Barn-Bored to Trail-Ready

Is your horse fit and ready to hit the trail? If not, here’s how to get him into con­di­tion and pre­pare both of you to en­joy your out­ings this spring and sum­mer.

Horse & Rider - - Table Of Contents - By Heather Smith Thomas

W hat if I told you that you’ll be run­ning a marathon tomorrow. Over var­i­ous ter­rain. In the heat. No mat­ter if you con­sider your­self in fair shape or haven’t ex­er­cised in months, you’d prob­a­bly panic. Your body isn’t ready for that kind of ex­er­tion!

The same holds true for your horse when you de­cide to take him on a long, chal­leng­ing trail ride with­out prepa­ra­tion. Just like you, a “soft” or out-of-shape horse not only be­comes tired on a long ride, but is at risk for prob­lems and in­juries such as cinch and sad­dle sores, strained/sore mus­cles, pulled joints, de­hy­dra­tion, heat stress, colic, and other po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous con­di­tions. Here, I’ll of­fer eight es­sen­tial tips for leg­ging your horse up for the sea­son’s trail rides so you won’t miss out on any of the fun. My hints fo­cus on trail rid­ing, but they hold true for bring­ing a per­for­mance horse into shape, too.


Any good get-in-shape pro­gram be­gins with set­ting your horse up for suc­cess so ev­ery vari­able is weighted in his fa­vor. De­worm and vac­ci­nate him, and check his body con­di­tion. Ide­ally, he should be in mod­er­ate flesh, with ribs that can be felt but not seen. Also con­sider his hoof care—when was the last time he was trimmed or shod? Don’t wait un­til the last minute to get his feet taken care of be­fore you start a reg­u­lar rid­ing reg­i­men, es­pe­cially if it’s been a while since his last far­rier ap­point­ment. That can lead to foot sore­ness and a sour at­ti­tude to go along with it.


Once you’ve eval­u­ated your horse’s body con­di­tion, as­sess his feed­ing pro­gram to get him to that de­sired flesh. If he’s thin, grad­u­ally in­crease his feed as you start rid­ing. He’ll need ex­tra calo­ries for en­ergy as well as build­ing up body re­serves. But don’t sud­denly in­crease his grain ra­tion, or you’ll risk in­di­ges­tion, colic, or lamini­tis. Make any feed changes grad­u­ally to al­low his sys­tem to adapt and so you can care­fully eval­u­ate the pro­gram.

If your horse is fat, he’ll tire eas­ily dur­ing ex­er­cise, thanks to the ex­tra bur­den of car­ry­ing all that weight around, and be­come over­heated quicker, since fat acts as in­su­la­tion and makes it harder for him to cool him­self ef­fi­ciently by sweat­ing. Whether his plump state re­sults from am­ple pas­ture or too much hay dur­ing idle months, don’t cut back his feed. He’ll burn off the ex­tra calo­ries and pounds as you bring him back into shape. If he’s fat from too much grain, how­ever, do cut back his con­cen­trate ra­tion un­til he loses the fat.

In ei­ther case, you’ll even­tu­ally need to in­crease his feed as you ride him more, when his en­ergy de­mands are greater. →


Start with daily short rides at the walk, grad­u­ally in­creas­ing the length and the work (some trot­ting and hill climb­ing). If your horse has been out­doors in a pen or pas­ture where he’s had some ex­er­cise (es­pe­cially if he’s been with other horses, self-ex­er­cis­ing dur­ing nor­mal ac­tiv­i­ties) he won’t be quite as soft and you can progress a lit­tle faster.

The very soft horse needs am­ple time to gain fit­ness—as much as two months, in some cases. The safest route is to start slowly, mon­i­tor­ing his re­sponse to the work and check­ing re­cov­ery rates dur­ing and af­ter a ride. Keep in mind that mus­cle gains strength faster than other body sys­tems. You might be tempted to rush the con­di­tion­ing process be­cause your horse looks and feels good, but that’s not the only in­di­ca­tor of his fit­ness level. Push too hard, too soon, and your horse runs the risk of prob­lems you can see, like cinch sores, and un­der­ly­ing is­sues, like over­taxed mus­cles that lead to joint in­juries and body sore­ness.

Grad­ual con­di­tion­ing en­ables your horse’s body to adapt to the work­load with­out push­ing him too far at once. Give him some rest stops dur­ing a con­di­tion­ing ride, and some days off be­tween rides when he needs a break. Don’t over-stress him or burn him out phys­i­cally or men­tally with too much work; he needs rest be­tween rides.


Proper pre- and af­ter-ride work will al­le­vi­ate sore­ness in your horse’s body and sour­ness in his mind. The warm-up helps lim­ber his mus­cles and ten­dons to pre­vent in­jury and pre­pares his brain for work, and the cool-down helps pre­vent post-ride mus­cle stiff­ness and calms his mind.

Warm up with a few min­utes of brisk

walk­ing, then jog for one minute, and drop back to the walk for a few min­utes. Al­ter­nate the walk and jog un­til the horse is warmed up. This cir­cuit el­e­vates your horse’s res­pi­ra­tion and heart rates and in­creases cir­cu­la­tion to his mus­cles, pre­par­ing him for more stren­u­ous work.

Cool down with slower work. If you were trot­ting on the trail, walk the last mile home. Do pro­gres­sively slower work, eas­ing your horse’s body back to rest­ing rates of func­tion. Con­tinue walk­ing un­til he stops sweat­ing and be­gins to dry. If he doesn’t cool out prop­erly, he’ll break into a sec­ond sweat af­ter he stops work­ing be­cause his core tem­per­a­ture is still el­e­vated. Mov­ing, rather than stand­ing still, helps get rid of ex­cess body heat from ex­er­tion, flushes wastes from the work­ing mus­cles (so there won’t be as much sore­ness or stiff­ness later), and al­lows his heart to re­turn to rest­ing rate. Cool-out ex­er­cise also helps keep fluid from ac­cu­mu­lat­ing in legs and joints af­ter ex­er­cise.

