Thursday, March 31, 2011

Older Now and Still Running

Thursday March 31 2011

They ran with the wind today.

[slide show here]

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Against The Wind

Wednesday March 30 2011

Normally, Wind and Thunderstorms are anathema to me. The one is supremely annoying and the other exceptionally terrifying.

But it had been so long that I'd been on a horse (over a whole week) that I didn't care about The Wind today.

We worked our way up Pickett Canyon, up onto the ridge and into the cool gales ripping over and rolling down from the Owyhee Mountains. We mostly walked, working the hills

and sand washes.

A blanket of low silver clouds levitated on top of the Owyhees, frozen in the up and downdrafts while down on the flats gusts whipped manes and tails first to one side

then to the other.

No point in talking because The Wind blew the words out of Owyhee County before they fell on anyone's ears.

But Jose and I didn't mind the buffeting today on the Owyhee Front.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Eagle To Eagle

Friday March 25 2011

We ride toward the cliffs, hunting for golden eagles. They've nested in this territory the last couple of years.

A golden eagle flies off the cliff as we approach, but we don't see from exactly where.

We dismount to glass the cliffs, and the horses are a bit goosey at times, preferring to stand alertly and stare back down the trail whence we came in this narrowing canyon of tall concealing sagebrush - what's back there behind them? What do they feel? What do they smell? Cougars? Wild horses? (We did see 4 wild horses in the distance).

We spot two cliff nests, and find a likely one that might be, or maybe will be, occupied. We wait and watch the cliff. The horses wait and watch down-canyon.

No eagle returns. We want to climb higher, for a possibly better look at the nest. How about that ridge above us? We mount up and point the horses' noses toward the sky.

It is a steep climb. Snow has only recently melted up here and the ground is virgin-spring soft. Horses' feet sink above their ankles. It is very steep and deep. But there's no stopping now; we are committed. I am leaning forward over Gil's ears as he clambers awkwardly upwards. He has to stop and catch his breath, but I am afraid we will get stuck with the lost momentum and start to go backwards. I smooch and cluck, "Up!" Gil sinks down deeper as he starts forward. He leaps upward. My feet bang his stifles with every lunge. Finally, we crest this ridge, lungs panting, hearts pounding - humans and horse's. "I thought we were going to go over there for a minute!" says Karen.

The reward up here is fresh spring grass niblets for the horses, a staggering view over the Snake River valley and the mountains beyond for the humans.

Karen sets up the scope, but we still can't see in the nest.

I hike on foot, climbing even higher toward the nest - my feet sinking in the ground and the steepness snatching my breath away. The human and horses are dots below me, though I can't see the nest any better from this height.

We wait and watch the nest. We see a golden eagle flying, but none returns to the nest. Maybe there already is one sitting low in the nest. Or maybe up here, where snow still dusts the hills not far above us, it's still early for nesting. It's an inconclusive site visit, so it will have to be checked again.

Now, that's an idea... the Owyhee Eagle to Eagle Endurance ride...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

It's Slow Good

Tuesday March 22 2011

Dudley got a present from the AERC convention!

It's probably not what he would have picked out had he been allowed to wander the aisles between vendors; however, Steph got it just for him.

It's a hay bag slow feeder from

Rick designed it (and it's made by him in the USA) all based on how a horse eats and should be eating - more like grazing. A horse should normally spend around 60% of his day grazing - not bolting a quick meal twice a day like some horses get. And as Rick explained it, when a horse grazes, the bite and rip motion stimulates the saliva that will help digest the food. He's created that type of response and motion in this feeder.

Perry tries out the feeder
It's not easy getting hay from between the rollers... but then that's the point. It stops a horse (Dudley!) from gorging, allowing the horse to gradually eat his meal. The food is always there, and as he has to work at getting it, it keeps him occupied - time he would otherwise spend trying to find a way to escape from his pen to get more food.

It's designed for rough and tough use. The roller bar grid allows the horse's teeth to work the hay out while not getting caught on anything. There are flaps on the sides and bottom of the bag that a horse can yank on (that are made not to rip) - as a horse like Dudley will inevitably try to shake hay out more quickly (it won't work).

Dudley is usually turned loose with the herd during the day and locked up at night, and when I feed him in the evenings, I toss a small amount of hay on the ground, and fill the hay bag (it can hold 30-60 pounds of hay, but I just stuff it full, lightly packed down) - and 75% of it is gone by morning.

