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Conditioning Your Horse for Trail Riding

By Darlene M. Cox

 

Trail riding is fast becoming a great American past-time and recreation. Many people who have always possessed a love for horses and nature have combined these two wonderful elements into beautiful camping and trail riding weekends or vacations. Trail riding is an event that allows whole family participation.

With time being a limited commodity in our lives, we may find ourselves loading up the family and horses and heading out for a lovely weekend or more of riding. Anyone who has been in the saddle for hours can attest that it can definitely take its toll on your body when you aren’t used to straddling a horse for hours on end. Keep in mind that as hard as it most assuredly may be on you to adjust yourself to these occasional jaunts in the saddle, it is even harder on your horse if he has not been properly conditioned for trail riding.

You cannot take a ‘pasture potato’ horse that is used to leisurely grazing and lazing away his days at home communing with his pasture mates and insert him into a high performance position requiring hours under saddle, whereby he has to navigate over rocks and deadfall trees while climbing or descending steep hillsides and expect him to be at “peak performance” or condition for such riding. Doing so will put your horse in harm’s way of injury or certain medical conditions as colic or tying up. Equivocate the stress your unconditioned horse would endure on such a ride as described above as what you would suffer if you entered a mini-marathon unprepared and unconditioned. You wouldn’t start your season off with the mini, rather you would begin walking/running in smaller, incremental distances.

When conditioning my horse for an upcoming ride I will begin riding them three days a week for at least a half hour each day. This time will be increased to one hour each day the next week an hour and a half the third week and leveling off at to two hours the fourth week. A general rule of thumb that I have used is that by the end of the conditioning period, a daily ride of about half the distance of an average day on the trail is sufficient. In other words, if my average ride on the trail is four hours in the saddle, the conditioning period should be composed of two hours. Each session is begun lightly on the lounge line and then progressing under saddle at a walk, then with sustained trotting first at :05, :10, :15, and :20 intervals. After each interval of trotting I will slow to a walk to allow my horse’s heartbeat to slowly come down to normal. To adequately work all muscle groups, I will alternate the lead the horse is on. I rarely canter my horse during these conditioning workouts, as I believe his cardiovascular workout is best heightened at the trot. Each session is ended at a walk with my horse’s heart rate close to a resting normal.

I also utilize conditioning over ground obstacles that will require my horse to pick up his feet to step over them. I will place these obstacles at various places, to better simulate what my horse may encounter on the trail. I have found the implementation of this particular type of conditioning very helpful as it further builds my horse’s endurance ability. You will most likely notice that your horse is fatigued when he begins to stumble when stepping over trail obstacles. A fatigued horse is one more likely to suffer a fall or injury when stepping over this obstacle. It is easy to understand why this is true, again by using ourselves as an example. How would we perform clearing obstacles after we have worked beyond our conditioning level? And once we stumble, aren’t we too tired to avoid the spill that is destined to happen?

Equally important to the amount of exercise conditioning that your horse receives prior to a trail riding trip is an appropriate feeding ration. Horses that are overweight going into their conditioning period should have their grain intake reduced and, possibly, their conditioning regimen increased. For horses that may be thin going into the conditioning period, the grain amount should be increased, with the conditioning time remaining consistent. Exercise coupled with increased grain will bring a thin horse into an acceptable condition.

Incorporating the above conditioning sequence or modifying it to meet the needs for the type of riding you do with your horse will ensure that you both will be better able to tackle the obstacles encountered along the miles of trail you will traverse and to avoid any unnecessary injuries that may be sustained if you don’t prepare for them. Ride safe, ride sound.