Credit: Heidi Melocco Photo
For your horse to build up condition for long summer rides, he’ll need increasingly longer periods of time with you in the saddle, notes Julie Goodnight (shown). Weight-bearing conditioning helps him improve his balance and stamina.Q: I’m planning ahead for summer, when I plan to go on daylong trail rides. I haven’t been riding much, because I work full-time. I want to make sure my horse is in shape and conditioned by summer. How should I safely build up his stamina?
A: This is an important question, Roni. I’m so glad you’re planning ahead.
While it’s difficult to ride regularly during the busy workweek, it’s important to avoid riding your horse hard only on the weekends. This can lead to a sore, stiff horse. It’s much better to find a conditioning routine that fits your schedule and gets your horse in shape.
A horse in average condition can usually handle a one- to two-hour trail ride on the weekends without too much stress. But for longer rides, you’re right — you need to plan ahead and start a conditioning routine.
When my horses are in conditioning programs, I like to think of ways I can boost my fitness, too. If you start walking, jogging, dancing, and just plain moving more, you’ll feel much better after the daylong rides, too.
Horses, like people, must train to build strength and endurance. Here’s what I recommend.
Get Him Trail ‘Hardened’
Your horse needs to become “hardened” to the saddle, tack, saddlebags, and your weight.
Like breaking in a new pair of shoes, your horse will need time to get re-acclimated to the rub and feel of the saddle, breastcollar, and cinch. It’s not painful, but there’s some toughening that takes place.
Credit: Heidi Melocco Photo
If you’ll be riding your horse in the mountains, you’ll have to condition him to hills, as well as walking on shifting rocks and through other challenging terrain, says Julie Goodnight.Your horse will also need increasingly longer periods of time with you in the saddle. Weight-bearing conditioning helps him improve his balance and stamina, and helps get him in shape much more quickly than round-pen exercise or longeing.
You’re building up to long trail rides, so you’ll need to ride to get your horse in shape.
If you’ll be riding your horse in the mountains, you’ll also have to condition him to hills, as well as walking on shifting rocks and through other challenging terrain.
Look for sandy areas to condition your horse. Sand builds condition and strength more than solid ground does. However, stay at a walk to avoid tendon injury.
Schedule at least 90 calendar days of conditioning before your first big daylong ride.
It usually takes 30 calendar days of a conditioning program before you’ll see physical changes in your horse. At that time, you can see how he’s looking and feeling, and raise your training goals.
You say you have a busy schedule, so start by riding your horse three days per week for the first 30 days. I suggest two weekdays (say, Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday) and one weekend day.
Alternate aerobic (oxygen-based) and strength conditioning, and work to get your horse “hardened” for the trail with increasingly longer weekend rides.
You’ll know your horse is working hard when you can see his nostrils dilate; stop and flex his neck to the side so that you can see.
When your horse starts to breathe hard, push him just a little, then give him a break. You have to push so that you’ll get past what’s easy for your horse and make sure you’re progressing.
• During the week. Start by riding for one hour on each of the two workweek days. Begin riding at a marching walk on even ground. Alternate walking and trotting. (Long trotting is the best conditioning gait.)
If you and your horse are really out of shape, start by walking for 50 minutes and trotting for 10. You can even break up the trotting time. As you progress, increase your trotting time as much as you feel you safely can.
Be sure to plan a day of rest between rides — both you and your horse will need the recovery time.
• On the weekend. On your third riding day — a weekend day — plan a two-hour ride. Build in some strength conditioning. Ride up and down sloping hills; plan an easy trail ride with friends. If you can, ride on similar trail terrain to what you plan on tackling this summer.
Increase Training Time
After your first 30 days is up, I suggest adding in a fourth riding day if your schedule allows.
On Day 1, ride for an hour and long trot. On Day 2, I’d suggest one hour of hill work (trotting or walking up and down — both directions are beneficial).
On Day 3, go back to long trotting on the flat. On Day 4, gradually increase your time on the trail; ride on varying terrain for two to three, then three to four hours.
By the end of 90 days, I’d expect a horse to be able to trot for almost the entire hour when we’re working on the flat. With that amount of ride time to boost his aerobic, strength, and weight-bearing conditioning, he should be ready for longer rides.
Of course, you know your horse best and know when to ask for more.
You’re doing the right thing by having a workout plan and working toward a riding goal. If you don’t have time to condition your horse as much as is suggested, think about planning some shorter rides.
You and your horse can find a beneficial conditioning plan that will fit your schedules and be enjoyable for all.
For more information on equine behavior, see Julie Goodnight’s new book, Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding available from www.EquineNetworkStore.com. Also, watch the Horse Master television show, airing each Monday and Saturday night on RFD-TV.
Julie Goodnight (www.juliegoodnight.com) lives in central Colorado, home to miles of scenic trails. She trains horses and coaches horse owners to be ready for any event, on the trail or in the performance arena. She shares her easy-to-understand lessons on her weekly RFD-TV show, Horse Master, and through appearances at clinics and horse expos held throughout the United States. She’s also the international spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association (www.cha-ahse.org).
Heidi Melocco (www.wholepicture.org) is a lifelong horsewoman, equine journalist, and photographer based in Mead, Colorado.