has a very quiet nature.
- Want to be pleasantly surprised: Don’t be fooled by the breed’s size — they can be athletic movers and can jump surprisingly well for their size.
Hold Your Horses: While leg feathers are beautiful, they do require a lot of maintenance. The length and thickness of the hair mean that they get dirty quickly, so require regular grooming.
Eager to Learn More? Visit the American Shire Horse Association
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Can a horse carry a 300-pound person?
Some horses can carry a 300-pound rider, but your balance is also important. If you don’t have a good balance then it’ll be very difficult for even the largest horses to comfortably carry the weight.
Q: What horse breed is appropriate for a 350 lb rider?
Very few breeds are able to carry a person weighing 350 pounds safely and comfortably. You *may* be able to find a horse that can within the Percheron, Shire, Flemish, and Clydesdale breeds. But keep in mind the 20% rule; horses shouldn’t be asked to carry more than 20% of their (healthy) body weight.
Q: Where can I find a horse rider weight chart?
Check out this handy horse and rider weight chart.
Q: How heavy is too heavy for a horse?
Every horse is different and capable of carrying a different amount of weight than other horses. As a general rule, anything over 300-350 pounds is too heavy for a horse to carry safely.
Q: How do you know if a rider is too heavy for a horse?
As a general rule, a horse shouldn’t carry more than 20 percent of its own body weight. That includes both the weight of the rider and the tack they’re using. Carrying more than this can make it difficult for a horse to balance, increasing the risk of trips and falls.
Q: How much weight can a Clydesdale carry?
The average Clydesdale may be able to carry up to 350 pounds, but remember that every horse has different capabilities.
Q: What is the average max weight to ride a horse?
It depends on the horse you’re riding and your tack. If you’re under 180 pounds, you’ll be able to ride almost any average size horse.
Q: Am I too heavy to ride a horse?
It depends on your balance in the saddle, but also on the individual horse. It’s important that you sit properly, don’t move around a lot, and have a good center of gravity. Ideally, though, you should also weigh no more than a 7th of the horse’s weight.
Q: How much does a horse weigh?
Check out our article about what a horse weighs and why it matters to learn more.
Q: How much weight can a horse pull?
Check out our article about how much weight horses can pull to learn more.
Q: How do equestrians stay fit?
There are lots of ways to stay fit as an equestrian. Many riders enjoy yoga or pilates as they encourage both strength and flexibility.
Core strength is another consideration and key for balance in the saddle. Exercises like crunches or planks are staples, as is practicing the two-point position in the saddle.
Wall sits and squats help develop strong thighs and leg stability. Don’t forget about cardio! Running, power walking, using the elliptical, or swimming are all great options to improve your cardiovascular strength.
Looking to DIY your fitness? Check out this article for some useful tips, or help out with unloading grain or hay, mucking out stalls, or jumping over some cross rails.
Q: What muscles do you use when horse riding?
All of them! While some muscles, like your legs and shoulders, maybe obvious candidates for use while riding, others, like your abs and neck, don’t get enough credit.
One main muscle group used is your abdominal muscles, both front and side. These muscles are key to your balance and stability in the saddle, so improving your upper body strength will also improve your riding.
Your butt muscles are also important as they help control and stabilize your hips. Don’t forget about your quads, hamstrings, and inner thigh muscles. All play a role in keeping your legs in the proper position and even help give your horse cues.
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