Tactful Advice

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In these days of lawsuits for discrimination, etc., I wonder how I should deal with the issue of overweight riders? I run a lesson program that does not have large horses for larger riders. I wonder how to approach the situation when encountering prospective new students with this subject. I would like to be up front with individuals in a kind way. Do I tell them I do not have a horse large enough for them? I hold no ill feelings toward overweight people, I have to take the use of my horses into account.

—Name Withheld

From the legal perspective, there are two separate aspects of this question. The first is whether riding stables are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and whether weight is a disability under the ADA, and the second aspect is at what point weight is an issue for horses. The ADA is a federal law that prohibits the exclusion of disabled people from everyday activities and all businesses are required to comply. Specific ADA questions can be answered by the U.S. Department of Justice at 1-800-514-0301.

The ADA recognizes that it is not possible for many businesses to become fully accessible. As a business, you must remove barriers for handicapped people that are easily accomplished without much difficulty or expense. I know that I’ve never seen a stable (even therapeutic riding stables) that was fully ADA compliant. For a stable to have a loft that wheelchair-bound users could get to would only be solved with an extraordinary amount of expense and difficulty, so a stable would not be required to do this. Not allowing someone in a wheelchair to park next to the barn so they can avoid the mud would be something that can be done easily and a stable would be expected to do so under the ADA.

Obesity, at some point, would be a disability under the ADA. Someone weighing five hundred pounds is obviously going to be limited in their ability to get places that a thinner person is easily able to navigate. But, a person who is five feet tall and weighs two hundred pounds may not be considered by the ADA to have a disability as a result of their weight. I think a call to the ADA hotline (number provided above) would be your best way of determining whether the individual fell under the ADA.

Moving on, if this person falls under the ADA, you would be non-compliant for refusing service to an overweight person. That leaves you to either justify why you are not compliant or figure out ways in which to become compliant. At that point you need either to be able to show how weight affects horses or what steps you are taking to become compliant.

In answering this question, I checked to see whether anyone had done a scientific study on how weight affects horses, and was unable to find one. There are various guidelines, but these appear to be based upon the opinion of the person, which is based upon their observation of the horse. I’d have to answer the question about weight by saying I just know—I know when a horse feels that he is overloaded. But could I explain it in a courtroom? I doubt it.

I know when I watch steer wrestling, the riders usually weigh about 250 pounds or so, and the horses seem fine with them. I’ve known other horses that wouldn’t want my 190 pounds getting up on them. Unfortunately, none of this would help you in a courtroom since it is intuitive, not logical, and judges and juries like to think that they are using logic. I think if you have a 500-pound rider asking to ride a Shetland Pony, you could probably defend yourself and win. A 250-pound rider on a 1,200-pound horse would cause me to advise my client to settle the case, as I doubt that I’d win.

A reasonable approach is in order here. I’d want to limit how much work a heavy rider does on a horse. I’d also want to make sure that I ­wasn’t applying my standards (God, that person is huge; I wouldn’t want them on my back, I’d better protect my horse) and not the horse’s standards (Grunt, well, a bit heavy, we won’t do too much running, but I’ll survive).

Another approach might include working on things like grooming and handling. Another alternative might be teaching them driving.

One issue I’d like to also raise is the health of the rider. The less healthy the rider, the more I’d want to be thinking about getting a note from their doctor that they are able to safely ride. With obesity and riding you have issues involving both cardio-vascular health and the risks of falling. This is definitely the customer that you want to make sure you have a release for.

Overall, this is the type of customer that I’d try to find a way of working with. Personally I’d find a weight problem easier to work with than someone who is not overweight, but an arrogant pain.