Skinny Girls with Fat Horses

This is a subject I’ve been considering writing about for a long time, but never could seem to quite organize my thoughts well enough. Take a look around horse shows these days and an overwhelming majority of what you see is very thin girls on very fat horses. I never could figure out why the “ideal” rider shape was rail thin with mile long legs, and the “ideal” horse shape was fat as a tick.

fathorse
photo by Lauren Mauldin
When I saw this blog post on Horse Nation yesterday, I thought the author really had some great points. The line “Who made me believe that the most beautiful part of me is my negative space?” is pretty poignantI was lucky enough to show in the jumpers as a junior so I didn’t feel the same pressure that I know the equitation and hunter girls felt in regards to being thin, but I think that learning to love our bodies as they are – thin or not – is something that every woman struggles with at some point. I will never be rail thin and I’ve never really felt the compulsion to be, but I know exactly what the author is talking about regarding body shaming, and she’s right.

It also bothered me a couple weeks ago when this article about Selena Gomez’s recent weight gain was popping up all over facebook. I’m pretty disappointed that we, as a culture, would call that fat. Why do we think that skeleton thin and bony is what looks good? It’s not strong. It’s not healthy. Why aren’t strong and healthy our paramount goals, regardless of what size it comes in? I’d be pretty thrilled if I could ride as well as any of these ladies:

Beast Mode Beezie is not a size 0
Pocket Rocket Margie does not have long skinny legs

Jen Alfano is too full of awesome to have  room for a thigh gap.
And yet to hear people talk about it from the horse perspective (in the hunter ring at least), there is no such thing as too fat. Obese hunter after obese hunter plods around the ring these days, usually looking tired and winded by the end of an 8-10 fence course. A fit horse is seen as a negative thing in the hunter world, because a fit horse is hard to make tired, and a tired horse is a quiet horse. How did this sport get so far from it’s roots of foxhunting, where a fit, healthy, athletic creature was required and a tired horse was dangerous? Of course there is the saying that fat and chrome can hide a multitude of conformation “sins”, especially to the less educated eye, so I suppose that has a lot to do with it.

I can’t really speak to any of the other horse sports outside of h/j and eventing because I haven’t participated in them enough to understand what their outlook is or where their prejudices lie. It has been a gradual process, and still one that I have to consciously make, to get my eye re-tuned to being ok with seeing a hint of rib on my horse. Or in the case of the truly fit event horse – seeing lots of ribs. For some reason we get programmed to think that a horse in good shape is a horse who has a liberal coating of fat, and yet we see a rider with a little bit of fluff, or even just a lot of muscle, and immediately assume they’re lazy and out of shape. We think truly fat ponies are adorable (“give them cookies!”) and average sized people are repulsive (“put the fork down, fattie”, which I have actually heard from another spectator sitting ringside at a hunter show). Why? What makes us programmed that way?

One of the most athletic eventing duo’s in the world – Shiraz and Colleen Rutledge.
In reality, a horse that is healthy is one that is fit, well cared for, and well conditioned for his job. His bones and tendons are strong, his muscles are toned, he can easily carry himself and his rider around and do his job without becoming excessively labored, and he has the stamina to perform the tasks we set in front of them. An obese, un-fit horse is none of those things… he is more prone to injury and more prone to sourness. On the same token, a rider that is healthy is one that is strong enough to help the horse rather than hinder it, strong enough to keep a proper position, and has the stamina to not “peter out” by end and leave the horse to do it’s job on it’s own. We are both athletes, we need to have the same expectations of each other. Weak and unfit is not okay, whether it’s too thin or too fat. The size of your breeches is just a number, and seeing a couple ribs on a horse doesn’t mean it isn’t in top condition. We both need to be healthy and strong, for each other, and at the end of the day that’s what really matters.

50 thoughts on “Skinny Girls with Fat Horses

  1. Well said!!!!! I did endurance racing for sixteen years. My horses were VERY fit, and sometimes ribs were more visible than I liked, but they could never have performed had they been fat. Now that I am riding dressage, my horses are a little rounder, but it’s a totally different kind of muscle – less fast twitch and more slow twitch. And again, they certainly aren’t fat. Crestiness is just as unhealthy in horses as too much fat over the heart is for humans.

    I just told a fellow blogger the other day that we should eat to be healthy, not to be thin. I would love to lose a few pounds, but to be fabulously thin would require a lifestyle change for me. I would have to spend several hours a day at the gym which would mean no pony time. I’ll keep my size 30 breeches – I am fit, healthy, HAPPY, and I have a little padding for when I get dumped. :0)

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  2. Being rail thin is unhealthy. Being athletic is healthy, and athletic bodies come is all shapes.

