Opinion

Fat Girl Riding: Body Image and the Horse World


My thoughts about my body and outward appearance and that appearance’s connection to my self-worth is kind of like one of those dangerous see-saws made from old tractor parts.

One minute I am sure I’m awesome. I see my body and its curves and big strong shoulder and short, stocky legs as something that subverts the status quo and can do dangerous things. The next, I am sure I am the human equivalent of a corpse plant: vile and repellent.

It’s for that reason that I avoid mirrors as a rule. If a friend invites me to yoga or Pilates or Zumba, I always ask if there is a mirror. If there is, I don’t go.

The exception to the rule is when I’m on horseback. When I ride, the mirror becomes just another tool—one that lets me notice details, fix things and then make my next trip around the arena cleaner and better. I have more to look at than just me. I also have a horse to see.

With pictures or videos of me on horses though, I fall back to pieces. I don’t see my good posture, my focus on balance, my correct heel position or even the tone in my calves. Instead, I see my chin rolls and my flapping arms. I rehear the moans of equestrians I’ve known saying, “Oh man, I feel sorry for that horse. Look at how fat she is.”

And it’s not just behind your back. A former boss who ran a horse-tour operation told me he didn’t give me as many rides as the other workers because:

“You don’t look good on a horse.”

“You don’t look good on a horse.”

“You don’t look good on a horse.”

I don’t look good on a horse.

Wait a second.

If my lacking body really is that big of a deal, why am I still able to find people who think my weight on their horse’s back is worth their time and money? And not just one person but three different barns. The answer comes down to math, and a little bit of practical horsemanship.

After growing tired of all the body shaming, I decided that I would do a little research on this so-called fat-girl-on-horse issue.

How much weight should a horse carry? Per both British and American  Cavalry  handbooks dated back as late as the early 19th century, a rider and all his tack should weigh at or less than 20–25 percent, depending on a horse’s condition. That is, a 1,000-pound horse can carry 200 to 250 pounds or fewer.

This old standard has held up. A 2008 study by Ohio State University showed an increased heart rate and muscle soreness during a 45-minute ride if the rider was over 25% the horse’s body weight versus a rider who was at or under.

The same study also looked at the amount of bone a horse has in relationship to stress level. It found that a big boned horse, such as a draft, Cob, or large Quarter Horse, is going to hold up better with more weight than one more delicately built, like an Arabian.

Most of my adult life, I have ridden, trained, and cared for big-boned breeds. My main projects have usually been Gypsy Horses. A Gypsy Horse’s breed standard requires big draft-like bones even if they are short in stature. They also weigh an average of 375 pounds more than a lighter breed of similar height, averaging a healthy weight at about 1,400 pounds. Thus, all 200 pounds of me and my 10 pound English saddle can safely ride the horse at hand.

Other studies have looked at balance and fitness of both horse and rider, as well. A rider with good balance and fitness level and an even weight distribution causes less stress than a rider who expects the horse to do all the work. Throughout my time as a horseman, I have been a swimmer, done martial arts and, of course, put in hours and hours of barn chores to try to keep fit.

A horse’s own fitness level also plays a huge factor. A horse that is fit and in good riding condition can carry more weight than one that has been out on pasture for months—it’s only exercise the occasional trip to the barn for a hoof trim.

Should I quit riding because I am a fat girl?

It is important to remember that horse riding, despite what those Carnival Cruise ads suggest, is still a sport. The bodies of both horse and rider are crucial to becoming a better functioning pair. If my legs are weak, I can’t give cues as well as I can when I keep them toned. If I don’t have strong ab muscles, I can’t engage them well enough to hold a correct position.

Thus, as a rider, my body is my second biggest tool after by my brain. And no matter how much I hate or have been told to hate my size 16, plump, short limbed, chubby cheeked body, it is in darn good shape.

I can post around an arena for five minutes without getting tired. I can leap out of the saddle, hold a two point, and ride a trot bareback. My thighs and core and calves and arms all work darn well. In the summertime, I must leave my helmet out to dry because the sweat from all the riding I do builds up inside it and makes it mold.

Would laying off the sugar and trying to get in a few more trips to the gym every week make me a better rider? Of course. Should I quit riding because I am a fat girl? No.

I am not alone.