Check your horse’s heart rate be­fore you put him away, and make sure it’s down to his rest­ing rate. Af­ter a horse is fit, he warms up and cools down quicker and eas­ier, but a horse that’s not yet in top con­di­tion needs more care­ful warmup and cool-down ses­sions.


Rid­ing in open coun­try is the best way to con­di­tion a horse (and a rider). Us­ing nat­u­ral ter­rain—up and down hills—keeps your horse’s mind en­gaged and his body work­ing.

Be­gin with short daily rides. You might only go a mile or two the first day, so he won’t get tired. Soon you can work up to longer rides, giv­ing him a day of rest in be­tween. It’ll take at least two weeks of rid­ing ev­ery other day to get a good start on con­di­tion­ing to im­prove your horse’s en­durance by burn­ing off fat and re­plac­ing it with mus­cle.

A word of cau­tion: Start on easy ter­rain to build his fit­ness be­fore you try steeper coun­try. Keep in mind that you’re con­di­tion­ing his men­tal at­ti­tude as well as his mus­cles, joints, heart, and lungs.


Reg­u­larly eval­u­ate your horse’s fit­ness by mon­i­tor­ing his pulse and res­pi­ra­tion rates be­fore, af­ter, and dur­ing rides. Count your horse’s breaths by watch­ing his flank move­ments for 15 sec­onds, and then mul­ti­ply by four for his res­pi­ra­tion rate. To mea­sure his pulse, place a stetho­scope be­hind his left el­bow and lis­ten for the heart­beats, or feel his pulse at the dig­i­tal artery be­neath the fet­lock joint or the artery that runs un­der the jaw­bone on each side of his face. Again, count for 15 sec­onds and then mul­ti­ply by four to es­ti­mate his heart rate.

An av­er­age rest­ing heart rate is 30 to 40 beats per minute, and av­er­age rest­ing res­pi­ra­tion is eight to 20 breaths per minute. Fit horses will have lower rates for both. Dur­ing a con­di­tion­ing ride with trot­ting and hill climb­ing, your horse’s heart rate should get no higher than about 160. Af­ter the ride, see how long it takes for his pulse and res­pi­ra­tion rates to drop back to nor­mal. In a fit horse, these rates start drop­ping as soon as he stops mov­ing. Res­pi­ra­tion rate should re­turn to nor­mal within 10 min­utes or less, with pulse rate re­cov­er­ing soon af­ter.

If re­cov­ery rates are good af­ter a 10-minute rest or cool-down, the horse is han­dling the work and you can grad­u­ally add more speed and/or length to your rides. But al­ways mon­i­tor his re­sponse to know whether you’re push­ing him just right or too fast. If you start to get poor re­cov­ery rates or any other warn­ing signs of fa­tigue, back off on the work. Give him a day or two of rest, and then start in again with work at a lower level of ex­er­tion be­fore pro­gress­ing again with the con­di­tion­ing pro­gram. →


Your horse’s sweat can tell you if he’s get­ting in shape. A fit horse has thin, wa­tery sweat that’s prac­ti­cally taste­less and odor­less. Thick, smelly, salty sweat that lath­ers gen­er­ally sig­ni­fies an un­con­di­tioned horse. His mus­cles aren’t yet work­ing ef­fi­ciently; too many waste prod­ucts are be­ing pro­duced and elim­i­nated through the sweat, along with pre­cious elec­trolytes. Want a quick eval­u­a­tion? Use the taste test. Touch your fin­ger­tip to his sweat, then taste it. If the sweat is very salty, he’s not yet in shape.


A work­ing horse loses fluid through sweat to cool his body and mus­cles, which makes ad­e­quate hy­dra­tion cru­cial. On any ride, let your horse drink when­ever he wants. The trail rider’s golden rule is to never pass up a wa­ter source. If a horse doesn’t want to drink, he prob­a­bly doesn’t need to yet or the wa­ter is dirty and he doesn’t like the taste of it. You can help his nat­u­ral cool­ing process by putting wa­ter over his body at ev­ery wa­ter source you come to, which gives his sweat­ing mech­a­nisms a break.

Check your horse’s hy­dra­tion sta­tus with the pinch test. When you pinch the skin out from his neck or shoul­der, it should snap right back into place. If it takes a cou­ple sec­onds to sink back, he’s mod­er­ately de­hy­drated, and if it takes 5 to 10 sec­onds, he’s se­verely de­hy­drated. Ad­di­tion­ally, a de­hy­drated horse has a slow cap­il­lary re­fill time. Press his gum with your fin­ger (press­ing the blood out of that spot), and note how long it takes for the color to re­turn. A de­layed cap­il­lary re­fill time fur­ther in­di­cates de­hy­dra­tion.

Through­out the con­di­tion­ing process, mon­i­tor your horse’s vi­tal signs, in­clud­ing check­ing his pulse with a stetho­scope or his dig­i­tal artery be­neath his fet­lock.

Top: Start your horse’s con­di­tion­ing jour­ney on the right foot by pro­vid­ing proper, reg­u­lar hoof care. Bot­tom: Rid­ing in open coun­try over var­i­ous ter­rain pro­vides ex­cel­lent op­por­tu­ni­ties for build­ing your horse’s stamina and con­di­tion­ing.

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