Weighing It Up - A Weighty Issue for the Equine World

05 January 2015

New Year is traditionally a time for resolutions and a perennial favourite is a resolve to lose weight. Obesity in horses has been an issue for some time, particularly among show horses. There is a perception that leaner and therefore allegedly fitter horses do not win prizes .But it's not only horses...

New Year is traditionally a time for resolutions and a perennial favourite is a resolve to lose weight. 

Obesity in horses has been an issue for some time, particularly among show horses.  There is a perception that leaner and therefore allegedly fitter horses do not win prizes  .But it's not only horses...

Riding school owners have long noticed clients, often beginners wishing to start riding, are getting bigger and their concern has been not to discriminate against larger riders.  But if you don't have weight carrying horses, what to do?  Do you have to spend £5,000 or more on a Shire so that one person can ride? What about overweight workers who can no longer ride smaller ponies, or muck out without becoming breathless and fatigued?

Weight alone has not been a ground for discrimination, as a disability is, but this may change due to a recent preliminary ruling in a Danish case**.   Mr Karsten Kaltoft was a childminder who had never weighed under 25 stones. His weight prevented him from undertaking all aspects of his job - he could not bend down to tie up children's shoelaces, for instance. He lost his job and argued that it was because of his weight and that amounted to discrimination.  The advocate concluded that very severe obesity could be considered a disability and therefore discrimination was possible. Moreover, it even concluded that self inflicted weight gain was irrelevant - it mattered not how the weight was gained. The decision is not yet binding and has to go before the European Court of Justice, which largely follows such preliminary rulings, if it is to become so.

What would this mean? Basically, riding schools would have to make sure that bigger workers and riders are not at a disadvantage compared to slimmer ones.  Many schools have weight limits as a welfare issue for the horses. But there are tall people who are over the limit, but not overweight in themselves.  Some larger riders will also be experienced and will ride more "lightly" than a beginner within the limit.  Possibly it is more a question of discretion and matching the right horse to the right rider. Certainly there may be business advantages in catering for larger riders by having appropriate horses. The hunting field is not completely populated by size zero riders and they seem to have managed! I do not believe that having bigger horses is yet compulsory.

Research suggests employers have not welcomed the ruling. They feel it may encourage people to abdicate responsibility for their own health and the way it affects their ability in the workplace and elsewhere. The opposite view is that larger workers or riders, should not be subject to humiliation because of their size.  The question has been raised as to whether it would be legal to include mandatory fitness checks in an employment contract.

It is a sensitive issue that needs careful handling. If in doubt, take independent legal advice from a specialist employment lawyer.

**Since this article appeared in Lincolnshire Today, the case has been heard in the European Court who upheld the decision of the advocate that obesity can in certain circumstances be classed as a disability.  If you would like advice on this, our employment team can provide you with advice.

[This blog post first appeared as an article in the January 2015 edition of Lincolnshire Today magazine]


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