If you show, trail ride, or attend weekend clinics, do you ride as much at home as you do at an event? If not, you’re asking for trouble. Say you ride a half-hour a day, several days a week at home, but for two hours (or more), several days in a row when you haul to an event or head down the trail.
How do you think your horse is going to feel? How would you feel if you spent all day at a desk job, with minimal weekday workouts, then were forced to workout nonstop for hours, for several consecutive days?
You’d be physically exhausted and at risk for serious injury. That’s what happens to your horse. He’ll also be mentally exhausted, because he’s not used to having to be “on” for that length of time. The combination will make him sore and resentful.
Unfortunately, riders typically blame their horses for the resistance when this happens. “He doesn’t act this way at home!” they’ll say. Of course he doesn’t. You don’t ride the hair off him at home.
I’ve heard every excuse from riders. The most common one is, “I don’t have time to ride during the week.” I’ll add an unspoken reason: “Fitness work isn’t the fun part.”
Take it from someone who learned this lesson the hard way: If your horse isn’t fit, he won’t be sound enough to do the fun part. Since I learned that lesson decades ago, I’ve saved a fortune on lameness-related vet bills.
Alright, alright. I know you’re likely behind on life in general, with family and work. I am, too. We’re all overbooked in this day and age. But that’s no excuse to make your horse suffer. Here are my tips for getting him fit, including tips for doing so even when you’re pressed for time.
Step 1: Warm him up well. A good warm-up will help loosen your horse’s joints and muscles before you ask him to do fitness work and his “real job.” That not only will help further reduce the risk of injury, it’ll also give you a great opportunity to do a “pre-ride check.”
Start with the walk—I generally walk my horses for about a quarter mile before I move to the jog, especially if they’ve just come out of a stall. The walk not only gets a horse’s blood pumping and his joints moving, but it also gives you a chance to gauge his mind: Is he dialed in? Or tuning you out? You can multi-task by doing frequent changes of direction and circles at the walk to get your horse to tune in (and tune him up) as he warms up.
Then I’ll generally jog for 10 to 15 minutes as I subconsciously run through a list of questions. Is my horse stiff? If so, I’ll lengthen the jog session to see if he loosens out of it (in which case, I’ll continue riding) or gets worse (or is lame). If the latter, I’ll cut the session short and further evaluate the horse.
As with the walk, I’ll use my jog time to fine-tune my horse’s steering skills, so I’m training him while using a low-impact gait.
Finally, I’ll lope him for five or 10 minutes to complete the warm-up. Tip: I also use the lope to multi-task. It’s a great opportunity to practice lead changes. Great lead changes take practice; I change leads on my horses every day. The warm-up lope is a great time for that practice, since lead changes are “low impact.”
What I won’t do is immediately launch into high-impact maneuvers until I’ve walked, jogged, and loped a horse. If I don’t have time for a proper warm-up, I figure I don’t have time to ride. I’d rather turn a horse out and wait for tomorrow, than risk injuring him by rushing into the hard stuff.
Once your horse is warmed up, work on event-specific fitness. That may mean the long-trot or additional lope work. If he gallops for a living (say, as a roping or barrel horse), incorporate gallop sets into your regular work. Start with short distances, and build from there. Incorporate event-specific maneuvers into your workout, so your horse has the confidence and fitness to perform as he will need to at an event. (If you have any doubt as to a proper event-specific conditioning program for your horse, consult a reputable trainer and/or veterinarian.)
What’s that? You truly can’t ride every day? Then longe your horse, using the warm-up outlined above to avoid injury. (If you just let him take off and be crazy on the longe line, you’d risk him injuring himself.)
You say you don’t have time to do that, either? I say, “Get creative.” Trade with a friend, perhaps by offering to longe or pony her horse several times a week in return for doing the same with her horse.
If you have a reputable equine swim facility nearby, take advantage of it. Swimming is an impact-free workout, and a little goes a long way toward fitness. That means you can accomplish a lot in a short amount of time.
Take advantage of turnout, too. Regular turnout will help keep your horse legged up without pounding on him. It also gives him a chance to relax and play, which is good for his brain. Mine go out every day, which helps them stay physically and mentally sound.
If you have a fancy halter or showmanship horse, or one that tends to rip off his shoes when turned out, turn him out anyway. Put on bell boots, use duct tape around his shoe edges to keep him from stepping them off, and boot him up to his elbows, if it’ll make you feel better. (If he’s never been turned out, work him first, and start with a small enclosure, until he gets used to the freedom.)
One last thing: The harder you ride your horse, the harder you must take care of him. In addition to my warm-up “jog checks,” I have my horses regularly checked by a top performance-horse veterinarian. If they need joint injections, they get them. I feed joint supplements daily and use injectable joint-health products as needed. I also ice and wrap legs after major events. I watch all my horses closely. If one tells me he needs something, he gets it, no questions asked.
The time, effort, and money I spend on fitness and maintenance saves me in the long run. And it’ll do the same for you.
A multiple AQHA world champion, Avila has also won three NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurities, the NRHA Futurity, and two World’s Greatest Horseman titles. He received the AQHA Professional Horseman of the Year honor. His Avila Training Stables, Inc., is in Temecula, California. Learn more at bobavila.net.