I know many men and women in the horse industry who are anything but skinny. I personally know trainers, riders, owners and judges who just don’t fit into the correct BMI. I also know riders on Instagram, Tumblr, and blogs who just don’t have perfectly flat fit bodies. Lots of us look lumpy in our dressage pants or Wranglers, but that doesn’t make us any less good at riding.

The horseman Buck Brannaman once said that the “horse is the window to the soul.” I also think they are probably windows to our bodies and our society.

Barbara Kingsolver makes a poignant observation about American culture in her essay, “Saying Grace”:

“Given our societal devotion to taking in more energy than we  put out, it’s ironic that our culture is so cruelly intolerant of overweight individuals.  As a nation, we’re not just overweight (a predicament that deserves sympathy); I  fear we are also, as we live and breathe, possessed of the ‘Fat Brother’ mindset.”

A “Fat Brother,” as Kingsolver defines it, isn’t necessarily a fat person but someone who takes more than they need. This part of me very much comes out in my horse life. I know that I always want new riding boots, a new saddle pad, the latest thing. I usually don’t need them, but man is it fun to shop for them.

I am not alone in this either. We, as a culture, have a MORE MORE MORE! mentality. It’s part of our problem with food, too.

More than one-third of the American population, over 100 million people, are considered over a healthy weight or obese by the Center for Disease Control. The numbers suggest that there is way more at work than all of us fat people simply being immoral, self-loathing sloths with no self-control.

Sugar addiction, limited access to quick and cheap healthier foods, genetics, and a relatively sedentary work culture all play a role in the United States, and even the world’s, obesity epidemic. There is also the double standard of fatty food being part of the culture, but you aren’t allowed to be a part of the world if you are a fat person.

I and my fellow fat compatriots are not completely blameless, of course.

But we don’t deserve the mountains of cultural anxiety heaped on us either. Comments from people, both those we know and complete strangers, have been proven to make it worse.

The University College London did a study of over 2,000 overweight adults and discovered that those who were bullied about their weight weren’t just less likely to lose the extra pounds. They were more likely to gain it if the bullying continued.

Some of these bullies lurk behind the cross rails and split reins of the horse world too.

In 2016, Tudor Rose Equines in the United Kingdom Launched the #notinmyyard campaign to end bullying. The campaign was started by Susan Oakes a rider with jumping world records. Obviously, this is no sniveling, thin-skinned individual worried about getting dirty but a woman with guts, taking on jumps that would make many of us pee our pants—riding sidesaddle, no less.

Yet Oakes said that she received death threats, harassment and other types of bullying during her career that became so severe that she was nearly driven to suicide.

Since the campaign started, revered magazines like Equus and Horse and Hound have published articles on bullying and what to watch for. They report that bullying doesn’t just show up in words but also in deeds. Bullies in the horse world have cut off horses’ tails just before a show, vandalized tack and often verbally abuse or exclude those they bully.

Victims of bullying in the horse world resort to riding at strange hours when the barn is more likely to be empty or give up riding altogether. Bullying, they say, is an epidemic damaging the horse industry and preventing some of the much-needed fresh enthusiasm from staying in the sport.

As a fat girl, I learned early that the obvious is the easiest target.

A rider I know recently told me that her beloved instructor stopped training and sold her facility because her business partner bullied both her and her students during lessons. All the horses that once filled the paddocks around that arena are now gone.

We can be bullied for a lot of things, and the cause of bullying often comes from the culprit’s own issues and insecurities. As a fat girl, I learned early that the obvious is the easiest target. Fat can’t be hidden. As fat girls, we know that being called fat is often considered worse than being called a bully, an abuser or any other nasty thing.

I would love to say that I have never been a dick about someone else’s body.

But that would be a false statement. I have given into my insecurities and the pressure of the mob and said and done things I wish I had not. However, I have tried to work on it through this handy guide I can keep in a brush box:

How to know when you can speak up about the weight of a fellow equestrian.  

Answer “yes” or “no” to the following questions:

  1. Do you own the horse that said fat person is riding?
  2. Are you the trainer or a show judge of the horse or fat rider in question?
  3. Are you an equine or large animal vet?

If you are like me, and most of the population, and answered “no” to the questions: congratulations, you aren’t justified in saying or doing anything!