Dudley has already lost weight in the 2 weeks since he's been using this feeder... though it also has to do with his diet and DCarb and his return to exercise. The real proof of this slow feeder's effectiveness is in the fact that Dudley hasn't escaped from his pen yet. He's too busy taking his time eating.

Check out Rick's website at for more information.

It was indeed a great present from the convention, though Dudley himself probably would have cleaned out the horse feed displays.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Owyhee Eagles

March 21 2011

You may not believe it by the weather, but it's springtime - nesting time for birds of prey in Owyhee.

Karen S, retired bird biologist and endurance rider, keeps tabs on the eagle nesting sites in the county, and whenever I can, I hitch a ride (by vehicle or on horseback), to peek through her spotting scope at the birds on their nests.

The Bates Creek golden eagles are trying again. Last year they were on the nest (the male and the female will switch off) for several weeks - and then they disappeared before any eggs would have hatched. They are a skittish pair, and how or why they picked a nest in a cottonwood tree less than 100 yards from a dirt road that has a fair amount of vehicles on it, is a good question - other than it is a nice big secure nest in a protective tree. I expect what really was the last straw last year was the hay cutting in the field right below their tree.

They've been on the nest for a couple of weeks now - and no tractors have been in the field yet - so I can only cross my fingers.

Last year the pair of golden eagles on the Brown's Creek cliffs raised one youngster. Eagles usually rotate between several nests in their territory, and you'll often see many nests on a cliff face. On this cliff, there are at least 4 nests. Last year's is on the far right.

When we approached the canyon, an eagle flew off the opposite cliff face - we didn't see exactly from where - and as we moved closer to scope the nests, we found all of them empty - and then saw 2 golden eagles soaring far away.

Karen did spot a nest that looked like it had fresh 'greens' on it - every year the eagles will add more sticks to their nests, hence you may see a nest that is six feet tall - including a fresh piece of green sagebrush. We'd figured that this pair had started but decided not to nest this year, since they were both off flying and no nest had been occupied for the 15 minutes we'd been watching, but just as Karen noted some downy feathers on the 'fresh' nest - one of the eagles landed on it. She (or he) stared back over her shoulder at us - we sat very still behind our binoculars and spotting scope and talked quietly - and she took her time moving in and finally settling down on the nest.

Success! A confirmed nesting in this territory again.

This week we plan to ride out on horseback to check another territory.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Wild Horse Butte

Sunday March 19 2011

Blue and gray Owyhee spring rain and snow showers dance around and dwarf three little figures on horseback making tracks in the sand. The hoofprints leave Rye Patch and follow deep twisting washes

and old jeep roads to the Snake River,

along the Snake around Wild Horse Butte, and over old wagon tracks along the Oregon Trail back to Rye Patch. One might want to avert one's eyes from the darkest blue bubble clouds that just might conceal little lightning bolts, and instead focus on the lighter gray clouds, or the white snow showers in the Owyhees, or the slips of blue sky to the east.

The only wild horses seen this day are Superhero Batman, and the Old Man Rhett, who, necks arched and legs churning and manes flapping, want to sprint much faster than the 11 mph we are averaging. They leave two riders with cramped hands and sore arms.

Superhero Batman is uncharacteristically spooky and cranky,

pinning his ears and making faces at the mare Replika, a bit unnerved at the fact that she is not impressed with his Super Powers. She rolls her eyes at both the boys' antics and she keeps up with them just fine, with no theatrics.

It's a good brisk 15 mile springtime workout for horses and riders.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Year of the Tarp

Friday March 18 2011

Can your horse handle the sight of a tarp?

What if it's flapping in the wind?

Will he walk over one?

Will he drag one? Can he pick one up?

Will he wear one?

Can you drag one over his head?

Why shouldn't he be able to do all of this with a tarp?

I decided this is the year of the tarp, where all the horses here will get tarp broke.

With some of them it's easy because they aren't worried about tarps. (They are more worried about monsters and such, which can take the shape of tiny little birds, or big scary monsters that humans can't see.)

Finneas, and Dudley (who can be afraid of wee little birds), had no problem walking over or dragging around a tarp, or being wrapped by one like twin sausages.

