Conditioning your horse – Basic Principles

By Nancy Zukewich

People often ask, “How do I get my horse ready for a 25 mile ride?” Chances are, if you are regularly riding your horse for at least an hour a few times a week at walk, trot and canter, you may be more ready than you think!

There is no one-size-fits-all program for conditioning a horse for distance riding. However, there are several basic principles that have stood the test of time. These principles are described below.

Know your horse
Before you get started, use the Horse Health Check (developed by Dr. Art King and Gayle Ecker) to learn what is normal for your horse &ndash temperature, resting heart rate, attitude, etc. Know your horse&rsquo s legs &ndash you should be able to pick your horse out of a crowd just by feeling down his legs. Groom/massage your horse with your hands – where does he hold tension? Know how to check your horse’s back for pain.

For more information on how to do the Horse Health Check, see:

Start with LSD = Long Slow Distance
It is always good to start with long slow distance. This means exactly what it says – long distances at a slow pace. This is about laying the foundation for your horse’s fitness. All the horse’s systems fit up at different rates – cardiovascular, musculoskeletal system, bones, joints, ligaments, tendons. The bones, joints, tendons and ligaments take the longest. This is why you hear people talk about &quot legging up&quot their horse. It can take up to two years to build up the legs of a young horse. Building up your horse’s heart and lungs takes longer than building muscles, but not as long as legs.

Rest is part of the program
It is enough to ride 3 or 4 times a week. A horse needs rest in order to respond to the stress of the workout and remodel the tissues. The exercise itself doesn’t make your horse stronger. It is during the rest period after the exercise when your horse becomes stronger.

Know your horse some more
In order to avoid injury, you need to assess how each of the horse&rsquo s systems has responded to the conditioning session. Monitor the horse carefully after each ride. Keep a log book, describing your conditioning session (distance and speed) as well as weather conditions, terrain, and any observations about the horse&rsquo s physical health and attitude. Is he having fun?

Some things to check after every ride and the day after include:
– general attitude – eyes should look bright – if your horse seems ‘off’, take temperature, pulse and check gut sounds
– legs and feet, including checking for digital pulse
– back and muscle soreness/tension
– pulse rate
– capillary refill test
– PPED – is he pooping, peeing, eating, drinking?

If you notice anything that is of concern (fill or heat in legs for example), give a bit of extra rest and make sure he is right before the next conditioning session.

Increase speed OR increase distance
Increase speed or increase distance, but NEVER increase both at the same time. To begin, you could measure out a 5 or 6 mile loop. Aim to walk/trot that distance in 1 hour 20 minutes or even 1 hour 30 minutes. Over the first few weeks, try to increase the amount of time trotting and add some cantering so that you can do the 5 or 6 miles in an hour or less. Be sure to include a warm up and a cool down. Work out any issues with tack, because a horse’s back will change shape as he fits up. Make sure your riding gear is comfortable too.

After that, you can increase the distance until you are able to do a 10 or 15 mile ride once a week to 10 days at the 5-6 mile an hour speed with your horse looking just fine the day after (clean legs, no soreness, good appetite and attitude, happy to see you).

Mix it up a bit
Hills are important for training, even if you are going to do mostly flat rides. This is because they force a horse to engage his hindquarters and use his muscles differently. It also helps to ride on different terrain so he is sure-footed. On a flat part of the trail (like a field that you know has safe footing), you can let your horse canter or gallop to stretch out, use different muscles and challenge their cardiovascular system. Playing with your pace and changing up your conditioning loop also keeps everything fresh and interesting. Varying the speed and intensity of your workout is called ‘Fartlek’ literally meaning ‘speed play’ in Swedish.

If you cannot find hills in your area, you can mix it up with other activities such as dressage work in a sand ring or jumping small cavalleti. Both of these activities help your horse to work off his hindquarters, making him strong enough to push himself up hills instead of pulling with his front legs and shoulders.

Don’t forget to condition the soft tissue between the ears
Mental training is important for any sport. Your horse should be willing and responsive under saddle and MUST have good ground manners to successfully participate in distance riding events. Good training is as important as good conditioning, because a horse can use up a lot of physical energy coping with emotional stress at the event. Not to mention that vets don&rsquo t appreciate being kicked!

Practise all the things the vet will do at a ride on a regular basis (like the Horse Health Check). Trot out in hand, straight lines and trot large circles with your horse in both directions. Encourage your horse to stand quietly for vetting. Ask others at your barn to pretend they are the vet and touch your horse all over, listen for gut sounds, take pulse, do capillary refill test, etc. Does your horse tie to the trailer? Does your horse respect portable electric fencing? Does your horse behave around other strange horses in close proximity? Do YOU have good manners (i.e. know about trail etiquette?).

Does your horse have good brakes and steering when you ride? What would you do if your car didn&rsquo t slow down when you stepped on the brakes? Incorporate regular schooling sessions with your horse. Take riding lessons from a qualified coach. A top endurance rider once told us, “Only amateurs don’t take lessons”.

Example of a typical conditioning week

Day 1 – Long slow distance
Day 2 – Rest
Day 3 – Intense day &ndash hills, interval training, Fartlek – play with the speed
Day 4 – Rest
Day 5 – Schooling in the ring
Day 6 – Rest
Day 7 – Lighter day of riding or schooling since you plan a LSD ride the next day. You could even ‘play’ with your horse, doing Parelli, TTEAM or other ground exercises.

Have a look at the ride schedule and COME RIDE WITH US!