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Condition Your Trail Horse

Learn how to condition your horse before a demanding riding adventure with endurance champion Lari Shea.

Your horse might need to be in better physical condition, especially if you plan to embark on demanding trail-riding adventures. You'll need to slowly work up to the demands an all-day ride over varied terrain will place on your equine friend.

"People who haven't done a lot of long trail riding are usually amazed at what horses are capable of doing," says Lari Shea, an accomplished endurance rider who owns and manages Ricochet Ridge Ranch, a riding-vacation destination in Fort Bragg, California.

"With conditioning, nearly any sound horse can go on a 15- to 20-mile adventurous trail ride in a day, and can eventually go on a week-long trail ride, where you're riding 10 to 25 miles a day," she notes. "This is entirely within the realm of possibility of most any horse."

However, you'll need to properly prepare your horse for such rigorous riding. "Preparation will ensure both you and your horse are fit and experienced for what you're doing, so you can enjoy your rides to the max," says Shea.

Basic Requirements
Before you start a conditioning program, make sure your horse meets these four basic requirements.

  • You enjoy riding him. Make sure this is a horse you genuinely like and want to spend hours riding.
  • He's old enough. Your horse shouldn't be younger than 5 years old if you plan to do intensive trail adventures. You can certainly do some trail riding on a 3- or 4-year-old, but you'll need to limit how much you ask him to do.
  • He's healthy. Have your veterinarian examine your horse over before you start a conditioning program. You want to rule out any low-grade lameness (some of which can't be detected at a walk), cardiac abnormality, and/or vision problems. Optimal health in these areas is crucial for long rides.
  • He's trained. Make sure your horse is safe to ride and well-schooled in his basic training. You want to have a responsive horse you can fully control before hitting the trails. If you need to, engage the help of a reputable trainer or certified riding instructor in your area. (To find a certified riding instructor, contact the Certified Horsemanship Association, 859/259-3399; www.cha-ahse.org.)
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Start Slow
In the wild, horses actually condition themselves to some degree, averaging 20 miles per day in their hunt for forage. Most of this is done at a walk, but it gives them a "bottom," which is the foundation for conditioning.

If your horse stands around in a stall or small corral most of the time, he likely won't have any "bottom" when you start conditioning. It's best to provide 24/7 turnout in a large area with varied terrain and preferably with other horses to inspire activity.

Realize that you must invest significant time to get your horse in peak shape.

"The first year of conditioning, your horse has more heart than legs," cautions Shea. "Your job is not to ask him how fast and for how long he feels like galloping, but to gradually toughen up his locomotive system to handle the stress that his conditioned metabolic system can put on him."

A proper conditioning program involves carefully monitored stress of your horse's entire body.

"The key is to combine good stress with a training program to condition your horse to meet the demands of the trail, and make it a rewarding experience for both your horse and you," says Shea. "You want to stress the body, but not to the point of distress."

To keep stress at a positive level, start your horse's conditioning program with long, slow miles. Endurance riders refer to this as long, slow, distance work, or LSD.

Over time, you can increase the distance, speed, and difficulty of terrain. Never increase more than one element at a time. You can increase the distance, speed, or difficulty of terrain on one or a series of rides, but not two or more at once.

A Note on Gaits
At the walk, note that there's no moment of suspension, where all four feet are off the ground, so it's the easiest gait on your horse's body.

And you'd be surprised how much condition your horse can gain by walking, especially if you're riding up steep hills or in deep sand.

Walk your horse as much as you can, and encourage a long-strided walk. Shea notes that "a good horse looks like a panther at the walk, loosely slinking along."

However, pay attention to his walking speed. "Horses vary greatly in speed at the walk, from two to five miles per hour, typically," says Shea. "Some horses can ‘power walk' at five to six miles per hour.

"It's hard to improve on the walk, but it helps to ride with other horses that have a great walking gait," Shea continues. "Let him do a fast maximum walk homeward bound, so long as he's not breaking into a trot, which can lead to barn-sour behavior."

Ride with a "following hand," meaning your rein hand (or hands) allow your horse to completely extend his head forward, and the weight of your own arm brings your hand back with every stride. Otherwise, he can't walk out to his full ability.

The trot is an efficient gait, because your horse has two diagonal legs on the ground at all times. This means he always has some support on both sides, as well as on the front and hind end.

As you trot, consider posting. "It's easier on your horse if you post the trot rather than sit it," says Shea. "Your weight is distributed between your stirrups, as well as your seat, calves, knees, and thighs.

"Switch your posting diagonal every mile or so, so you're not always on the same muscles in your horse's back."

The Conditioning Routine
Before you begin: First, groom your horse. Grooming stimulates circulation and allows you to check over your horse's entire body to see whether anything is abnormal. Then outfit your horse in good-fitting tack, mount up, and head for a trail with good footing.

