Ranchers think big — horses and people

Riding ranches are using more draft horses like Joker (ridden by Christian Styles) as US obesity rises.
P. Solomon Banda/Associated Press
Riding ranches are using more draft horses like Joker (ridden by Christian Styles) as US obesity rises.

BOISE, Idaho — Wranglers in the West who have for decades cashed in on the allure of getting on a horse and setting out on an open trail say they have had to add bigger horses to their stables to help carry larger tourists.

The ranches say they are using draft horses, the diesels of the horse world, in ever greater numbers to make sure they don’t lose out on income from potential customers of any size.

‘‘Even though a person might be overweight, or, you know, heavier than the average American, it’s kind of nice we can provide a situation where they can ride with their family,’’ said wrangler T. James ‘‘Doc’’ Humphrey.


Humphrey’s 10-gallon hat, goatee, black vest, and spurs are tourist favorites at Sombrero Ranches, east of Rocky Mountain National Park, where they have 20 draft horses, including Belgians and Percherons, and 25 draft horse mixes.

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Ranch operators say they began adding the bigger horses in the 1990s, but the pace has picked up. Over the last 20 years, obesity has increased to more than a third of adults and about 17 percent of children age 2 to 19, according to federal statistics.

‘‘I think it’s wonderful that these people are looking to accommodate people of larger body size,’’ said Peggy Howell, spokeswoman for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. ‘‘People of larger body size enjoy athletic activities just as much as people with what’s considered normal body size.’’

Draft horses fell out of favor as machines began pulling farm equipment in the mid-20th century, said Elaine Beardsley of the Percheron Horse Association of America. Registered Percherons reached a low of 86 in 1953, and are now at 1,000.

The bigger horses have allowed outfitters to eliminate weight limits.


‘‘I felt bad about telling people they’re too big to ride,’’ said Russ Little of Dry Ridge Outfitters, which offers rides at Harriman State Park in Idaho. Eight of the 45 horses he has are part Percheron; a 225-pound weight limit these days would cost him $6,000 a season.

At Sombrero in Estes Park, Colo., general manager Bryan ‘‘Kansas’’ Seck said they began making the transition to draft horses years ago because of rugged mountainous terrain. But larger horses also allowed them to eliminate the weight limit. The heaviest rider Seck ever put on a horse was 399 pounds.

‘‘As long as you can get on a horse, you can ride,’’ he said.

Laura Ewing of Baltimore noted that horses back East are small. She was concerned when she arrived at Sombrero to ride with her 6-year-old son, Alex.

‘‘Because I’m a little heavier I rode a larger horse,’’ Ewing said. ‘‘I was a little bit concerned at first, but when I saw the size of the horses that they have here, they’re pretty hardy horses. . . . They’re not ponies.’’


Larger horses are more expensive, however. They eat more, require larger doses of medications, and at about $150 cost twice as much to put horseshoes on.