As we focused on show horses yesterday, here our gaze will be cast upon fitness for the trusty trail horse. Of course, many of our previous tips will apply to the mounts we ride on the trail, so remember to refer back to our longeing plan for guidance on how to begin. Where things differ is in the terrain that trail horses are expected to traverse and the conditions they must face.
To start, of course, we’ll use that Daily Grooming Process and begin the horse on that longeing program mentioned earlier. But instead of getting down to bitting up, longlining and arena work, once we’ve passed the magical six week mark of conditioned longeing, we’ll be saddling up to hit the trail.
Luckily, we have a wide variety of topography across the local countryside and I can begin with nice short rides around the block for a maximum of a half hour at the walk on rather flat, level ground. Nothing too stressful or hard on those muscles when I first take him out the property gates, which are at that point still just getting used to the program.
I’m going to build on those early rides slowly by stretching them first into about 45 minutes and then up to an hour before bringing the horse home. My horse needs to remain calm and be confident, so I don’t overwork him and cause tying up problems, which is why I like to keep my rides early on relatively short, sweet and easy. After the first week on his back, meaning four to six rides, I will strive to find some nice soft sections of trail or dirt road where I can ease the horse into a trot for a brief time. Keyword there is brief.
Ultimately, after I have spent three to four more weeks out there on the trail, I’ll stretch that ride time out and begin challenging the horse physically by heading into the hills and asking him to negotiate some minor grades (both up and down) as well as adding more trot time plus perhaps a little bit of cantering.
As most anyone will tell you and you’ve probably heard this (or been admonished for it) a thousand times, but I never turn in the direction of home at more than a brisk walk and don’t ever allow the horse to think he can get away with jigging, ever. It’s a flat footed walk for me at all times, unless I give him the go-ahead to step into a trot or canter on specific trails or in specific areas. I also don’t want to use the same sections of trail for those purposes more often than once per week, if I’m riding essentially the same trails daily, because under no circumstances do I want that horse to think he can go on auto pilot and break into that trot or higher on his own, just because we’ve come to a place I have allowed him to trot or canter before.
By this time I will be actively seeking out trails I know will be tougher, either because of steeper hills, stream crossings, stony paths to negotiate through, logs to step over or are otherwise more than your average dirt track or easy neighborhood trail. Once I reach this juncture in my conditioning program it will be imperative that the horse has meticulously maintained hooves and can withstand more rigorous riding than in a nice, soft arena. I prefer to take out another horse (one other than the horse I’m in the middle of conditioning) to scout out appropriate trails and to route out how best to prepare my subject for new and more challenging work.
Just as I described previously with conditioning my show horses, I will continue longeing while branching out onto the trail. Most of my conditioning will still be done in the arena or round pen at the end of a longeline, because there I can concentrate on how fit the horse is and keep better track of his progress in becoming well conditioned. I won’t be longeing for long enough to exhaust him, I want him alert and responsive when I’m on his back, my goal is to build his level of tolerance for work.
Eventually, rides of several hours won’t be a problem for this horse, because he’ll be used to the exercising routine and in fact more likely than not he'll be looking forward to our time together outside the confines of an arena.
Now I’d like to spend a little bit of time discussing leg protection, which is not something I covered in the prior installment of this topic, though it very important for the health and soundness of any horse. For my show horses, I use polo wraps or a combination of polos and splint boots, depending on the horse’s job.
For higher powered careers, such as flat saddle English horses, jumpers, reiners and so forth, I use polo wraps on all four legs, from just below the knee or hock, under the fetlock for support and back up the leg. For my Western Pleasure and Hunter Pleasure horses, I only wrap the front legs, using splint boots on the hind. Depending on the horse, I also may use bell boots if they tend to over-reach. But for most horses when only being longed or trail ridden, all I will use is a good set of splint boots on the front legs for the sake of protection from cross striding and interfering.
Some folks will use sports medicine boots instead of wraps, but for me that’s personal preference. I just happen to like the support provided by properly applied polo wraps as opposed to the boots.
Most importantly, if you follow a good, solid regimen of conditioning, you will have a more enjoyable time on the trail without worrying if your horse can handle what you’re asking of him. Plus, I can about guarantee your horse will thank you for it!