Today Mac picked one off the rail, drug it, had it pulled over him from one side to the other. He was eyeballing it, but with only verbal reassurance from me it didn't bother him.

Steph's older horse Rhett wanted nothing to do with a tarp, so his lesson was only to come close enough to put his nose down and snort loudly and sniff it and stand by it. Some horses are so startled by it that I just drag it around with me, pick it up and wad it up, open it up and flap it up and down in the air, far away from them just so they get used to seeing me handle it.

Stormy's friend Tex is very leery of the tarp, but when his friend Stormy walked by him wearing it, he thought that perhaps it isn't that dangerous.

The ideas is to not force any of them to do anything that will scare them, but to allow them to conquer the tarp step by step, at their own pace, with little stress.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"It Was So Cold..."

Wednesday march 16 2011

How cold was it today?

It was so cold (and wet) that it resembled Seattle.

It was so cold (and wet) that the horses looked like waterlogged chickens.

It was so cold (and wet) that Bates Creek has picked up enough in volume to resemble a small river.

It was so cold (and wet) that the Owyhee mountains got another layer of snow.

It was so cold that the rain sometimes fell as icesleetsnowballs.

It was so cold and wet and muddy and windy that the horses got wild hairs up their nostrils and took to running and bolting and sliding in the mud.

It was so cold that Dudley got to stay out and eat hay all day.

(Slide show here:)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Counting Calories and Cutting Carbs

Tuesday March 15 2011

I talked about training horses in the last series, now let's talk about the equine diet. Here's a reprint of an article I wrote for Trail Blazer in 2006 on that subject.

Counting Calories and Cutting Carbs - The Round Table Discussion

Humans may shudder at the thought of worrying about calories, carbohydrates and fat in their diets. But what about horses? Do they need extra carbohydrates in the diet? More fat or more calories? Or less?

We took up the weighty subject of equine diets at a virtual round-table discussion with a trio of experts. Dr Joe Pagan is the founder and president of Kentucky Equine Research in Versailles, Kentucky. KER conducts detailed nutrition and exercise physiology studies, and serves as a consultant to feed manufacturers worldwide. Dr Melyni Worth, Ph.D. P.A.S., of Foxden Equine Nutrition and Therapy in Virginia, holds an International Trainers License from the European Union, and has trained horses and riders for 28 years. In addition, corresponding with her Ph. D. in Equine Nutrition and Exercise Physiology, she works as a consultant and writer. Dr Juliet Getty holds a Ph.D. in Animal Nutrition, and has been in the field for 20 years, including teaching at the University of North Texas. Since she started Getty Equine Nutrition 2 years ago in Texas, her nutritional consulting services have expanded around the globe – from backyard horse owners to large breeding farms.

1) We began with the following quote: “High fat/low carbohydrate diets are the most important advancement in equine nutrition since the advent of commercial diets.” What is your opinion of this statement?

JOE PAGAN: I’d say that’s probably a reasonable statement, though I might modify it by saying “High fat, high fermentable fiber and low starch” diet. By fermentable fiber, I mean what you’re adding to your feed, such as beet pulp and soy hulls. The research we’ve done in the last 20 years emphasizes alternate energy source diets, or alternate lower starch diet – not necessarily an emphasis on high fat, but on lower starch content.

MELYNI WORTH: OK, sure, low carbohydrates being the key. Or, maybe I’d say high fiber/low carbohydrate diet. And to be even more specific, a high fiber/low simple carbohydrate diet. It’s the simple carbs – those that come from grains - that can cause problems. These are digested in the stomach and small intestines into sugar, which moves into the blood. Too much over a long period can lead to problems. The complex carbs – we call this fiber – are digested in the hind gut, and this is what the horse evolved to survive on.

JULIET GETTY: I wholeheartedly agree with this statement.  Horses’ digestive systems are not designed for large amounts of starch.  Grains, such as oats, corn, barley, wheat, rice, etc., are highly concentrated in “nonstructural carbohydrates” (NSC) which include starch and sugars.  Too much starch has many negative consequences. 

2) Will this diet benefit all horses, or just hard-working horses?

