Going the Distance: Conditioning, Demystified

Now that Sharalyn’s led us through the basics of selecting an endurance mount, it’s time to shape up. But just how many miles should we be riding per week?

So you bought that Unicorn. Or horse. Or you have decided to pull ol’ Bessie out of the back pasture because even though her dream is to do nothing but eat 24/7, you’ve decided that 7 years old is too young for a horse to retire. Whatever.

Congratulations. You have an equine partner. Now what?

Now what, indeed.

Time for you and your horse to start conditioning. What does that entail, you ask? Well, it seems complicated, and there are a lot of opinions, but in actuality it doesn’t need to be that way. I mean, eventually it will become horribly complicated, but that’s for later. Right now you just need to focus on being able to go down the trail without one (or both) of you dying.

So, first things first. Ride your horse down the trail. Ride on a loose rein. Ride on a contact rein. Ask your horse to stop and back up. Ask him to walk, trot and canter on the trail. If you’re riding with another horse, try riding away from that horse. Note the good, the bad and the ugly. This, my friends, is your baseline.

When you’re first starting out with conditioning, just getting out on the trail can be a challenge. During the Winter this can be especially tough. If you have to arena ride in for a few months, so be it. But the goal at this point is just to get on your horse and ride. Don’t worry about speed or form. Just get into the habit of riding 3 days a week. I know it seems simple, but you would be amazed at how hard it can be to just make time to ride consistently.

Once you’ve gotten in the habit of riding a few times a week, now you can start thinking about conditioning. Personally, I find that riding a few times on the trail throughout the week and then taking a dressage lesson on one of the weekend days works best. The dressage lesson allows me time to check in with my horse and make sure that our communication is at its peak without having to worry about speed. Plus, it works on strengthening his back and top line, because Flash tends to run fairly hollow on the trail.

The key to conditioning is pretty simple. Every week increase distance or speed, but never both at the same time. If you trot 5 minutes at a time at 8MPH one week, then try keeping the same speed but moving up to 10 minutes of trot at a time the next week. Also, interval training will get your horse in shape the fastest. Do a lot of trot/walk/canter/walk/trot/canter/walk stuff. Mix it up. Extend trot time one interval and shorten it up the next go. Be sure to throw some canter work in there too. You should be working up to riding about 20-25 miles in a week. And if you’re starting out from scratch, this will take about 3 months. If you have a horse that has already been working consistently, then this time frame will shorten up.

Before a race, you’ll want to give your partner the week off. Maybe go out for a stroll on a loose rein, but other than that you don’t want to be training. You want your horse to be fresh for the race.

After the race, you’ll want to give them at least a week off. Some horses will need more time but this is a good guideline.

Also, don’t go all Rocky Balboa on your horse. You can over-train and over-condition. Once your horse is in shape it doesn’t take much to maintain that fitness. And take it slow!! Better to condition slowly and miss out on a few races than to ruin your horse by trying to leg them up too fast.

So, get out there and ride. And remember… to finish is to win.

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