    Hunterland seems pretty subject to trends, which honestly since is judged on looks and manner of going, people are going to want horses that look like the horses that get pinned. It’s like Hunterland is in a Mannerist period right now. Or Rubens. But do the top horses look like fat blobs with toothpicks on them? Not really. People get weird ideas about what wins and go to extremes.

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  3. I have a boarder that is a barrel racer…she insists on her horses being FAT!!! I just don’t get it…they are speed horses, and they are athletes!!! How many fat athletes do you see out there? Especially runners!!! Just saying!! I, too, don’t understand why people think fat animals (include dogs and cats into this as well) are healthy? It’s no different than overweight humans…they all will suffer from the same complications. Fatigue, joint pain, shortness of breath, etc.

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  4. This is a lovely post. On the horse front, we were at the second jog at Rolex and my boyfriend turns to me and goes “These horses are all so skinny!” And I had to point out that they’re not skinny, they’re fit and you can see the muscle. It’s not that he really thought they were being starved but he expected to see a lot more weight on all the warmbloods (he’s used to my lightweight tbs).

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    1. Coming from h/j world, the knee jerk reaction is definitely that the horses are skinny. But yes, that’s the proper build for an athlete that has to run long distances… excess weight on them just means more stress on the joints and soft tissues. The Rolex horses are 100% muscle!

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  5. Very interesting post. I subconsciously had been feeding my normal sized thoroughbred in an effort to fatten her up, and I hadn’t really thought about why, other than the other horses I see in hunterland are bulkier than her. Weird that I hadn’t even considered about what was best for her, just assumed that she should be bigger because every other horse was.

    I’m kind of wondering if wanting a bigger horse is a vanity thing, in the same vein of “The bigger the hair, the small the hips”. Since it’s trendy to be thin, if your horse is massive, you look thinner/smaller, which is perhaps why people insist they need mammoth 17h beasts in the first place.

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  6. This is an interesting subject at the moment, because we are trying to ‘fatten’ up my hunter. That said, I don’t really want a fat, out of shape horse. Like other hunters, I know the goal is to be quiet, but I do not want my horse to be obese so that I can place better, or control her easier. That’s not real horsemanship in my mind. Some of the hunters going around at the top levels scare me, because there is no way that can be healthy for the horse. Interesting post all around.

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  7. Love this post! I also think the change in state of mind needs to come from the top too. George Morris has been known to tell riders they need to lose weight. I love Uncle George, but I do not love that way of thinking.

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    1. This is probably the thing that I dislike most about GM. In a way he has a point, but he takes it to the extreme. You don’t have to be a size 0 to ride a horse well. Let’s focus on position and strength and not pick on folks for the size of their thighs. It’s not like they aren’t aware of them!

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  8. YES. I am with you 110% on this! One of the things that I find really attractive about eventing, endurance, and other more objective horse sports is that the horses are treated, fed, and managed like ATHLETES. The double-standard you describe here between skinny riders and fat horses is truly bizarre. Neither party can do their job to the best of their ability when they are not well-muscled and fit. I think though that so many riders in hunterland don’t know or consider WHY their horses are obese, they just know that’s what a hunter “should” look like, and their trainer says so, so they feed to make their horses fat. It’s sad that striving for a certain “look” jeopardizes the health of both horses and riders.

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  9. great topic! i’ve always been a big believer in ‘form follows function’ – and that getting the job done safely and effectively is of primary importance, more so than how you look while doing it. of course, this may be why i wasn’t particularly successful as a hunter haha…

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  10. I couldn’t agree more. I read the post that inspired yours yesterday and I must say that while I thought the original was compelling, your post resonates much more strongly with me.

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  11. Preach it sister! You’re right to point the finger at the hunter ring — it’s one of the things that got me out of the hunters. When I was doing the junior hunters, I had a terrible eating disorder. It’s a common problem with teenage girls, but being in the hunter ring and showing against stick insects is totally what drove me to that. As an adult, I had a big horse with long skinny legs and I was not about to get him “fat as a tick” and compromise his soundness. I work really hard to keep him at a healthy weight (he has the metabolism of a lanky adolescent boy apparently) and when he was “just right” in my book, I was told by a top hunter trainer that I just needed to “get him fat.” Ugh.

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  12. Really good thoughts. Just this week I was wondering about taking my fit-not-fluffy OTTB to the fancy dressage barn. I mean, he’s healthy and in good weight, so I have nothing to be embarrassed about, but still. It’s fluffy me on fit him, which is the opposite of the picture most people are looking for.

    But it’s us. And I can’t change it without major lifestyle changes that I’m just not willing to make.