JOE PAGAN: Lower starch diets are healthy for all classes of horses. You don’t risk starch overload, which could lead to colic from fermenting too fast in the hind gut. A high starch diet produces high levels of glucose, which can lead to insulin resistance, contribute to muscle disorders such as tying up, and cause behavioral issues such as excitability. The lower starch diet is safer because you don’t run these risks, and it’s more natural for the horse. Feeding high fat to, for example, endurance horses would be for more efficient energy use. By adapting to a higher fat diet, it will teach the muscles to burn fat, i.e. condition the horse to switch to fat-burning quicker. Feeding fat, along with long slow exercise, will condition the muscles to do this.

MELYNI WORTH: Absolutely; a higher fiber, low carb diet is good for all horses. The horse was born to survive off forage. In the old days when we started using horses for hard work, we started adding grain to their diets to meet their extra energy needs. In the 1960’s, the number of working horses plummeted, but we kept the mindset of grain feeding. Unless the horse is working hard and needs these extra simple carbs, the muscles can get to where they don’t respond to insulin, and this can lead to problems similar to Type II diabetes.

JULIET GETTY: The best way to answer this question is to look at what too much starch (from grain) and sugar (from sweet feeds) can do to a horse’s system. Starch and sugar 1) raise blood glucose levels, which can produce highs and lows in energy levels; 2) cause an increase in insulin levels which can lead to insulin resistance and Metabolic Syndrome. Elevated insulin is also a problem with a horse suffering from Cushings Syndrome; 3) increase acid production in the stomach and should therefore be avoided in horses who have or have had ulcers; 4) when fed in large enough quantities can move past the small intestine into the hind gut,  where they can be fermented by the bacterial flora that naturally live there.  Such fermentation can result in acid production, thereby killing these good bacteria.  The release of endotoxins result and can lead to laminitis; 5) when fed to foals and growing horses can increase the incidence of Developmental Orthopedic Diseases (DOD). So, this low starch diet is really best for all horses.

3) How are energy shortfalls met?

JOE PAGAN: Does your horse need the extra energy? If he is not working hard or in heavy training, his energy requirements could be met with just a forage-based diet. On the other hand, lactating mares, for example, will have higher energy requirements, and forage alone will not meet their energy needs. For horses that need the extra energy, it shouldn’t be either fat or starch; it should come from multiple energy sources.

MELYNI WORTH: If the horse does have extra energy needs, meet these with fat, not more carbs. Feeding lower carbs is just better for horses in general. They do need carbs, but not too many; fat, but not too much. More is not necessarily better – too much of any one thing is not good. It should be a mixture of all, but less sugar. Try to move away from sugar.

JULIET GETTY: A safer energy source rather than starch is fat, which is very well tolerated. Energy (additional calories) can easily be provided by adding feed sources that have low NSC levels. For those horses that are worked intensely, extra calories can be added by providing beet pulp, stabilized flaxseed meal, and stabilized rice bran.  Flaxseed oil and canola oil are also worth adding if even more energy is needed.   

4) Which feeds do you recommend, to get the recommended amount of fiber, carbs, fats, etc.?

JOE PAGAN: For high fermentable fiber, add beet pulp or soy hulls. For added fat, we recommend vegetable oils. We are beginning to steer away from corn oil because of its ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acids. Simplistically, omega 6’s are not good. Soy oil has a lower omega 6 to 3 ratio, and flax oil actually has an inverse ratio. Some commercial feeds contain about 10% high fat and fermentable fiber, with the beet pulp already added. This mixture reduces the high carbohydrates, but the overall energy needs are met.

MELYNI WORTH: If you do add carbs, I recommend whole or rolled oats – the safest feed there is. Beet pulp and soy hulls are fiber sources if the horse doesn’t get enough hay, or if you want something to add your vitamin and mineral mix to. The best fat to feed is the most unrefined fat source - no animal fat, because horses weren’t made to digest animal products. Feed vegetable fat, such as (in my order of preference) 1) whole flax seed, 2) whole roast soybeans (cooked, never raw), or 3) black oil sunflower seeds. You can feed the flax or sunflower seeds raw. If you do grind the flax seeds, feed them right away; don’t let them sit around because they can mold. I don’t feed peanuts because of the mold factor. If you can’t get any of these three fat sources, you can use vegetable oils, such as corn or canola, as a last choice. For adding fiber to the diet, hay if possible. Hay, hay, and more hay. The best hay to feed is the best feed to give. Hay is best, and of that, clean, well-made grass hay is best – any cutting, but no mold. Some alfalfa is OK, but too much is bad because it’s high in protein and calcium, and it’s too hot. If you do feed alfalfa, feed no more than 20% of the daily diet.

