Q: Can you outline a simple fitness program I can start with my 8-year-old Quarter Horse gelding? He had limited riding over the winter and I'd like to get him in shape for long three-to-four-hour trail rides, that will include some galloping. Other than being out of shape, my horse is healthy. He is not particularly overweight, either. Should I ride him daily? And what type of exercise should I do? Short, intense workouts or longer, more moderate rides? And how will I be able to tell when he is ready for these long trail rides?
A: Entire books have been written about equine fitness; however, I can outline a basic program that will suit your trail-riding needs.
If your horse has been out at liberty with other horses all winter in a space that allows at least three acres of "running" room per horse, he has probably been more active than you think, and you can have him ready for long trail rides in about a month. If he has been stabled much of the winter or in a paddock space that doesn't encourage play, it may take you two or three months to get him fit. Keep in mind, however, that Quarter Horses are so named because they are genetically inclined to be sprinters--a quarter mile is their "best" distance. Your horse, then, may never be able to handle long, strenuous rides as easily as an Arabian or Thoroughbred, who are genetically programmed for distance work.
In general, you'll want to ride three days a week and keep your horse in a large pasture with company the other days. Start with 30-minute rides and gradually, over a four-week period, work up to 90 minutes per ride. For the first few rides, walk for 15 minutes of the ride and trot for 15 minutes, breaking those minutes up into any increments you'd like. Over time you can add canter work. A good four-week goal is 90-minute rides with 20 minutes at the walk, 50 minutes at the trot and 20 minutes at the canter, again, broken up and ridden in any order you'd like. Where you ride is also important. If you are training for trail work, by all means, ride on the trails.
As your horse's fitness increases, you will notice that the work will become less laborious for him and his pulse recovery after fast work will drop into the 60s in five minutes or less. You can check his pulse with a stethoscope or your fingers with a bit of practice. Even if you don't use pulse rate as an indicator, you'll notice your horse's fitness increasing in other ways--he will not become "winded" as easily, his body will become more muscular and he will be "forward" and eager in his work for longer periods of time.
Once you've gotten a horse fit, it isn't difficult to keep him that way. Horses retain their condition much better than people do. Continue riding two or three days a week with continuous turnout all year long, and you won't be faced with the same situation next spring