  • Walk your horse. Walk your horse the first mile out to warm him up. Start with walking from 20 minutes to an hour.
  • Don't push. "Err on the side of caution," says Shea. "Don't ask for too much in the beginning. A horse will almost always want to do more than is good for him when he's not fit, so the rider has to be the brains of the team."
  • Increase riding time. Gradually increase the amount of riding time each day. On good footing, introduce easy trotting. For the first few days, trot for just two or three minutes, then drop back to a walk.
  • Alternate gaits. As your horse gains fitness, alternate between walking and trotting for longer periods. Then you can add loping/cantering. On flat ground, alternate between the walk, trot, and lope/canter, as each gait uses different muscle groups.
  • Watch for danger signs. Notice your horse's attitude; some horses will tell you when they've had enough. "Don't argue with Mother Nature," notes Shea. "Check for structural soundness, and take any indication of swelling or heat as a sign that you're pushing too hard. Don't wait for actual lameness to occur."
  • Walk the last mile. Walk your horse the last mile at the end of each session to help him cool down. Consider dismounting and walking your horse from the ground. Shea will often dismount, loosen her cinch, and walk that last quarter-mile, as she finds her horse will relax more.
  • Groom him again. After your ride, groom your horse again. This helps break up the sweat, which can scald the skin underneath. You can also check for nicks, cuts, inflammation, and anything that doesn't feel right.

Vary the Terrain
If you have varied terrain and hills, work them into your conditioning program. Use common sense, especially in the beginning when your horse isn't fit.

"Terrain is extremely important," says Shea. "They say a horse only has so many downhill miles in him, so slower is better than faster when riding downhill.

"Save the lope or canter for the flat, and maybe for uphill. You can more easily control the stress you're putting on your horse if you walk or trot uphill, although he may want to canter, because he may feel competitive.

"Also, it might be easier for him in terms of cardiac effort to lope or canter than to trot. It's often easier on his heart to break into a slow canter than maintain a fast extended trot."

Don't be alarmed if your horse sweats a good deal. That's just his body naturally working to cool itself. However, if he's overheated or shows a reluctance to go, these are signs something could be wrong or that you're asking for too much too soon.

Learn to monitor your horse's cardiac recovery rate. This is the time it takes his heart rate to return to the level that shows he's capable performing more work.

First, check your horse's fitness level by checking his pulse immediately after a brisk hour-long ride. Note the initial rate, and recheck every few minutes until it's down to 60 beats per minute (BPM). A fit horse will drop to this rate within 5 to 15 minutes.

"If it takes 30 minutes or more for your horse to recover to 60 BPM, you're working him way too hard for his degree of condition," says Shea. "Back off, find the level that he can handle, and gradually increase the duration and intensity of his workouts from there.

A normal resting mature riding horse has a pulse rate of 32 to 40 beats per minute (BPM). Photo Courtesy of Lari Shea

How to Take a Pulse
To monitor your horse's conditioning, invest in a stethoscope. Then follow these directions to take his pulse. A normal resting mature riding horse has a pulse rate of 32 to 40 beats per minute (BPM).

Step 1. Get into position. Stand at your horse's left side. Hold the head of the stethoscope in one hand, and lay the side of your hand on your horse's shoulder.

Step 2. Find his heart. Keeping your stethoscope hand on your horse, move the scope down from his shoulder into his "armpit." Place the stethoscope's head against his chest wall in the girth area, just behind and about six inches above his point of elbow, then scootch it forward a bit.

Step 3. Wait. Wait for a few moments until the horse becomes accustomed to your invasion; his heart rate will stabilize.

Step 4. Tap your toe. Each "lub-dub" sound is counted as one heartbeat. Gently tap your toe in rhythm with the heartbeat to help keep up with the rate. If you can't hear your horse's heart, press the stethoscope a bit harder against his side, and move it farther forward. Experiment with position until you hear the beat.

Step 6. Count the beats. For the most accurate count, listen for a full minute. After you gain proficiency, you can count for 30 seconds and multiply by two, or for 15 seconds, and multiply by four to get the rate per minute.

Avoid Dehydration
Dehydration is one of the greatest dangers during conditioning. To check your horse's dehydration level, perform a skin response indication, known as the "pinch test."

To do so, pinch a section of skin in the middle of your horse's neck, then gently pull it out, and release.

Normally hydrated skin will spring back into place in one second or less. As a horse becomes more dehydrated, the skin is less elastic and may take two or even three seconds to pop back.

Help avoid dehydration by allowing your horse to eat and drink along the trail, especially when it's hot and you're riding all day.

Carry a plastic scoop or sponge tied to your saddle, and use this to wet down your horse any time you encounter water. Focus on his neck, chest, belly, and inside of his hind legs where you see large blood vessels. This helps cool the blood circulating through his body.

"Wetting your horse down as often as possible saves him from trying to cool himself by sweating," explains Shea.

Be aware your horse can't cool down as easily when it's both hot and humid.

During the cool-down period, allow your horse to drink as much as he wants to, even if he's still warm.


A champion endurance rider, Lari Shea has completed over more than 6,500 miles in 50- and 100-mile endurance races, placing in the top 10 in 95 of 106 races completed since 1988, and winning first place in 34 of those races. In 1989, she won the Western States 100-Miles-One-Day Trail Ride, known as the Tevis Cup. Her horses have won 31 Best Conditioned Horse awards.

The owner of Ricochet Ridge Ranch (www.horse-vacation.com) on the coast in California's Mendocino County, Shea produces daily trail rides, custom horse holidays, and the Redwood Coast Riding Vacations.


Cynthia McFarland is a full-time freelance writer who writes regularly for a number of national horse publications and is the author of nine books. Horse crazy since childhood, she owns a small farm in north central Florida. A horse owner for more than 35 years, she and her Paint Horse gelding, Ben, enjoy trail riding adventures on a regular basis.

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