Conditioning a new horse

CONDITIONING A NEW HORSE:  (written 2005, updated 2012)

YES!  You can get your pasture potato ready to do a 25 mile ride in just 6 weeks – you must be dedicate to the schedule I have listed below and you must be prepared to work  your horse in all weather.

I’ve been asked (a million times!) “What breed of horse should I get to compete in endurance or competitive trail.”  My response is always the same.  “It’s not the breed, it’s the attitude!”  The horse you’re riding right now can probably do LD (Limited Distance) or CTR (Competitive Trail Ride) very successfully with some training and conditioning.  REALLY!

Here’s how to know if your current horse is right for this sport.

  1. Does your horse love to go on a trail ride?
  2. Does your horse look down the trail for the next straight away so he/she can move out?
  3. Does your horse have stamina?  (Even an out of shape horse will still have some gas in the tank when they’re tired.)
  4. Is your horse sound in the legs, heart and lungs?
  5. Is your horse healthy?

Okay, second question I’m asked is, “What color horse should I get?”  (Green, okay?) Again, I am always tempted to respond with, “You don’t ride color.” but then I remember there are lots of “urban myths” out there about color on a horse and their abilities.  I competed on white Appaloosas, red Quarter Horses, black Tennessee Walkers and now a bay Arabian.  I found that color really had nothing to do with the horse’s ability to work extended periods at a trot or to cool off.  It is all about the muscle structure.

And so I ride accordingly.  A heavily muscled horse needs more time to cool down and bring their heart rate down as opposed to a lean muscled horse.  Picture Arnold Swartzenagger versus Bruce Lee in a marathon race.  They can both do it, but they will run in a totally different manner from each other. (It may be more amusing to watch Arnold running … LOL)

Last, how do I get my horse in condition to do this sport.  I will tell you there are many excellent articles written about conditioning.  They talk about tendons, and muscles and ligaments and tone and heart rate and metabolism.  I recommend to everyone starting in this sport to read as many of these articles as possible, gather as much understanding as you can, then go ride with an experienced endurance competitor.  Visit to see some of these articles.

This is how I condition a new horse.  (and please note, every horse is different – every rider is different – and you may need to bump up (or down) this schedule accordingly).  This conditioning assumes the horse is already working on trails and has a good brain about working alone with me on the trails.

Week 1 and 2:  I pick out three different loops of 5, 8, &10 miles.  We walk the 5 mile loop.  Carrying weight at a walk uses most a horse’s muscles and walking puts a “brain” on a horse.  We combine walking with trotting on the 8 and 10 mile loops.  Typically, walk the first mile, trot the next 3 miles, walk a mile, trot and always walk the last mile.  I work a horse 3 times a week on trail.  Yes, go out and ride three times a week for two weeks.

Two days a week for these first two weeks, we concentrate on ground learning as well.  A horse needs to be able to trot in hand in a straight line and in circles for the vet checks.  This is not as easy as it sounds.  The horse needs to travel in a straight line so the vets can see the cadence of the gait to determine if the horse is sound to continue competing.  Lots of work here to get it correct.  And even more important, the bond between horse and rider strengthens when ground work is done on a regular basis.  (Or in the case of Miss Daizy, the rider gets a wonderful cardio workout trying to catch the horse so you can get the horse some cardio)  The other two days a week I simply groom my horse, play games, or sit in the pasture and read a book while they investigate me!  Yes, sit in the pasture but watch out where you sit … it’s good for the human “brain” to just relax once in a while.

Week 3 and 4:  If you are working regular, you are doing 18 miles each week 1 and week 2.  If my horse is accepting of this work, I start bumping up the trotting time.  Instead of a three mile trot, I increase it to four miles, or even five miles before asking for a walk.  In this two week period, I will do a five mile walk.  It is important that your horse has that opportunity to just mosey along at a walk and enjoy “brain time.”

Week 5 and 6:  By now, the horse (and you) should be getting quite comfortable with your work outs.  in fact, you may become bored with your workouts.  Time to change it up.  Find new loops 10 to 12 miles each.  Add in hill work and tight weaving in the trees work.  Find a riding buddy and go out for a 10 mile trot.  At the end of these six weeks, your horse should have began his physical conditioning.  For the first year of a new horse’s endurance career, I only compete on 25 or 30 mile rides.  It takes a full year for a horse’s bones, ligament and tendons to begin strengthening.  I will usually compete an LD, which allows 6 hours for completion, the first time I compete the horse.

Once I have started competing, I maintain a two day a week “working” ride.  10-12 miles each time out, if possible.  I will do one of those rides as a slow pleasure ride – walking with some trotting. The second ride is busted out at speed, trotting and cantering.

The week after a competition, I will only do one pleasure ride at the walk, with some trotting to loosen  up.  Nothing extensive.  And I always (always) take the time to play games with my horse on the off days.

You *CAN* over condition a horse.  You will not only melt down  your horse’s brain, possibly souring him/her to riding, but you can damage muscle tissue and tendons and ligaments.  Once a horse is working strong, once a week busting out a trail is good to keep the body fit.  Add in once a week of a leisurely walk through the woods of 5 or 6 miles, and you sweeten the deal for the horse.  On these slow walks, I let my horse stop and eat as often as it pleases them to do so.  In the case of Miss Daizy, a 5 mile walk can take about three hours with all the eating she does.

After the first year, if the horse really loves his/her work at the competitions, I start the second year right to 50 mile rides.  The first 50 mile ride of the year I take slowly and let the horse tell me when he/she is tired. (It doesn’t matter if I’m tired – although “NOTE HERE” a tired rider will fatigue a horse, so keep yourself in shape, too!)

It’s very exciting to finish a horse’s first 50 and I care not whether we are last, I just care that we complete safe and sound!