• Make a realistic conditioning plan. Although you may be eager to get started on your horse’s fitness regimen, you’ll need to proceed carefully to avoid inadvertently causing stress, discomfort or even injury. Map out some realistic goals that take into account your horse’s current level of conditioning: Continual turnout is great for a horse’s overall health but will not appreciably improve his cardiovascular conditioning. It will take at least a month of regular riding—a minimum of five days a week—to get a horse into moderate shape for significant trail riding. Older horses and those who’ve been completely inactive over the winter months may require more time to regain their fitness. Budget enough time before planned events, then stick faithfully to the schedule to bring your horse back into shape.
Before you ramp up your spring riding schedule, make sure your horse’s hooves are properly trimmed and/or shod. Also, check to see whether his tack still fits: A less-active horse may have gained weight or lost muscle over the winter months, changing his contours.
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• Increase intensity incrementally. As a general rule, it’s best to do long, slow workouts for a few weeks before you start faster, skill-specific rides. Brisk walks, particularly up hills, are great for getting a horse back into shape. You need to stress your horse slightly to improve his fitness, but if you push too hard you’ll risk injury. A good way to determine how he’s doing is to watch his breathing when you stop work: If it doesn’t return to normal within two minutes you’ve done too much. Learning to take your horse’s pulse will also help you monitor his fitness level. After a workout, a horse’s heart rate will typically return to normal (36 to 44 beats per minute) within 15 minutes. If his pulse is still elevated after 45 minutes, then the workout was too much for him and you’ll need to scale back. Remember that condi-tioning includes the musculoskeletal system as well as the cardiovascular system. Even if a horse isn’t huffing and puffing his tendons and ligaments may be stressed. Stiffness or soreness after a ride or the next day indicate that you’ve pushed him too hard.
• Follow the key tenet of conditioning: Increase either speed or distance but never both in a single session. So, once your horse is coping well with 30-minute walks, add in a few minutes of trotting, but don’t extend the total length of your ride. Once he’s handling the trotting sessions well, then you can increase your ride times to 40 minutes. And on from there. Keep a log of your rides to make sure you can keep track of your horse’s progress and capabilities.