I would love to complete a few limited distance rides this summer, and maybe even a full-fledged endurance ride. The horse I ride is an 11 year old, 14.1 hh Arabian gelding of mostly polish breeding. I have had him for four years.
However, I am getting a bit confused over the conditioning aspect. All the information I have found seems to be geared towards legging up a completely unfit horse, beginning with riding at the walk and slow trot. I am unsure whether I should consider my horse completely unfit or not. I am also unsure of how he would behave with such a low-demand routine at first, because if we aren’t riding with enough variety (some long trots and a few canters instead of walking only) he gets silly and spooky, which is not fun at all.
My question is: how "unfit" is my horse, and what would be a good point to start from? Are there any tips for conditioning?
Here is a description of his environment, and basic workout and training routine:
My horse is kept in a hilly pasture that has no flat spots. Some of it is too steep for anything other than an ATV (or a two- or four-legged critter). He is ridden five times a week for an hour. This consists of trotting, circling, cantering, bending, and overall suppling exercises to keep him from getting bored. We also trail ride about once a month on trails with a group of friends anywhere from 12 to 15+ miles long, usually out for about 3-4 hours twice daily (if camping) or 6 hours if it’s a day trip. These rides range from walking only (boring for the horse) to walking, trotting, and cantering in equal measure (much more fun!).
We also have a little "trail" that is a half mile loop behind our pasture. I ride on this infrequently for a change of routine. Most articles I have seen cautions against riding hills at any speed for the first month of conditioning, but I really don't have a choice: There are no flat spots! If I want to work at any speed, it has to be on a hill or not at all. most of our trail rides are also in hilly areas. The flattest has to be in the southern Kettle Moraine trails (by Palmyra).
In order to maintain his sanity, and mine, we almost immediately resume a full workload fairly quickly after a layoff because he does get spooky and silly if the workout is not demanding enough for him.
Thank you, and sorry for the wordy post. I am just unsure of where to start.
If it were me, I'd start with something ... or things... that could tell me statistically how fit my horse was...and how I should progress to build on that fitness.
I'd start with a heart monitor, and start keeping a log of what his heart was telling me during the times I was riding. If you just piddle around with slow trail rides, maybe a few trot sets and a touch of cantering, doing 12 miles in two sets of 4 hours each isn't much to write home about unless your HM is telling you his heart is more ramped up than normal for this type of outting.
In other words, if his resting pulse is...say...35, and it averages about 70-90 for all your riding, you aren't doing enough to get his body in shape. If he's clocking 130-140 the whole time, either he's in too soft a condition, or he's just letting his emotions rule his brain.
Speed on hills shouldn't be thought as "canter" or "gallop", but as a steady, working trot attacking that hill to get the hr up above 160. You want to build the heart, build the wind, and build the slow-twitch muscles without breaking down the legs. I might attack a hill every now and then with a gallop, but by and large almost 99% of my conditioning hill work is a trot. During the actual competition I don't trot the hills - I tend to walk them to conserve, but my guy's body has prepared for them, so it tends to be easy for him both physically and mentally.
I would also throw a GPS into the mix. You want to build on a consistent pace and match that with watching the heart monitor to see what pace=the best hr. You want to know the miles you've traveled, how much time it took, the elevation changes, and your average pace. Each time you should slightly better the prior result, either by lengthening the miles within a reduced time (ramping up the mph) or adding more difficult terrain without falling back too far on the time it took to do a similar mileage on a less taxing route.
Get your baselines on your horse, go back and reread those articles, get your trailer hooked up to travel to a place where you can do some long, flat trotting stretches (which are every bit as important as hillwork) and move forward with the tools that can help you bring him to a good, verifiable, level of condition. It sure beats just guessing.
Thank you all for replying. I have been browsing through the different heart monitors and GPS units. The more I investigate, the more I realize that I just can't know how hard he is working unless I see his heart rate, because he will never refuse to move out. A GPS would also help with pace out on the trail. Any recommendations?
Thanks also for mentioning the long, flat trots. There are certain sections of some trails I've been on that I think would work, especially if I doubled back.
Check out the Garmin Forerunner 305. A lot of people, including myself, use that one as it has everything you could ask for. After each ride I plug it in to the computer to upload all data and can keep a great training log that way.
It is a human HR monitor and comes with a chest belt so you have to adjust it for use on a horse (take belt part off and add a couple of electrodes to the transmitter) and there are a variety of ways to do that. The Distance Depot sells the "conversion kit."