Always on the lookout for new heart-wrenching tales of animal suffering, the press has seized upon the news that a great many British horse-riders are too fat for their mounts. In the quaint words of the Sunday Telegraph, this puts horses ‘at risk of several welfare conditions’, including back pain, lameness and general bad temper. Research published in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour had found that a third of all recreational riders weighed more than what their horses could comfortably carry. Ideally a horse should be about ten times heavier than its rider, experts said, but the growing obesity of the population meant that this often wasn’t so.
I can be as obese as I like because I don’t ride. I’ve been frightened of horses ever since, as a young child, I was put on a horse by my elder sisters who then struck it hard on its bottom to make it gallop. But I live in a very horsey county, Northamptonshire, where it is rare to go out anywhere in the car without passing young riders primly exercising their mounts. They annoy me because they look so pleased with themselves. They don’t pay any road tax, but this doesn’t stop them feeling that the road somehow belongs to them and that motorists are only there on sufferance. However, I have never seen any horse struggling under its human burden. It’s not that Northamptonshire lacks overweight people, quite the contrary; but its riders seem on the whole to be a trim and healthy lot.
I am suspicious of this scare because it is just the kind of thing that you would expect our health enforcers to come up with. If we don’t like being told how to live our lives and are unmoved by statistics showing how much money our bad habits are costing the National Health Service, they try to shame us into changing our ways by telling us that we are also harming others. Thus, smokers are constantly told that they are giving cancer to non-smokers, and heavy drinkers that they are blighting the lives of everyone else. There may well be truth in those particular claims. But to argue than human obesity poses a serious threat to the welfare of horses seems to me to be a step too far. Obviously, a horse would prefer a light burden to a heavy one, but its stamina should not be underrated.
In 1997, just a couple of days after that death in Paris of Princess Diana at the end of August, I interviewed Luciano Pavarotti at his holiday home overlooking the sea in Pesaro on the Adriatic coast. I also met his horse, Henry, on whom he would take daily rides in the hills during his annual month-long summer break. For the other 11 months of the year, Henry resided at Pavarotti’s lavish equestrian centre near Modena with nothing much to do. But he made up for it all in August when, in the hottest month, he had to carry this colossal burden on daily walks through the Pesaro woods. Pavarotti didn’t like to answer questions about his weight, but it was generally estimated at the time that he weighed around 24 stone. So, if it is the case that a horse should weigh at least ten times as much as its rider, Henry should have weighed 240 stone, or 3,360lbs. As it is, it’s hard to find a horse weighing much more than 2,000 lbs, and a gigantic Australian horse proclaimed a few years ago as the largest and heaviest in the world weighed 2,866lbs.
In any case, Henry wasn’t in that kind of monster league. He was a handsome Irish Sport Horse who, at just over 16 hands, was large, but not freakishly so. I don’t know what he weighed, but he was certainly no giant, no muscle-bound Charles Atlas of the horse world. We can be certain, however, that he weighed far less than ten times Pavarotti. And he seems to have been a very happy horse. The great tenor, who was passionate about horses (‘great, beautiful animals, noble and majestic’, he called them in his autobiography), chose Henry out of 15 horses paraded before him in a paddock in Buckinghamshire because of his obvious good nature and imperturbability. And when I met him, Henry seemed very friendly and trusting and wore a most contented expression. Pavarotti, I was told, talked to Henry all the time and sometimes even sang to him out riding. Maybe that helped him forget about the weight he was carrying.