Super sized saddle up

In a sign of America's growing girth, dude ranches and hunting camps in the Northern Rockies are adding heavyweight horses and super-large saddles to seat swelling numbers of outsized clients.

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that a third of U.S. adults and 17 percent of children are obese, Western wranglers and outfitters say they are doing all they can to accommodate the widening of waistlines and other anatomical areas.

"To put it bluntly, we call them the big-butt saddles," said Lee Hart, owner of Broken Hart Ranch in Montana. The business near Yellowstone National Park seasonally provides trail rides and guided hunting by horseback to nearly 2,000 people from across the country.

Hart and others said the 18-plus-inch saddles they now stock were all but nonexistent 30 years ago, when just 15 percent of American adults were considered obese. At that time, a 16.5-inch saddle would have been considered ample enough for a stout rider.

Guest ranches and outfitting operations also are bulking up on riding stock crossbred with draft horses - weighing in at roughly 1,500 pounds - to fit their super-sized customers.

"We have to seat 400 fat people every summer," said B.J. Hill, co-owner of Swift Creek Outfitters and Teton Horseback Adventures in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

The operation has established a weight limit of 275 pounds for trail rides and pack trips in an effort to prevent injury to both horse and rider.

The extra-large animals and saddles come as other U.S. industries, including airlines and healthcare companies, have in recent years adopted policies or retrofitted equipment to address the rising ranks of plus-size people.

For example, Boston emergency services in 2011 unveiled an ambulance for the obese. The vehicle is equipped with a stretcher that can hold 850 pounds and a hydraulic lift with a 1,000-pound capacity to ensure the safety of the sick and stem back injuries among crews hoisting hefty patients.

In the past five years, saddles offered for sale at Idaho's Cowboy Supply near Boise have expanded along with customers. Owner Molly Menchaca reported a run on saddles measuring from 17 inches to 17.5 inches.

"Since people have gotten bigger and fatter, they need more room," she said.

A decade ago, Bagley's Teton Mountain Ranch in eastern Idaho purchased an 18.5-inch saddle on the off chance that a larger-than-average customer would seek a pack trip or trail ride.

Today, that saddle and a pair of horses that can handle oversized loads are in regular use, said co-owner Alexis Bagley.

"We try to have something available for all," she said.

What worries Hart of Broken Hart Ranch are clients who have stretched beyond the comfort-waist zone.

"I've got a 22-inch saddle, which is basically unheard of, and I've got people who will overflow all sides of it," he said.

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