JULIET GETTY: If someone is wanting a complete ration, look for one that has 12 to 14 percent protein, at least 4% fat, and at least 18% fiber.  Add it to the diet to provide additional calories to meet workload needs.  If a horse is not being exercised, feed 100% hay, with a small amount of a complete ration or even beet pulp or alfalfa pellets as a carrier to add any supplements. Grain (oats, corn, barley, etc.) should only be fed in small amounts – no more than 3 lbs per day – and only to adult horses that have additional energy needs due to an increased workload.   Oats are digested the most efficiently.  Corn, in my opinion, is to be avoided since it is more likely to end up in the hind gut undigested. 

5) How is it best to feed fat?

JOE PAGAN: Muscles won’t automatically start burning fat as soon as you start feeding it; they must be trained to do so. One study showed it takes 4 weeks for the body to adapt; another study showed 5 weeks. In an endurance horse, for example, it won’t help to start ‘fat-loading’ a few days before the event. Feeding fat and training is the only way to utilize this diet for efficient energy use.

MELYNI WORTH: Since horses were born to handle forage, don’t worry about switching hay diets. However, any other diet change should be introduced gradually. To begin adding fat to the diet, start with adding just 2 ounces of (for example) flax seed the first week; increase it to 3 ounces the next week, 4 the next, etc. Sometimes it’s hard to get a cup of oil down a horse because of the unplatability, which is another reason to recommend the seeds.

JULIET GETTY: Horses have a high tolerance for added fat.  Oil can be added up to 2 cups per day, if necessary.  However, most horses do not like oily feed, so I prefer to add a high fat top dressing to the diet such as flaxseed meal, stabilized rice bran (make sure it has added calcium), or commercial preparations that are made from these.  Kent Feeds and ADM Alliance offers a such high fat top dressings, for example.

6) What are the drawbacks?

JOE PAGAN: Feeding too much fat inhibits glycogen storage. Another drawback can be feeding too much fat too fast, which can cause scouring. Get them used to ½ to 1 cup a day if you are using oil.

MELYNI WORTH: If you overfeed fat, you can get diarrhea. It can also interfere with mineral digestion, so add a high quality vitamin/mineral supplement, particularly with magnesium. I think the true major drawback of feeding high fat is feeding it when you don’t need it! Again, it’s often this mindset that we have to add grain to a horse’s diet. If he doesn’t need the extra calories or energy, hay should meet all his requirements. I say, hay, hay, and more hay! Get the horse back to the way he was born to be.

JULIET GETTY: None.  I have hundreds of clients that I have switched to this type of feeding plan and their horses are blossoming into the body they were meant to have.  The only problem with this diet is convincing those who have been feeding oats and sweet feeds for years that a low starch diet is more in tune with a horse’s natural digestive process.  Old habits die hard. 

Dr Joe Pagan’s website is;
Dr Melyni Worth’s website is;
Dr Getty’s website is

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Shape Up! Part II

Sunday March 13 2011

(Part I is here.)


Lest the months of walking, laying the LSD conditioning foundation, may sound boring, it can be far from it if you take advantage of the time to have fun with your horse while you teach him different things.

While ten trainers may disagree on conditioning methods, they will agree on the importance of training your horse. “In most cases,” says Lynn Smothermon, “both recreational and competitive horses must be disciplined, well educated, confident horses and partners with their owners.”

Besides proper conditioning, another big advantage of the LSD training is that your horse is not rushed into speed, which may affect his mental ability to stay calm on the trail. Your horse should remain calm with several initial weeks of walking; as you progress to walking and trotting, your horse should continue to move forward calmly, and in control. If you do come to a spooky situation, it may be best to slow the horse’s pace, so he can evaluate the situation and calmly deal with it, rather than trying to force a horse past a scary object. If you know you will be encountering some scary situations on the trail, bring along another friend who has a well-seasoned horse that will not react badly to these situations. If that horse is calm, your horse will much more likely react the same way – with a non-reaction, which he will carry through to the next time he encounters it.

It may very well take the same amount of time to mentally condition your horse, young or old, on the trail as it does to physically condition him. “Re-educating an older horse out of bad habits can take months of patience and firm guidance to reestablish the horse as a partner in anyone’s training discipline,” says Smothermon.

