Conditioning the Trail Horse (Book Excerpt)

Most people wouldn't think of getting up from a desk job and heading off into the mountains or hill country for long hikes without first getting into condition. The same should be true for your horse. Your trail horse should be conditioned to handle the type of riding you plan to do, whether that involves hour-long walks or rides of many hours through rugged terrain. If not, he could be susceptible to injury.

Basic Health Needs

Consider your horse as an athlete and companion that needs the best of care. You must tend to certain basic health care needs before getting your horse into an aggressive conditioning program. If your horse is to remain strong and sound throughout the season, he must have a balanced ration, regular hoof care, appropriate vaccinations (talk to a veterinarian about these because they vary by region), and regular deworming.

The problem is that some owners try to do all of the above just as the trail-riding season is about to begin. Suddenly, they remember that the hoof trimming has been neglected, that their horse hasn't been dewormed for months, and that they have lost track of the last immunization date. They also realize their horse has gotten thin during the winter months. They can feel the ribs under that coat of long hair. So, they rush to correct everything at once. They place the horse on a high-grain diet, call the farrier and instruct him to trim and shoe the horse so that it can be ridden immediately, consult the vet about vaccinations, and deworm the horse with several products simultaneously to make certain that all parasites are removed.

Such a crash program can spell disaster. If the hooves have been neglected all winter or even longer, they might not be ready for immediate shoeing. The farrier may have to trim them a bit and allow the horse to adjust to the new length before putting on shoes. I have seen horses come up lame in the wake of trimming hooves that reached an inordinate length. It isn't just the hoof that is involved. Tendons and ligaments also must adjust to the new hoof length.

Keeping the horse free of parasites should be an ongoing effort carried out in consultation with a veterinarian because geography and climate play important roles in determining which parasites you are dealing with and which dewormer is appropriate to keep them in check.

A sudden change in a horse's diet definitely invites disaster. The horse has a delicate digestive system, so any changes should be gradual and with awareness of the horse's nutritional needs. For example, most horses can exist just fine all winter on a diet of high-quality hay. However, when you begin stressing them with riding, you might need to up the energy level by adding some grain. However, if you add too much grain immediately, you are in danger of causing serious problems that can include founder and colic.

When thinking about a proper equine diet, compare the horse to an automobile. Automobiles convert the chemical energy of gasoline into mechanical energy, enabling the car to move. So it is with the horse, except that the horse is metabolically converting chemical energy from foodstuffs into energy that powers the muscles. The more energy a horse expends, the more "fuel" it needs. This fuel comes from carbohydrates and fats, which are present in greater quantity in grain than in hay.

Often, though, horses come through the off-season in good flesh and actually are too fat for strenuous exercise. Here again you must take care not to hurry the conditioning program or it might result in damage to muscles, tendons, ligaments, and even bones.

No matter what the situation, when planning your conditioning program you should be conscious of how the entire horse functions. In addition to nutrition, you should be knowledgeable about respiration, cardiovascular function, and muscle development.

During exercise the body's tissues need much more oxygen. This means that the lungs must work harder to increase the rate at which carbon dioxide is removed and oxygen is loaded into the blood. An out-of-condition horse will have a more difficult time providing this oxygen when it is stressed than will a fit horse. The problem will be exacerbated if the horse suffers a respiratory affliction such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Known to many horsemen as heaves, COPD can be caused by feeding dusty hay and by housing the horse in a dust-laden environment. If you have any doubts about your trail horse's respiratory well-being, have your veterinarian examine him before beginning a conditioning program.

The cardiovascular system delivers to the tissues (via the bloodstream) oxygen from the lungs and nutrients from the digestive track. The cardiovascular system also helps regulate body temperature by carrying blood toward the skin surface where the cooling process takes place.

The heart pumps the blood through the distribution system at varying rates, depending on demand. We should no more ask the horse's heart for a sudden burst of strong activity after a long layoff than we should ask an obese, out-of-shape human to engage in strenuous activity such as shoveling snow or chopping wood. Both human and horse, when out of condition, should approach strenuous activity slowly and cautiously.

Finally, you must be aware that the muscles require gradual conditioning. Muscles comprise the largest tissue mass in a horse's body. Their functions are varied, but the function with which you are most concerned is locomotion. Muscles consist of fibers. During inactivity, these fibers become weaker. If sudden stress is placed upon them in this condition, muscular injury can result. They must be prepared for increased activity gradually with stresses being increased as the fibers strengthen.

By looking at the overall picture, you can see that as you begin to condition your trail horse, he will need more "fuel." The respiratory and cardiovascular systems must have increased function so that more oxygen and nutrients can be delivered to muscles. At the same time the number of mitochondria in the cells is increasing so that individual muscle units can use more oxygen.

A horse's skin also deserves consideration. When a horse is soft and out of condition, there is a greater chance for aggravating the skin in the form of cinch or girth soreness and even sore or irritated spots where the saddle rests. This is still another reason for approaching the conditioning process slowly and cautiously.

Purchase a copy of Happy Trails for $7.00 at

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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