The influence of rider weight on horse welfare, health and performance is often debated. We measured the effects of increasing the weight of the regular rider by 15% and 25% on horse behavior, gait symmetry and physiological responses in a standard dressage test.
Cortisol levels increased in response to exercise, but we found no effect of the weight treatment, i.e., cortisol levels did not increase when the rider became heavier. Behavior, heart rate and gait symmetry also did not differ between treatments.
We conclude that increasing the weight of the regular rider by 15% and 25% did not result in significant short-term alterations in cortisol, heart rate, behavior and gait symmetry in horses during low-intensity exercise. Further studies are required to develop appropriate guidelines for rider weight.
Recent studies have reported significant alterations in horse physiological and gait parameters when exposed to increased rider weight during moderate to high intensity exercise.
This study aimed to evaluate the effect of increased rider weight (+15% and +25% of the regular rider's bodyweight) on horse behavioral, physiological and gait symmetry parameters during a standard dressage test.
Twenty rider-horse equipages performed the same test three times in a randomized, crossover design. Salivary cortisol (SC), heart rate (HR), heart rate variability (HRV), behavior and gait symmetry (GS) were measured.
SC concentrations increased from baseline (p < 0.001), but there was no significant treatment effect (difference from baseline (ng/mL): Control: 0.21 ± 0.1; +15%: 0.37 ± 0.1; +25%: 0.45 ± 0.2, p = 0.52). Similarly, there were no overall treatment effects on HR or HRV variables (avg HR across treatments (bpm): 105.3 ± 1.3), nor on GS parameters. There was large individual variation in conflict behavior but no effect of weight treatment.
We conclude that increasing the weight of the regular rider by 15% and 25% did not result in significant short-term alterations in the measured parameters. Maximum rider:horse weight ratios were 15–23% and the exercise intensity was relatively low; thus the results should not be extrapolated to other weight ratios and exercise intensities.
Link to the publication
J. Winther Christensen, S. Bathellier, M. Rhodin, R. Palme, M. Uldahl (2020). Increased rider weight did not induce changes in behavior and physiological parameters in horses. Animals, 10(1), 95.