by Marilyn Munzert
Trying to do too much too fast will put you behind your goal, not ahead of it.
Taking a shortcut to complete a task or get somewhere in a hurry, only to have it take longer is an example of why cutting corners rarely pays off. This is important to understand when conditioning a horse for the demands of trail riding.
Using long, slow distance work is a safe and proven way to build your trail horse’s fitness and stamina without overworking unfit muscles or straining tendons and ligaments. Over the long term, you’ll be rewarded with a sound horse that has a solid fitness base.
Distance riders of all types, from backcountry packers to competitive trail riders, emphasize time in the saddle and distance on the trail over speed work when developing a horse’s conditioning base. Consider how your own body would respond if you had been inactive for a period of time and then suddenly wanted to get in shape to run a 5K in six weeks. What do you think would be a more beneficial starting point—going out for a short run or a long walk? Sure, you may elevate your heart rate more by running, and you will certainly feel like you did more, but you will also be stiff and sore for days afterward. On the other hand, a long brisk walk will gradually awaken your muscles. Your tendons and ligaments will be gently stretched without strain, and your joints won’t feel jarred. By easing into a training program that slowly builds your stamina, you will meet your goal without needing an extensive lay-up as a result of overexerting yourself too early. This same approach can be applied to legging up your trail horse, with the same results.
When starting any training program for your horse, you need to first identify your goal and assess his current fitness level. Developing your training program will require some simple math. There are two parts to the formula part one is to determine how many miles per week your horse needs to log to meet your goal of participating in the trail ride.
If the trail ride is 15 miles long, then you should be riding a total of 15 miles a week to get him ready.
The second part of the formula determines how many weeks it will take you to reach your goal based on how much time you have to devote to your conditioning program: Divide the distance of the ride by the number of days you’re able to ride. If you can ride three days a week, then it will take you five weeks to ready your horse for the 15-mile trail ride. If you can ride five days a week, then it will take you three weeks.
A simple time and mileage equation will help you determine how many miles you are logging. Horses walk at 3 to 4 mph; a slow trot is 4 to 6 mph; and a fast trot is over 8 mph. Cantering is 10 mph and faster. A gaited horse’s running walk can go up to 15 mph. If you ride a gaited horse, you will need to pick a known distance and record your time at various speeds until you develop an intuitive feel for how fast your horse is going. For example, if it’s a half mile to the end of your road and back, record how long it takes you to ride that distance at a slow, moderate an fast pace to determine your horse’s speed at each gait.
During week one of conditioning, take one to two hour rides at an easy walking pace. Week two, add some trotting, or add more days riding days. Weeks three, four and five, continue to add more trotting into your rides. You can also begin to incorporate hill work. Long walks up easy to moderate hills will build your horse’s cardiovascular fitness without overtaxing his joints and soft tissues.
Heat and humidity are your horse’s enemies, and water is his best friend.
Always be conscious of your horse’s exertion level in hot and/or humid weather.
If he is sweating profusely or panting, then back off your riding pace or cut your riding time short. Overworking your horse in the heat will do nothing to improve his conditioning and can have serious consequences if he becomes dehydrated.
If you don’t have a specific date marked on your calendar as your goal but want to keep your horse conditioned enough that he is always ready to go out on long trail rides, you can still apply the same formula to an ongoing riding plan. Keep track of the distance you ride on a weekly basis. If you have been averaging 10 to 15 miles per week, then your horse is fit enough to go that distance anytime.
The main attraction of recreational trail riding is that your horse doesn’t have to be a top-caliber athlete. You can enjoy riding at your own pace and don’t have to worry about pushing your horse to the upper limits of fitness.
You just need to keep him sound and fit enough to be able to enjoy your adventures on the trail.