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CONDITIONING YOUR HORSE FOR THE TRAIL
If you are riding three to four times a week for an hour each session and at least half of that is trotting, you are in a very good position to start trail riding. On the other hand, if your horse has been off all winter or is very young, you will have to start conditioning from the beginning. The soreness we riders feel after the first ride following a few months off should remind us of how sore our horses can become if we don’t give them time to build up their strength.
Begin with a lot of slow work, mostly walking, with some trotting and a small amount of cantering to break up the monotony. Be careful not to overdo. A watch will help prevent that 3-minute canter from turning into a 10-minute canter, and a one-hour ride from turning into a two-hour one. Keep track of time so you can accurately increase your horse’s workout time instead of guessing.
It’s handy to keep a pad of paper at the barn to write down a description of your ride and the length (in both minutes and miles if you have that information). Be very cautious of deep footing in the early days of conditioning. Take such areas at a slow, careful walk. Charging through deep footing can strain leg muscles and even bow a tendon.
A lot of trotting in the arena will help to condition your horse for longer trail rides.
If, like most people, you have to ride at home in an arena, work on figures, gait changes, and use obstacles to make it more interesting for your horse. Ride with a friend whenever you can. Vary the arenas you use if more than one is available. If you have even a small amount of trail to ride on, use it to cool your horse down or warm him up. All of these help break up the routine and keep your horse from getting bored. A good rider is aware of the physical state of her horse. Is he alert, relaxed, willing, sluggish, fatigued, crabby or irritable? Shallow breathing indicates that the horse is trying to cool his body (much like a dog panting) and is the sign of an unfit horse. Slow down for a while. A fit, healthy horse has clear, fluid sweat on the neck, chest, flanks, and forearms. Sweat that is frothy, sticky, or patchy is a sign of a horse that is not in top condition. If your horse is not sweating in a situation where he should be, it is a sign of anhidrosis, (also known as drycoat syndrome or non-sweating disease) which can be life threatening. The condition can develop in as short a time as five minutes, so it pays to be observant.
Excessive weight causes your horse to work much harder. Fat traps heat, and fat horses are more at risk of overheating. At the correct weight, you should be able to feel your horse’s ribs but barely see them. The point of his hipbone should not be visible. It is better for a horse to be a little thin rather than too fat.
Conditioning a horse involves not only exercise, but also regular health maintenance, including quality food, vaccinations, foot care, dental care and regular worming. Neglect any of these and your horse’s ability to reach his potential is reduced. Mental health often goes side by side with physical health, so don’t just ride your horse, spend some quality time grooming, training, and just keeping him company. You’ll be rewarded by many happy trail rides.