    So thanks for this. 🙂

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  13. I absolutely agree with everything you’ve said! I went from hunters to jumpers to race horses when I was younger… talk about having to shift your perspective. I’m now riding dressage, and hoping that I can keep weight off my easy-keeping QH once she stops growing and her metabolism slows down. I want both of us to be as healthy as possible, and never mind the fads!

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  14. In the dressage world, fat horses are so common. It’s like dressage people don’t realize that fat isn’t muscle. Sure, a fat horse “looks” rounder, but that doesn’t mean he’s actually through. My TB will never be fat and round, and that’s okay. I can ride him for 2 hours and he’s still raring for more. His body has honestly changed with dressage work, from long and rangy to rounded butt and a bigger crestier neck. But that’s natural muscle.

    Of course, part of muscle building (I like to call dressage “horse weight lifting” because of all the muscle building required on the horse’s part), you have to feed your dressage horse a little bit like a weight lifter. They need a little more protein (ration balancer+heavy alfalfa mix, anyone?), and they need to keep a little more weight on than an event horse (it’s easier to build muscle if you keep a little extra weight on, so you have the energy/calories to keep building/repairing).

    A dressage horse doesn’t have the wear and tear issues an event horse does, though. So I don’t feel bad about keeping my dressage horse slightly heavier than I would if he was eventing. He isn’t out jumping and galloping and using that extra poundage to add extra pounding on his joints/tendons at speed.

    Now, dressage riders are often much heavier than the riders I see in other sports. That doesn’t mean they aren’t effective. Some of the best riders I’ve met in dressage have been heavier women. You can still have a fantastic sense of balance and great core muscles under a little extra fluff. I think it’s easier to get by in dressage without the negative body image issues you see in the HJ world, because most negative things are more often applied to the horse instead of the rider.

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    1. I can see that. Not being a dressage person I really don’t know what goes on “back at the barn” for them, so it’s interesting to hear it from your perspective.

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    2. Have ridden endurance horses for so long, I like to make this comparison: marathon runners are wiry and THIN. They can’t tote around an extra 50 pounds. They are like the endurance horses of the world. Sprinters on the other hand are bulky – they need massive muscles to generate all of that power. They’re similar to our dressage horses.

      While Izzy is finally putting on some weight, he’s still only a 4.5 on the Henneke’s Body Condition scoring system. Besides his alfalfa, he’s getting 5 pounds of rice bran and 3 pounds of beet pulp daily. Speedy on the other hand is a fully mature horse that is no longer growing and who is super fit. He gets a lot less of everything and has a body score around a 6. When my vet looked at him this spring, he admitted that he was heavy, but it was all muscle! If the horse is going to be “round,” it needs to be muscle and not fat.

      And I love that many dressage riders have some meat on their bones. While she has trimmed down considerably this last year, Hilda Gurney was a little heavier than I think she would have liked, but she rides very effectively no matter what her weight. ;0)

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  15. amen,amen, AMEN! FITNESS. Yes. Both horse AND rider. You nailed it with blog post and I think it was worth it waiting to organize your thoughts because you did a great job.

    I also have never understood why hunter horses always needed to be so pudgy. As someone who has dealt with laminitis that can partially be attributed to the horse’s obesity, it really pains me to see people trying to make their horses fat! Not only is it dangerous because it means they aren’t as fit as perhaps they should be, but it’s also very dangerous for their health. Laminitis SUCKS.

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  16. I absolutely agree with everything you’re saying, and it’s one of the things that disappoints me about top professionals whose opinions I otherwise value but who go on about weight way too much (GM, Denny Emerson, Jane Savoie). I know an eventing pro in my area–NOT my coach–who is very open about how she “has a problem with fat people.” It grosses me out.

    The fat acceptance branch of feminism is one that I greatly appreciate and support, and this post fits right in with most of their major tenets.

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  17. Every year when I go to Devon (the spring one with the hunters) i see the HUGE rotund horses in the hunter ring. They look like sides of beef rather than horses. Now i happen to have a huge rotund side of beef for a horse (QH genes darn it) but i dont try for that.

    and i will never be willowy thin for sure but i am strong as an ox. That works for me 🙂

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  18. What I find funniest about all of this is that every.single.rider. in those photos is what I would call normal size. I’m not. I’m decidedly a heavier rider. I feel it sometimes, the judging by other riders … on the other hand, none of my teachers has ever given me any kind of hard time about my weight. It’s about how effective I am as a rider and my balance, aids, etc. And in those respects, I am just fine. I don’t look as elegant in a show coat as tall, slender riders, but my muscles are powerful, my rack is awesome, and I have a great smile at the end of my rounds. 🙂 Plus, what matters in the end, to eventers, is 2/3 objective. And even dressage is quite objective in its way. Smoothness and forward and accuracy is huge in the sandbox, and any rider of any size can achieve that.

