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 over the rugged terrain.
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 who come out to get closer to the West of yesteryear.
“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 a tourist favorite at Sombrero Ranches, east of Rocky Mountain National Park, where they have 20 draft horses, including Belgians and Percherons, and 25 draft horses mixes.
Ranch operators say they began adding the bigger horses in the 1990s, but the pace has picked up in recent years. 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, adding that more businesses should become “size savvy.”
“People of larger body size enjoy athletic activities just as much as people with what’s considered normal body size,” she said.
Draft horses fell out of favor as machines took over pulling farm equipment in the mid-20th century, said Elaine Beardsley of the Ohio-based 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 Percherons. He said a 225-pound weight limit these days would cost him $6,000 a season.
At Chico Hot Springs in Montana, Heidi Saile of Rockin’ HK Outfitters said she and her husband, Kipp, removed the stable’s 225-pound limit last year when they took over from different outfitters. She said the limit would cost her $4,000 in lost revenue.
“Little horses just aren’t sturdy enough to hold up in a dude operation in the Rocky Mountains,” Kipp Saile said, noting that about 15 of their 60 horses were Percheron mixes, the largest weighing 1,800 pounds.
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 and strength to carry a rider for longer periods of time.
But the larger horses also allowed them to eliminate their 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 was somewhat concerned when she arrived at Sombrero to go on a 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.”
Another rider, who weighed 240 pounds, rode 1,800-pound Bam Bam, a brown Belgian draft horse with furry legs and a size 5 horseshoes — the smaller, traditional quarter-horses of about 1,000 pounds wear a 0 to 1. They rode up the trails dotted with elk, deer and chipmunks and breathtaking views of Longs Peak.
Like Little, the Sailes prefer Percheron draft horses because of their easygoing dispositions. However, larger horses are more expensive. They eat more, require larger doses of medications and at about $150 cost twice as much to put horseshoes on.
But unlike regular-sized riding horses that have seven months off after the tourist season, Little said, Percheron mixes can work most of the year, carrying elk and moose hunters into the backcountry in the fall and pulling wagons with tourists in the winter.
“You just feel better about having a big person on a big horse,” Little said.