Last time, I talked about how there is a horse for every rider, and every rider has a preference as to what kind of horse is their dream horse. Commenter wlewisiii asked an interesting question about “horses for bigger people.”
Where do draft horses fit in as riding horses? Say a nice big Belgian?
Or for that matter a mule?
There are two tiers to the question. One is about horses for larger riders, and the other (actually twofold) is about draft horses and mules as riding animals. The questions are related, but they’re not exactly equivalent.
The general rule of thumb for horses and weight is that a horse can comfortably and soundly carry 20-25% of its own weight. For the average 1000-pound horse, that puts the rider at around 200 pounds. Increase the rider’s weight and you’ll want to increase the weight of the horse as well. By this calculation, a bigger rider will be looking at a draft horse, since they tend to be larger (sometimes much larger) than the basic riding types.
It’s not as simple as “rider weighs 300 pounds, horse has to be at least 1500.” There is an actual calculator into which you can plug your weight and get a range of horse types and sizes. What’s interesting about that is, different types can carry different weights.
It comes down to the good old square-cube law. Bigger is not necessarily stronger. The larger an animal gets, the less weight it can carry.
Build and mass are important as well. A very tall but leggy and lightly built horse will carry less weight than a short, stocky one. But a very tall, very massive horse may not be the best option for a larger rider: he’ll have enough to do to carry himself. That gigantic horse may make better use of his weight and mass as a puller than as a carrier, especially if he pulls as part of a team.
So what about the larger rider? What are their options?
A lot depends on their height and build. The picture a lot of people have of the ideal rider is of a slim, long-legged person, not too tall, with a leg that drapes nicely down the horse’s sides and doesn’t hang below them. That’s pretty, and confers some advantages as far as balance and looking good on the horse are concerned, but in the real world, riders, like horses, come in all shapes and sizes.
A heavier rider, especially one with shorter legs or rounder thighs, will find it less easy to sink down in the saddle and get a leg on the horse’s side, but if that rider is fit and has cultivated their balance, they will actually be less difficult for the horse to carry than a lighter, less fit and balanced rider. The rider who can sit lightly and move with the horse will always have an advantage over the one who does neither.
There are still calculations to make for the horse’s soundness and safety. A 900-pound horse will undergo more wear and tear if ridden consistently by a 250-pound rider, even if that rider is very well balanced. Remember too that the weight of the saddle has to be figured in. A lightweight jumping saddle doesn’t add much, but some of the larger Western saddles which would accommodate a larger rider weigh a fair amount themselves.
When it comes to strength and carrying capacity, there’s much to be said for the sturdy cob. This is a horse with shorter, thicker legs and a thicker body, solid and muscular, with a nice strong back. He’s not hugely tall but he’s strong. He’s built to carry, and he has the stamina to do it. The Welsh Cob is an epitome of the type, as is the Morgan horse.
But our question is about draft horses, specifically a nice Belgian. Belgians can be absolutely huge, and the bigger they get, the wider they are; even the Mountain might strain his hip flexors to sit astride one of the giants. Down in the smaller ranges however, 17 hands and below, a Belgian can make a pretty nice riding horse, as can a Belgian cross—Thoroughbreds are often bred to drafts for field hunters. In recent decades there’s been a fair amount of homemade “Warmblood” breeding as well, using Thoroughbreds and drafts to replicate the big European sporthorse.
Riding a draft is a little different than riding a lighter breed. He’s more massive, of course, though not necessarily taller. He’s wider and thicker. He may not have as much speed, or as much stamina; he’s designed for slow haulage rather than fast transport. He’s probably quite a bit calmer and less reactive, and gentler too, for the most part. Some drafts can be bulldozers, and a few can actually be rather hot. But in general they’re pretty chill.
They do, as befits their structure and function, tend to drive like trucks. They are trucks. But don’t discount them when they decide they feel like flying. I’ll never forget the time my neighbor’s Clydesdale, who had been watching my Lipizzans for quite some time, came roaring down the road and rose up on his hindlegs and jumped in a quite nice courbette with his rider on board. My little cobby mares could walk him into the ground—that was the stamina differential—but he was a great riding horse and of course a strong carriage horse; he had actually come from one of the Budweiser herds.
So yes, drafts can be very good riding horses, and are particularly popular with larger or heavier riders. Their calm temperament makes them a good choice for a more timid rider, as well.
Mules are another kind of equine altogether. I have actually written a blog on another platform about the experience of riding one. She was quite small as mules go, on the pony side of the height range, but sturdy and not too narrow in the beam. For responsiveness she was as light as any horse I’ve ridden, and she had a nice engine, too. Good and powerful.
For a larger rider, a sturdy mule is not a bad option at all. Mules and donkeys can carry more weight than horses; their musculature is different and their stamina is greater. For long treks through rough country, they’re much more efficient than horses, eat less and go on longer.
Their reputation for stubbornness is really about their intelligence. They are smart and they have low idiot tolerance. If you ask a mule to do something, and he decides it’s not in his best interest, he’ll decline to oblige. You may be able to persuade him, but you had better be prepared to negotiate.
I’m all in favor of a good mule. For the larger rider, a draft mule would be the way to go: offspring of a large donkey and a draft mare. He’ll have the strength and endurance, and the smarts and good sense as well.
Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks by Book View Cafe and Canelo Press. She’s even written a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. Her most recent novel, Dragons in the Earth, features a herd of magical horses, and her space opera, Forgotten Suns, features both terrestrial horses and an alien horselike species (and space whales!). She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.