Take advantage of the time spent going slow for conditioning to expose your horse to all kinds of situations he may one day encounter on the trail. Go out alone; go in company, and rotate positions: be the leader, be the follower, be in the middle, be on the left side and the right side, and stay relaxed in all situations. Your horse should willingly and easily move off your legs, back up (only when asked!), respond to your seat and weight, stand still when you get on and off until you ask him to move out. Yes, your horse does get bored with the same trails over and over. Take him on different trails, go different directions. Get him used to hikers, pack horses, bikers, motorbikes, dogs, different groups of horses coming or going. Practice perfecting and hastening your transitions between the start, walk, trot, walk, stop. Teach your horse to stay on the trail, and to willingly leave the trail when you ask him. Take him through as many trail obstacles you may encounter: rocks, sand; creeks.

Encourage your horse to drink at water spots. Let him graze occasionally along the trail. Teach him to walk back home calmly on a loose rein. When you get back home, or to your trailer, teach your horse to tie to a trailer, or a tree, in case you will be in a ridecamp or camping out on the trail all night. Teach your horse to accept everything he would encounter at a vet check in competition – touching his mouth, his legs, his rear end muscles, taking his heart rate, listening to his gut sounds.

If you have friends whose horses are further along in their conditioning, resist the temptation to just follow along faster than your horse is ready for, just to have company. Ride to your own horse’s training level.

When you think of all the things you can do during these months of walking and slow trotting, and you see how obedient and supple your horse is becoming, you will realize there is no limit to what you can teach him. You may find you really enjoy these training strolls with your horse and you don’t want to progress to trail competition.


Don’t be in a rush to get your horse fit or competitive on the trail. Remember, slow is fast. The time you may have think you saved rushing your horse’s body systems into shape can come back at you through injury and a much shorter career. Throughout all of your successful efforts of conditioning and training your horse, be it for Competitive Trail Riding, Endurance, or just Trail Blazing solo or with friends for the day, you will develop a strong horse and a unique partnership and understanding with him that will last for many years.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Shape Up! Part I

Saturday March 12 2011

Since it's that time of year for many riders – time to get back in the saddle and get your blubbery horses back into shape, I'll have a few articles and links on conditioning horses. The following is a general training article of mine that was originally printed in Trail Blazer magazine in 2007.

Shape Up!

You’re one of those riders who doesn't enjoy the confinement of an arena. Your horse doesn’t take well to it either. You love the outdoors and can really think of nothing better to do than spend all day in the open spaces with your horse. Maybe you’d like to have the option of adding competition to your riding repertoire. But how do you get there from here?

Whether your goal is to participate in competitive trail rides, endurance rides, or just pleasurable trail rides, start with the fundamentals of building a solid foundation of physical conditioning and mental training underneath your horse. Getting your horse fit and confident to handle any challenge, physical and psychological, is essential to a thriving partnership and success on the trail.


Conditioning is subjecting the horse to the stress of exercise, in gradually increasing workloads over time, allowing the horse’s body systems time to adapt to each increase. This process is known as progressive loading. Not only will it maximize the horse’s performance, but will also help keep the horse sound. Increasing workloads means slow and steady increase in either the duration of exercise, or the speed of exercise, but not both at the same time, approximately every week.

You have an advantage if you are working with an older horse who has previously had an athletic career. His body has already been accustomed to the conditioning program, so you won’t be starting from scratch, as you would with a youngster or an older horse that has never had any kind of physical training.
What type of horse do you need for success? “Any breed of horse and any discipline of riding can compete at the North American Trail Ride Conference Novice level as long as the physical and mental preparations are made to compete at 20 to 25 miles,” says Lynn Smothermon, a recreational/competitive trail trainer in Orange, California. The same applies to limited distance endurance rides and pleasure trail rides - any breed can be successful. While Arabian horses have proven best in general for long distance endurance rides, there are of course exceptions; every horse is an individual, and some may naturally do better than others despite their breeding.

Patience is a key to conditioning; it is tempting to start too soon and do too much too fast. It can take 2 to 3 years to fully condition a horse’s body systems. The cardiovascular system is the first to whip into shape. In approximately 6 months, your horse may stop huffing and puffing so hard after a workout, and he may appear to be in shape. But it’s the other systems that need the most nurturing and that take the longest to come round. According to Dr Nancy Loving, DVM, it can take ligaments and tendons 6 to 12 months to fully develop, and it can take up to 1 to 2 years for the conditioning of bone.


