Although it may not feel like it at the moment, spring is approaching. This means your horses will soon be asked to give up their leisurely winter lifestyle and get back into work mode.
Before you put your trail or lesson horses back to work, it’s important to spend some time getting them back into optimum condition. Doing so will help your horses’ attitudes as well as their physical health.
The horse’s body, just like our own, has muscle memory and can easily return to a job after just a few months off with the right conditioning. When getting horses back into a work routine, it’s a good idea to build them up slowly.
“To allow your horse’s work to be as safe as possible, you’ll want to commit to a conditioning program,” says Nancy Loving, DVM, an equine veterinarian based in Boulder, Colo., and author of Go the Distance, published by Trafalgar Square. “The goal of conditioning your horses is to develop their structural and metabolic foundations to withstand the stresses of exercise with minimal injury. Horses that are brought along too quickly are destined to fail structurally.”
Dr. Loving points out that horses that are confined to a paddock or stall don’t have the advantage of keeping their musculoskeletal system tuned and toned.
“Therefore, more attention to detail is necessary to enable them to work without incurring injury,” she says. “Horses turned out daily on pasture have opportunities to run, buck and play, and this keeps their joints and muscular tissues tuned for bouts of exercise.”
Since a horse’s physical health affects his attitude, horses in better condition will also be more willing and amenable to the job they are being asked to perform. This ultimately translates to happier clients.
Before you pull your horses out of pasture to get them started on the road to working, think about how you’ll get them back into shape. According to Dr. Loving, the basis of a conditioning program for any age horse and for any athletic discipline is long, slow distance work.
“The objective during this phase of conditioning is to slowly stress the cardiovascular and structural tissues while building the horse’s capacity to tolerate aerobic exercise,” she says. “This is accomplished by exercising the horse at relatively slow speeds of walk and trot (or slow canter) for the initial months of the training program.”
Dr. Loving suggests using a heart rate monitor to maintain the horse’s work output within an aerobic heart rate of less than 150 beats per minute, and preferably between 120 to 140 bpm. (Heart rate monitors are electronic devices placed on the horse’s chest that measure the number of beats per minute.)
“Steadily build up the horse’s exercise program to work about an hour at least every other day. Then, add in some additional stress to his system by either increasing the duration of each work-out or the speed, but never both at the same time.”
A safe approach asks the horse for incremental increases in length or difficulty, adjusting these increases every five days, according to Dr. Loving. This gives the horse’s body time to accommodate each new intensity level before moving to the next level of effort. Continue to monitor the legs carefully for signs of stress. The horse’s appetite and attitude should remain normal, and he should cooperate enthusiastically when asked for more effort.
“As you plan your conditioning strategy, your aim is to develop a solid foundation on the horse,” says Dr. Loving. “Like building blocks, each organ system must be prepared before adding the next layer of stress. The surest way to minimize musculoskeletal injury is to allow time to be the main ingredient in your conditioning recipe.”
HOW IT’S DONE
The type of work your horses do will determine the specific details of your conditioning program. Whether preparing your horses for arena lessons or hours on trail, the exact nature of their job should determine the type of conditioning they receive.
Heidi Waldon of Stepping Stone Ranch in W. Greenwich, R.I., runs a 112-acre recreational equine facility that offers trail riding and lessons, along with boarding and training. Twenty-five horses make up the working animals on the ranch.
“Conditioning is extremely important for all our horses,” says Waldon. “For new horses, we slowly incorporate them into our program. If they were working trails or were camp horses, they are able to move into the program easily. If they had been semi-retired and just hanging out, we work on conditioning them.”
Waldon starts with walking, along with some light trotting, for an hour a day, making sure the horses have time in a turnout where they can stretch and roll. “We then increase their time after a week along with their cardio, always watching their breathing and body conditioning,” she says.
Light trail riding is also incorporated into the program to help manage the horses’ stress level and keep them fresh-minded in their work.
At the Lazy D Riding School in Broken Arrow, Okla., owner Karen Davis believes in two types of conditioning for her English and western lesson horses: physical and mental.
“I find that the mental condition is the most important,” she says. “When I get a new lesson horse, I focus more on its mental attitude. When the horse has passed my tests, I then have a more experienced rider ride the horse. We gradually start to work the horse into lessons. The horse is ridden in a lesson as if being handled a beginner. The rider deliberately bounces around and makes mistakes, like pulling on the reins and kicking at the same time.”
When it comes to the physical condition of the horse, Davis starts off new, out-of-shape horses with students that are beginners, eventually working the horse into lessons with more advanced riders.
“All of my lessons start off with the same lesson plan,” she says. “Warm up for 10 minutes at the walk. Then the rider sits at the walk, two-points at the walk and posts at the walk to warm up their joints and muscles while the horse warms up its joints and muscles as well as stretches the fascia in its legs.”
She says more experienced riders warm up at the trot, with two laps of two-pointing, two laps posting and one lap walking.
“I believe that the warm up and cool down of the horse is the most important process,” she says.
Horses that are primarily asked to pack novices on the trail also need conditioning for this difficult job. Veronica Hamilton with Western Trails Riding Stable in Norco, Calif., says her facility has a routine for new horses added to the trail string.
“We start new horses out in a small pen apart from the other horses so they get to know each other over the fence,” she says. “Gradually, we incorporate them into the herd, because once the horse is attached to the herd, we can use whatever horse they’ve become bonded to in order to comfort them when they first begin trail riding.”
Before horses are started on the trail, Hamilton always tries a horse out for the first time in the arena to find out the animal’s condition, behavior and rider level.
When a horse has been determined safe for a guest to ride on the trail, physical conditioning comes naturally with regular work, according to Hamilton, who says even a slow 90-minute trail ride is a significant workout for a horse that’s not in good shape.
“If the horse is not in condition for this kind of ride, we work him up to it gradually,” she says. “Our trail horses do nothing but walk, but they do climb lots of hills and go long distances, so once they get into condition, they stay that way with regular work.”
Although it may be tempting to start working your lesson or trail horses at full capacity once the weather warms up, it’s important to remember that a good conditioning program can help ensure they maintain not only good physical health, but a good mental attitude as well.