Freezing temperatures keep most horseback riding enthusiasts cabin bound.
Yet, indoor pens still find limited riders at their sport, despite red cheeks and gloved, purpled hands.
Even, an occasional heavily-coated, hooded, scarfed brave and dedicated, some likely call nutty, mounted horse person can be viewed riding across the field, and even less often one tightly bundled with a heavy wool lap blanket in a one horse open sleigh where snowfall has already accumulated allowing such.
Far and away most common is the dreamer in front of the sizzling warm fireplace sparkle envisioning first ride on a warming spring day and a bright season-filled with horseback activity.
In that anticipation, it’d be well to consider getting that essential mount vim for the action, too, according to Dr. Nancy Loving, equine veterinarian
“Basic conditioning is necessary for the proper physical and mental health of a horse,” Loving said. “Correct, consistent workouts maintain muscle suppleness and joint lubrication with less chance of injury and behavioral issues such as irritability, resistance, or even bucking.”
Trail riding is still the most popular horseback activity, and it can also be the most strenuous for a horse, depending on the terrain, pace, and length of ride.
“A horse asked to negotiate difficult terrain when trail riding needs to have musculoskeletal tissues strong enough to avoid injury,” Loving said.
A lot of how much and to what degree a horse needs to be conditioned depends on the level the horse is asked to perform. A casual trail ride of five to 10 miles requires very different conditioning than a 50-mile endurance ride.
“An unconditioned horse on rocky terrain or at a constant trot can readily suffer foot bruising, tendon or ligament strain, even metabolic complications,” Loving said. “When ridden in hot and humid weather, a horse’s metabolic system may be compromised due to fluid and electrolyte losses through sweat.”
These problems lead to “exhausted horse syndrome,” including muscle stiffness, soreness, cramping, colic, heat stress, and laminitis.
When planning to go on a long ride, or for just several hours, it’s important to give the horse frequent exercise on a regular basis starting at least two months in advance. “It’s best not to stop for more than two weeks, because that will detract from the fitness developed to that point,” Loving said.
“Proper conditioning relies on a rider in the saddle, at least five days per week in the initial training phase,” said Loving. “With increasing fitness, the horse may be ridden only two to three days a week at increased intensity. Distance is increased to enable the horse to adapt and become more efficient.”
A horse usually needs three to six months of consistent long, slow distance training to be able to withstand an all-day trail ride without ill effect.
“It is important to note that the horse should be conditioned with the rider and tack on the terrain he will be asked to ride during a trail ride,” Loving said. “Naturally, the best way to condition a horse for trail riding is on the trail.”
When prepping for an all-day trek, it was suggested to ride the horse three times a week approximately four to six weeks out to build up condition.
“It’s helpful to know that during training, the horse only needs to be able to cover about 50 percent of the distance he’ll be doing on the full-day ride,” Loving said.
Arena riding is different. “If intending to mostly ride in the arena,” Loving said, “the horse should be conditioned to the appropriate activity and skill level.”
Assuming the horse is sound and healthy, and has been getting some regular exercise, one can start by increasing time under saddle in 5-minute increments each week. “The more exercise given the horse, the more fit it becomes,” Loving said. “Just remember to add the exercise gradually, so not to overwhelm the horse making it sore or lame.”
Pace is important as well. “If the horse has only been walking in the arena, it’s necessary to add trotting to his routine,” Loving said. “Start with 10 minutes of trotting during each workout in the first week, adding more trotting in five-minute increments in subsequent weeks. The same method should be used for building up the canter.”
If riding the horse for 30 to 60 minutes two days a week, one should add at least one more ride during the week. “The extra day of riding will help condition the horse slowly instead of putting it through a difficult workout only on the weekends. But, a horse can build stamina quickly just by being ridden three days a week,” Loving said.
Horses have both a strong and a weak side, and working both sides is important to keeping the horse sound.
“There are many riding exercises that can be used in or out of the ring to bridge the gap between the two sides, and the newly developed muscle tone ensures that the horse can comfortably carry the rider,” Loving said.
For those who don’t ride as often as they’d like, the veterinarian suggested getting on the horse as least one more day a week. “Additional exercise can be turn out, round pen, hand-walk or riding, but that horse needs to be moving at least three days a week,” Loving said.
An important aspect of conditioning a horse is measuring pulse and respiration rates. “A horse’s pulse is key to understanding how efficiently his heart is working during exercise,” Loving said.
A well-conditioned horse has a pulse rate that rises to a certain level during exercise, and then recovers quickly after the work stops. “Most horses’ pulse rate reaches 100 beats per minute (bpm) when they are exercising, and slows down to the normal post-exercise rate of about 60 bpm after five minutes or so rest,” Loving said. “When 60 bpm is reached, the horse has recovered from the exercise.”
A horse’s pulse, can be measured with a stethoscope, or just by hand. Using a watch that displays seconds, Loving said, “Trot the horse for a few minutes, and then take his pulse. One should be able to feel it behind his girth on the left side, on the inside of the foreleg; or under the jawbone, below the jowls. It can take some time to locate the beat, so don’t give up; it takes practice to locate on many horses.”
After finding the pulse, one should start counting the beats for 15 seconds, multiply the number by four to calculate the horse’s heart rate in beats per minute.
“Pulse should be checked weekly to see if recovery rate is faster with more training,” Loving said. “The quicker a horse reaches the 60 bpm rate, the more fit he is becoming.”
Respiration is another way to judge if a horse is recovering quickly from a workout. “For 15 seconds, measure the horse’s breaths by counting the number of times his flanks expand outward, and multiply this number by four to get breaths per minute,” Loving said.
Before starting an exercise program, the horse’s respiration should be checked at rest, and then measured again after a workout. “The respiration should be checked weekly to verify the horse is becoming more fit through the conditioning program,” Loving said. “The fitter the horse, the faster respiration rate will return to normal, of 10 to 24 breaths per minute, after exercise.”