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  19. This is an awesome post. My struggle is with my health, and I forever feel bad when I run out of strength to help out my horse. I used to be very active and very fit, and it is killing me to be losing that. Exercise intolerance is the devil. Lately I have felt super accomplished when I simply get all of my pens cleaned in one try. But, I am trying. And Bacon always try for me. And together, we will kick Lyme disease’s ass no matter what I look like.

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  20. Oh god your statement “A fit horse is seen as a negative thing in the hunter world, because a fit horse is hard to make tired, and a tired horse is a quiet horse.” has never rang truer with me!

    I had a high energy horse who LOVED work. LOVED being ridden. If I wanted to take him off the farm and expected him to win at shows, of course it was always riding at LEAST 5 days a week, and always keeping up the same routine at a show: lunge him in the morning, ride him before the classes, ride him during breaks, etc. It was exhausting, but it was how he performed his best. He was a beautiful hunter; sky was the limit in terms of his scope. When I sold him, he got sold to someone else, and they ended up contacting me, because I had these videos of us going around hunter course sane and nicely quiet. I told her our routine, and she was appalled: didn’t ever want to lunge him or ride him that much because that would make him fitter and she’d always take more to have to get her quiet. … what?

    Their response was to show jumpers instead of hunters. Sigh.

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  21. As someone who has struggled with an eating disorder in the past, being at a horseshow can definitely trigger old habits…. It doesn’t help when someone like George Morris is public about his opinion of a rider’s weight. In his book, he literally says one cannot be too thin in riding, unless they are at the point of weakness. Really?!? Good riders are fit, but not necessarily rail thin. Fitness should be the goal.

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  22. The double standards we have for ourselves and our horses is truly mind-blowing, and the things people do to win (both to themselves and to their horses) is really kind of depressing sometimes.

    I think I’ll have a piece of cake and feed my horses some cookies now… that should make us both feel better, right?

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  23. When I started eventing from a previously all hunter back ground I thought all of the horses were so skinny… Totally different world. There is definitely such a think as a horse that’s too fat though.

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  24. Awesome post! I actually wrote a similar (albeit shorter and less eloquent) post of my own after seeing that same article. It’s a topic near and dear to my heart.

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  25. Great post. I’m going to totally ignore the eq-skinny-girl stuff, because I cannot IMAGINE layering that on top of my nerves competing as a junior and really.. it just makes me sad to think about. BUT to the fat hunter thing, I agree. What’s interesting to me (as I become more accustomed to Hunter Land) is that the truly “top” horses typically aren’t fat, Right now a lot of them are compact, ripped and have huge beautiful necks.. but it seems authentic (though I won’t speak to the brain-dead-quiet issues..). What’s sad is that it seems like a lot of people take good horses (of different builds) and just fatten them to emulate the look. Prairie will NEVER be the compact, cresty hunter – and the amount of weight she would have to carry to execute that is absurd. The fact that the trends dominate how people train/feed/whatever their horses, rather than making them their best selves is a part that’s hard for me to swallow. But I also accept that I’ve chosen a subjective sport – and that will shape people’s choices in odd and probably creepy ways.

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  26. I love this times a million! Your captions are just so perfect. I would rather be too full of awesome than have thigh gap any day ;).

    I recently have been thinking a LOT about this. Did you happen to see Shawn Flarida (or whatever his name is) winning reining ride over the Rolex weekend? He expects his little tiny horse to be fit, but he is FAR from it. I don’t mean to point fingers, but it was a huge eye opener for me. I am not big or tiny, but I am also not is as good as shape as I would like to be. If I expect Estella to have the strength to use her body properly, I need to be able to, too. Big, small, or otherwise, we are both athletes!

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  27. Not trying to be a smart ass, but…..
    skinny girl + fat horse = bad -BUT- fat girl + skinny horse = good?
    I know you were talking about strength and fitness for both horse and rider, but you seem to be skinny shaming people and fat shaming horses. Can thin and healthy be one in the same? I’m a size 2 and I’m tired of being called unhealthy. 20 years ago I would be considered healthy, but not now. It’s not PC to call fat/overweight people unhealthy, yet it’s completely ok to bash the thin people. All of the examples of the riders you shown I would consider to have an athletic and thin. Beezie may not be a size 0, but I bet she’s a size 4. I’m not trying to hate on heavier people. I’m just trying to bring the “thin” struggle to light.

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