Besides the gopher hole infested pasture that is body shaming and the statistical relevance of the fat rider in the equine world—yes, it is about a third of us—it would also be financially beneficial if the body shamers just got over themselves.

When I go to tack or western wear stores, they almost never have clothes in my size. When I ask for wide calf riding boots, the fitter will shrug their shoulders and say, “Sorry, we don’t carry your size.” It is usually then in boots that are flopping around my ankles because they don’t zip up any farther that I once again become convinced that I am a pimple on the otherwise perfect completion of the horse world.

Then I stop and think to myself. “Don’t you think they would make more money if they just carried stuff that fit one-third of the people who walked in here?”

There is another crucial reason for busy body trolls to keep their comments to themselves: body awareness.

As riders, we learn quickly that our bodies work both for and against us. Trainer Julie Goodnight notes that your horse is going to do exactly what you are going to do. So, if you ride with your shoulder dipping in when you go around the corner, your horse is going to dip their shoulder when they go around the corner.

I try to work toward this awareness all the time.

I am completely aware that my legs look like an undercooked sausage in my gray riding pants. This isn’t, however, the point. What is the point is that I am aware of what impacts my riding.

I am aware that when I get tired, my right foot flops around in the stirrup, and the horse usually pulls their body underneath themselves better if I engage my core. All three of these require me to not only be aware of my body and how it works but also how to use it. Because of this body awareness, I am completely aware which horses I am too heavy for and which ones I need to leg up first before putting them into under saddle training.

If you are reading this and suddenly, find yourself too heavy for some of your favorite horses, don’t go immediately retire them to pasture or start sobbing because you feel like you must sell them. You are NOT an awful, cruel, horrible person.

Instead, rise to the challenge. Go out and start training, train yourself, train your horse—both of your bodies, your minds, and your connection will be better for it.

If the horse is a window to the soul, perhaps they are also open doors into a less sedentary and more active life.

Physical inactivity is one of top ten causes of obesity as noted by the World Health Organization, and many vets, trainers, and other horse professionals will note a similar statistic in horses.  A 2008 study in Virginia discovered that out of the 366 horses they studied more than 48% of them were overweight from lack of activity.

If the horse is a window to the soul, perhaps they are also open doors into a less sedentary and more active life. Perhaps you and your horse can work together to be healthier and happier doing the things you love.

Nuala, the gypsy horse, was one of my first get fit projects.

While Nuala bucked me off and hated it when I made her go out in the field by herself, I dearly loved her. By the time I left the Cobb farm, I had her trained to load up in front of the mounting block by herself when we got ready to ride.

Nuala was also what we call an “easy keeper.” If left out in the pasture, she would eat and eat and eat until she was so fat that the saddle no longer fit on her back.

Together, the two of us toned up—we rode away our winter weight. I took martial arts classes, and she came in from the pasture every night. Neither of us would ever be thin. She was a gypsy horse, I am of agricultural stock that left me short and thick. But watching her gallop with joy, and knowing that her fit form was something we had worked so hard for, left me with a profound feeling of pride.

I would love to write that I am free of the oozing self-hatred I described above. I am not. It is a challenging thing to shake off.

I’ve been classically conditioned to believe that I am valueless because I am not thin. It has been conditioned by people I know, by strangers and by what I see on everything from billboards to book covers. As other fat girls know, we are frequently told that the only story we are allowed to tell is the one that talks about us being fat.

I would also at least enjoy writing that I am always healthy and fit even though I am not the Vogue magazine approved size. My fitness level is good sometimes and bad at others, just like everyone else’s.

I would love to write that I don’t still feel like running away screaming when I have to look at myself in a mirror. I am not there yet.

There is one thing I can tell you though, one glimmer of hope that may be helpful for me and the other fat girls riding. That is that I am now able to pull myself out of the mud pit of shame and actually write this essay. And in doing so, I hope I’ve helped open a dialogue about it.

It’s not my goal to become the most “beautiful” rider ever. I do, however, want my riding to be judged by its beauty.


About the Author

Gretchen Lida is a Colorado native and nonfiction MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago. Her work has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, Horse Network, Mud Season Review, and others. She also rides horses and thinks about Aldo Leopold in Wisconsin.