It's happened to many of us, I'm sure. We're at a show, or out with a group of riders and we hear a whispered comment along the lines of, "that poor horse, fancy having to carry that great lump of a rider!"
The truth is that a large percentage of riders do not fit into the traditional image of the slender, lythe, athletic rider. I certainly don't fit that image myself! While I don't consider myself to be actually fat, at 160 lbs. I'm certainly over the "ideal" weight for my height (not helped by long hours sitting at a computer writing articles for this Web site!)
So - should larger riders, or those who aren't blessed with the ideal physique just give up riding and take up some other sport? I say, No!
Riding is something that can be enjoyed by everyone, large or small, young or old. I'm not saying that you may not run up against the unkind comments mentioned above, indeed one renowned hunter/jumper trainer in the United States is well known for voicing his opinions about the larger rider. However, if you go about it the right way, there's no reason that you shouldn't enjoy riding just like everyone else. While you might be currently on a diet, or considering starting a weightloss regime, the points below will underline what you can do to enjoy riding now.
It may be thought that larger riders should only ride heavyweight horses, but in my opinion, this is not true. Many of the native ponies of Britain have been used for centuries to carry full sized men and their kill of deer down from hunting trips of the moors so size isn't really an issue.
Conformation is important. A well proportioned horse, with a short back, well-coupled on to the hind quarters and straight, sturdy legs should have no trouble carrying a heavier rider. The horse does not have to be a draft horse, although many larger riders do feel more comfortable riding draft horse crosses, simply because they feel more in proportion with the horse. Having said that, there are heavyweight riders whose dainty-looking Arabians carry them comfortably for miles with no sign of strain. It depends on many factors, as you'll see below.
As with any horse and rider combination, the fit of the tack is essential. With a badly fitting saddle, a horse can get sore even with a lightweight rider. Care should be taken to make sure the tree of the saddle is the correct width for the horse, and that it is stuffed properly, so that pressure points aren't caused when the rider sits in the saddle. This is true regardless of the weight of the rider, but weight distribution is especially important if the rider is heavy. Some of the newer gel and closed cell foam saddle pads can help with weight distribution, but they won't make up for a badly fitting saddle.
The size of the saddle is important to the rider's comfort too. I know from experience that it's no fun riding in a saddle even as little as half an inch too small. Having to keep scooting back in the saddle to stop from bumping on the pommel or horn, or having to worry about hanging over the cantle are not condusive to good riding!
Mounting the horse can be a problem for heavy riders, who may be less agile than their more slender counterparts. I've got short, stubby legs and so I need to use a mounting block to get my foot anywhere near the stirrup on my 16.2 hand TB gelding's saddle. Using a mounting block makes it easier on me and on my horse -- the saddle doesn't get pulled over to the side, possibly damaging his back or withers, my foot doesn't dig into his side as it does when I try and climb up from the ground. Don't ever be embarrassed to use a mounting block, no matter what size you are!
Whether you're lightweight, average weight or heavyweight, how you ride is very important. Even the lightest rider, if they are off-balance, or if they bump on the horse's back over every jump or thump in the saddle at every posting trot stride, will make a horse sore in the back.
If you're concerned that your riding may be adversely affecting your horse, invest in some lessons, with the emphasis on building an independent seat, with a secure leg position and good balance. Even if you only plan on trail riding, being in balance with your horse as he negotiates upward and downward slopes will make his job easier.
I remember many years ago watching several assistants help hoist a large, elderly man onto his cob. Being a teenager at the time, I chuckled at the sight, as teenagers do, but once that man was on board, it was a joy to watch him ride in harmony with his horse. I found out that the pair regularly hunted to hounds with the local pack and won consistently at local shows.
The clothing you wear, although it won't help your horse any, will make you look more "the part" and will make you more comfortable in the saddle. If you ride western, stretch jeans will be more comfortable than regular ones. You can even get riding pants that look like jeans, but are especially made for riding.
If you ride english and want to get breeches, many manufacturers offer larger sizes. I've taken to wearing black breeches, now I'm not showing anymore, but any dark color is more flattering than the traditional beige.
As for boots, you can get custom-made and off-the-shelf boots in wide calf sizes. English style riders may prefer field boots, which lace up at the instep and make it easier to get the foot in. Or you can do what I do and wear specially designed riding sneakers, with suede half-chaps, which work well for western riding too.
And ladies, don't forget one very important item of riding apparel - the Sport Bra - a necessity if you plan to do anything more than walk sedately round the trails!