Conditioning Your Horse For The Trail

Written By: Raye Lochert
Published: May 31, 2014

Trail riding is the most popular equine activity among horse owners. On any given day the parking lots of your local park will have a few trailers awaiting their passenger’s return. This is especially so on weekends. An unfortunate side effect of a nice weekend is the increase of calls to the local vet for colic, tying up, and a variety of lameness issues all caused by a horse being out of shape.

So how do you get your horse in shape for a 3-4 hour ride or longer? Just like you wouldn’t want to go from watching TV all winter long to doing a 15 mile hike, neither does your horse. The amount of time you will need to spend conditioning your horse depends on how your horse is kept.

Is your horse kept in a stall with a small turnout or is he kept in a large pasture with some friends?  If he is kept in a stall or small paddock you may need to take more time in the conditioning process. If he is kept in a pasture of about 3 acres with a couple of friends he is in better shape than you think. In either case, the conditioning program I am going to outline will work. The thing most people will find inconvenient is the time factor.

It takes time to condition your horse – daily time as well as long term time.  Most of us have time commitments other than our horses. I know I do. In addition to my horses I have my client’s horses, ranch maintenance, business obligations and family commitments. Juggling all these is difficult and can be stressful. All I can say is try your best to prioritize and don’t be too hard on yourself if you miss a day.

To start the conditioning process I usually go to the round pen. If you don’t have a round pen then use a lunge line. I start with three days of 20 minute workouts. If a horse has been in a stall I turn them loose in the pen for 5 minutes and let them move around on their own. This allows them to loosen up. If they are coming from a pasture I start the workout immediately. I ask for an easy trot controlling their speed with changes of direction. I trot them for at least 10 minutes. If they are very out of shape I will walk them from here, if not I will keep them trotting. It is important that you keep an eye out for stress such as excessive sweating or heavy breathing. Don’t over work your horse.

After the third day I will work them from the saddle. I usually start out with a 5 minute warm-up walk. This allows their muscles and back to warm up. From here I will work at the jog and trot for 10 minutes and then back to the walk. If I feel that they are doing well I will proceed to the jog/trot again for another 10 minutes. The entire workout for days 4-6 is 30 minutes.

Now, conditioning your horse physically for trail riding is only about a third of the game.  Another component is conditioning your horse mentally. If your horse is young or inexperienced this is going to be very important for their safety as well as yours.  Here at Critter Creek Ranch we have an obstacle course in one of our pastures. In this pasture there are several man-made obstacles including a teeter totter, a hole in the ground, a trench, a bridge, tarp covered mattresses, and a trash pit (an area covered with crushed two liter plastic bottles). We also have some that are simulations of natural obstacles such as a pile of dirt, logs placed in multiple configurations, and a pyramid of dirt and railroad ties.

In the second week I will lunge my horse through the obstacles for 30 minutes taking time to train him through anything that might give him some anxiety.  I will have him go over and through these obstacles at a walk and then a trot allowing speed to increase his emotions.  After this lunging exercise I will ride him again using the 5 minute walk first then progressing to 20 minutes of alternating trot and canter work then cooling out with a 5 minute walk or longer if needed.  This is done for 5 or 6 days of the week.

In the third week I’ll use the same routine as the second week but rather than lungeing him through the obstacles I will ride him. On alternating days I will take him for an easy 1 hour trail ride. On the trail rides I make sure he walks up the hills building his hindquarters and occasionally trot him on the flats. By now his mind is starting to be accustomed to the new things he may not have seen recently. I take any opportunity to go over logs, through water and work on spooky objects.

During the fourth week I try to ride on trail three days a week for about 90 minutes again focusing on his training and cardiovascular system. I look for more challenging terrain while being careful not to over do it. If you think your horse is stressed, then allow him to rest and/or get off and hand walk him. On long steep downhills I get off and walk my horse regardless of his condition. This is just good horsemanship and shows concern for his joints and back.

In the fifth week we increase our rides to 2 hours 3 days a week while working at home for 30 minutes at a higher intensity twice a week. At home I will spend more time on the extended trot really getting him to lengthen his stride. This helps build his cardiovascular system as well as stretching his entire body.

During the last week of conditioning I will ride him on trail for 3 hours twice during the week with at least 3 days in between while continuing our intense home workouts 3 days a week. Once this week is over I feel comfortable to ride him on rides of up to 5 hours giving him lots of opportunities to rest. Rest stops may be as frequent as 5 minutes every mile while climbing steep hills. On long rides I take a lunch stop of at least 30 minutes. I also plan on tackling the hard terrain early in the ride rather than at the end of the ride. This means climbing the steep hills first and coming back to the trailer on the downhill.

Not everyone can make the time commitment that is needed to condition your horse for a ride so long. I use parks that are close by and do laps if the trails are short. We are fortunate enough to have the beach close by and can get a great work out in short period of time.

The plan I have outlined here is only a guide. You need to make adjustments for different horses and lifestyles. Once you have your horse in shape you will find they keep their shape better than humans so it doesn’t take as much to keep them fit.

On a side note:  While proper workouts are key to getting your horse in shape, so is his diet.  If you feed a well balanced diet you don’t need to worry about supplements and electrolytes. I have used Purina products for years with great results. At our ranch we feed strictly high quality grass hay and primarily Strategy GX to balance the diet.  When we get heavy horses in people think we feed less especially less processed feed. Not so. The processed feed is balanced so that your horse receives the right amount of nutrients per serving. Feeding less would cheat him of this. If we need to drop weight on a horse we cut back on hay or switch to a weight control formula feed. These are designed to provide the right amount of nutrients but with fewer calories. Look at your feed company’s website to get the information you need to make the right decisions about the quantities you need to feed.

A great side effect of all this work is that you will be in better riding shape as well. Have fun and I’ll see you on the trail!

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