Ask ten different trainers, and they will give you ten very different plans for properly and carefully conditioning your trail horse. While methods always vary, the basic underlying theme and key to getting your horse fit in all these disciplines, that all trainers will likely agree to, is Long Slow Distance training, or low intensity aerobic work

Lynn Smothermon says, “In my opinion the young horse is all about slow and steady. This means spending at least 6 months to a year building hours in the saddle, with a calm confident walk as the foundation and forefront to all the other work involved – uphills, downhills, gullies, creek crossings. It’s just miles and miles of patient body building work based on the horse’s abilities.”

For the older horse, start out with taking him 4-6 miles every other day for about an hour. This will be mostly walking, with very little trotting. After 3-4 weeks, it’s time to add stress by increasing his workload. This means adding a little speed, or a little distance – but never both at one time. Either add more trotting over the same distance, or increase your training time by 15 minutes. A good rule of thumb for older horses is to increase workload on a 5 to 7 day cycle.

Over the weeks and months, you will gradually increase your horse’s workout time up to a few hours, with more time spent trotting and occasionally cantering. This is a good time to begin monitoring your horse’s heart-rate and recovery; it is one of the best ways to determine the progress of his fitness. In well-conditioned horses, the heart rate should be around 60 beats per minute 10 minutes after a reasonably demanding workout.

As you work on conditioning your horse, monitor his progress by observing the change in his physical appearance – you should be able to see muscle development and definition in the first month. Monitor his weight by measuring his girth. Watch and feel his legs for any signs of heat or swelling. Observe his attitude: is he enthusiastic and alert during and after his training, or is he dull and tired? Keep a log of your training schedule and progress, and his heart rate and recoveries. Take pictures every week so you can see his physical change over time.

When your horse’s heart rate recovers to 48 beats per minute within ten minutes of completing his exercise, (which can take from several months to a year of training), and your goal is simply pleasure trail riding, you can maintain your horse’s fitness at this level by continuing the same distance or speed of workouts a few times a week.

If your goal is competitive trail riding or endurance, now it’s time to add strength training. Add some inclines to your training, or trot your horse through sand. Be very cautious in sand, however, as it’s hard on tendons and ligaments. It’s best to avoid trotting through sand with young horses, and be extremely wary in deep sand with any horse.

Now is also a good time to take your horse into the arena once a week as part of his workout regimen. Suppling exercises of circles and figure 8’s, leg yielding and sidepassing will increase your horse’s flexibility and range of motion, and therefore help prevent injuries.

If your ultimate goal is long distance endurance riding, you should add some anaerobic training to your conditioning program. Endurance rider Dr Nancy Loving gives good insight on aerobic and anaerobic conditioning in her books Go the Distance and All Systems Go.

If you are aiming for Trail Riding Competition, your first goal will be the Novice level of 25 miles. Same goes for endurance competition: your first goal should be the shorter limited distance rides of 25 miles. Depending on how your horse comes out of the ride – tiredness, weight loss, heart rate recovery – you may want to do several more limited distance rides – no more than one a month, before you progress to a slow 50-mile endurance ride. When your horse has done several 50-mile rides and handles it well – perhaps in his second season of endurance – he may be ready for his first multi-day ride, or a longer endurance ride.

The same goes for ride competitions as it does for training: slow is better. If you want to have a fast top ten horse, spend 2 years of riding slow (especially if you are riding a young horse, a 5 or 6-year-old in his first years of competition). Your horse will stay sounder longer and go many more miles over the years.

Next: Part II – Training: It's All Mental

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Party's Over

Thursday March 10 2011

It's been a lazy winter. Flab is overtly abundant. One particular Horse-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named (starts with a "D" and has the letters u-d-l-e-y in the name) has love handles and he didn't particularly appreciate me squeezing them.

It's time to get down to business. Regina reminded us the Tough Sucker endurance ride is only 5 weeks away. It's practically spring in Owyhee.

No more time off - the workouts and re-conditioning has begun. Hills are crying out to be climbed. Sand washes are clamoring to be worked up.

No more indulging at gorging hay 24 hours a day (well for Horse-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named for sure, anyway).

We have a lot of horses to get in shape. Ourselves too!