Go back to the fundamentals to get your horse mentally and physically ready for trail riding.
By AQHA Professional Horseman Mike Kinsey | March 4, 2012
There’s a whiff of spring in the air, the pasture is greening up, you’re having more short-sleeve than long-sleeve days, and judging by the amount of hair that’s coming off your horse, you’re a little nervous that he’ll be naked by June. Spring has sprung, and you’re itching to hit the trail.
Not so fast, buckaroo.
There’s a good chance that your pasture potato isn’t ready for a five-mile hike. It’s no different from the condition you’d be in if you sat in a La-Z-Boy from November to March, eating Nacho Doritos and watching “American Idol.”
The amount of work it takes to get a horse ready for trail ride season all depends on the age of the horse, whether the horse has been in a stall and is overly fat or whether he has been in a pasture and is in a little better condition.
With regard to age, if a horse is under 5, I really question taking him out for an all-day ride. If you take a young horse that is not mentally ready for a daylong ride, he’ll get droopy and won’t want to go. Then you’ve done a long-term disservice to the horse.
If the horse is more than 15 years old, I’m going to ask my vet to do a general health check while I’m getting the annual Coggin’s test done. I will at least ask that the vet listen for irregularities in the heart and lungs, as well as check the teeth. Having a lameness exam for the older horse can prevent some of the suffering I see on the trail when “Old Faithful” starts picking up arthritis or getting a bit weak.
It’s also important to take your horse’s body condition into account. Go online to americashorsedaily.com/body-condition-score to learn more about how to evaluate your horse’s weight, but don’t hesitate to ask your veterinarian if you’re not sure.
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You can spend a month getting a horse in shape for a trail ride, but if he’s a body condition score of 7 or 8 or a 2 1/2 or 3, he’s going to struggle, either because he’s overweight and has too much to carry or because he’s underweight and has no energy. Either way, it’s going to take longer to get these horses fit for the ride.
Based on your horse’s body condition, you might need to adjust the amount of grain and hay that he gets. Your veterinarian can also help with this.
Getting On Board
While I’m doing a tuneup on my horse in the spring, I’m also addressing the horse’s mental condition, particularly during the first three days of work. If the horse is in real good condition, he’s going to be awfully playful, and the first time you try to saddle him and go for a ride, you will likely have a horse who is not listening and maybe bucks or wants to be charge-y.
I’ll typically start in the round pen, trotting the horse around me to see if he’s going to focus on me, or if he wants to buck and run. Once I push a horse around the round pen for 15 to 25 laps each direction, I will have a good feeling about how he’s going to act, mentally and physically. If he takes all of this real well, without any attitude, then we’ll go ride in the arena. If not, we’ll spend a couple more days in the round pen.
All the time I’m developing his attitude, I’m also developing his body.
If we’re talking about going out for a full day’s ride, I’d like to put in a couple of weeks of riding him around, 30 minutes or so in the arena, trotting, loping, trotting, loping. I don’t need to get a big sweat on him. If he starts getting much sweat on him, then maybe he’s not in condition yet to go much harder. I’d much rather spend more training sessions – even two training sessions a day – and keep them short than go out there and get this horse thinking that we’re going to be facing a “death march.”
I don’t want to take a horse straight out of the pen and put him on the trail and have him run off or buck with me. I also don’t want to do the opposite – I don’t want to over-ride him to the point that he just drops his head and acts like he’s on a death march.
The First Rides
When we’re ready for our first couple of trail rides, I keep them pretty short – 20 minutes or so – just to see how he buckles down. As soon as I get a horse on the trail, I put him into a trot. Every time those ears flip forward and he starts to tense, I ask him to trot a little faster. It doesn’t matter if it’s just a freckle faster. I want him to be thinking about trotting faster, because what I’m doing is bringing his mind back to me. I’ve conditioned the body all this time, but now I’m conditioning his mind.
When the horse is going along nicely and relaxed, I don’t push him. If he slows down a little bit, but he’s relaxed, I just let him trot along. We might even jog if he’s doing nicely. But any time he starts getting tense, I ask him to trot faster.
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As soon as the horse starts saying, “Yes, sir,” “No, sir,” speeding up and slowing down when I ask him to, I’ll head back to the trailer. Twenty to 30 minutes early-on is plenty. If I ride him for half an hour, and his head is dropped down and I have to bump him with my legs to keep him going, I need to keep the rides shorter until he develops the understanding that we’re not going to go all day. I don’t care if he gets a little sweaty, but I don’t want him to get too worked up, because that’s an indication that I’ve pushed him too hard. I try to be very aware of what the horse’s conditioning is telling me.
If I’ve got a horse that has some training on him and he knows how to collect up, and he starts to get tense out on the trail, I’ll just start working on getting him collected. Once I get his attention back, I’ll turn him loose. As soon as his eyes start getting white and he starts gawking around and getting tense again, I ask him to collect.
If he doesn’t collect, I will pick up the right rein and ask him to give me his nose just an inch to the right and put my right leg on him so that I’m still going down the trail straight even though his body is curved a little bit. When he’s listening to me and moving down the trail, I’ll let his nose go. If I feel him start to tense up again, I’ll pick up that left rein and ask him to give me his nose to the left and I’ll put my left leg on him. I’m doing all of this with a snaffle bit.
One thing I really avoid is picking up both reins and pulling on the horse. It’s far more productive to tell a horse to go do something than to tell him not to do something. I can’t make a horse stand still, but I can make him want to stand still. I can’t make him slow down, but I can make him want to slow down. You need to understand that philosophy if you want to avoid confrontations with your horse.
And whatever you do, do not switch to a bigger bit to gain more control over the horse. Just pick up one rein and circle him around at a trot. Don’t get ugly with him. If he’s coming around, he’s expending energy and getting in better shape. He’s also figuring out that we’re not going to be “on” him all the time. After I’ve circled him around a couple of times, he’s going to figure out that he needs to give up that behavior or he’s going to be working hard doing circles at a trot.
Once he starts doing nicely, it’s time to head him back to the trailer at a jog or a fast walk. I typically trot away from the trailer to teach the horse to trot under control. I want to teach him to walk quickly, and that’s easily taught going back to the trailer. Most horses, if they’ve done this a couple of times, understand that when they get to the trailer, they get to rest.
Keep in mind that the horse can only progress as much as the rider’s limitations will allow. If you give yourself a spring tune-up to develop softness, timing and an awareness of behavioral issues, that can greatly increase your safety and your horse’s performance.