Get Your Horse in Shape for Trail Riding

Get Your Horse in Shape for Trail Riding

Heed these 17 tips for preparing your horse for a long trail riding adventure.

trail riding in a field with a mountain in the background (Credit: Briana Malmquist/@pipers_zoo)

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Not everyone understands that you and your horse need to be fit for trail riding. You don’t crawl on a horse for a three-hour ride after sitting on the couch most of the winter, do you? Why should you expect the same from your horse?

We polled our readers and talked to experts about getting your horse in shape for trail riding.

Here are 17 tips for getting your horse in shape and healthy for the trail.

  • Make sure your horse’s vaccinations are up to date and he has been dewormed. Talk to a veterinarian about diseases specific to the part of the country where you will be riding.
  • Three or four weeks should be adequate to get the average horse in trail shape. This will vary with the horse.
  • Interval training allows the horse to rest a bit and vary the distances and speeds at which he trains. A three- to five- mile ride at a casual rate combined with a brisk walk is a good idea. Go three miles first day, four the second, three the third and five the fourth. Give the horse a couple of days to rest and recover. A fit horse ought to be able to travel 10-15 miles at a good walk without becoming winded or fatigued.
  • Vary the terrain and scenery to prevent boredom.
  • While training and on the trail ride, walk the horse for the first mile out and the last mile home to allow for a gradual warm up and cool down.
  • Hoof care varies depending on where you’re riding the horse and the quality of his feet. Horses with thin soles and “shelly” hooves should probably be examined and the soles picked a couple of times a day to ensure that there are no problems.
  • Encourage the horse to urinate on the trail by dismounting and standing near a grassy area occasionally.
  • Hay can be fed anytime. After riding, when the horse is tied to a trailer or picket line, use a hay net to keep him from flinging the hay out of reach. Tie the net high enough that he can’t snag a hoof in it.
  • If grain must be fed before a ride, provide it at least two hours before starting out so he has time to digest it. Grain the horse no sooner than two hours after the ride.
  • During rest stops, allow the horse to drink water. The average 1,100-pound horse will drink 5 to 20 gallons of water daily. Horses working hard can lose as much as 2 1/2 to 4 1/2 gallons of fluid an hour through sweat.
  • If your horse is a reluctant drinker, ride with horses who drink from streams, and he’ll soon pick it up. Allow your horse to drink at every stream or lake.
  • Back at camp, provide free-choice water and allow him to graze. Kool-Aid or Jell-O can be mixed with his water to mask the taste. However, start providing the mixture at home several days before you leave to acclimate your horse to the taste and make sure the strategy works.
  • During and after the trail ride, check your horse’s back and girth area to ensure that the tack fits. There should be no dry spots, which may indicate excessive tack pressure points, if the horse is sweaty.
  • To check for dehydration, lift the skin on the horse’s shoulder with your thumb and forefinger for a moment then release. Count the number of seconds it takes for the tent of skin to return to flat. Also, check it halfway up the neck and average the two for most accuracy. The skin should snap back immediately. If it takes 2 seconds, your horse needs electrolytes.
  • Electrolytes (sodium, potassium and calcium salts) replenish a horse’s body fluids and should be provided daily on a trail ride if you’ve been riding hard and it’s a hot day. Electrolytes can be administered through your horse’s water or by using a commercial paste formulation.
  • Overweight horses, out-of-condition working horses and horses transported from cooler climates are prone to overheating.
  • Hose your horse down with cool water and groom him after a long, hot ride.