Trail riding provides horse owners an escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and an opportunity to experience the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape.
Embarking on a trail ride can be purely recreational, a break from training, or a competitive endeavor. As with any horse-related activity, both horse and rider should be prepared physically and mentally.
Recreational trail riding and short distance rides
"I believe in conditioning a horse for anything," said Carrie Scrima, founder of the American Competitive Trail Horse Association (ACTHA). " If you don't have a well-conditioned horse, you're asking for accidents."
The length of the ride and the type of terrain will determine the level of conditioning required. "Horses can walk five to six miles in their paddocks every day," Scrima noted. "A rider does not necessarily need to condition a horse for a five to six mile (walking) ride because a horse does that on his own."
A longer trail ride or a ride in demanding terrain or at a speeds faster than a walk require the horse to be in good condition.
"Proper conditioning may include a half hour's ride a day the first few days, increased to an hour or more daily one week later, finally increased to two hours," suggested Wayne Loch in a publication for University of Missouri Extension (extension.missouri.edu/p/2883).
"By the end of the conditioning period, a daily ride of about half the distance of an average day on the trail is sufficient."
"For a horse that is too thin for serious trail riding, increase the feed and exercise to gain more conditioning before the ride. A horse will likely lose weight while on a ride," Loch added.
Even for shorter day rides, it is important to remember that horses, unlike humans, will not give up when they "hit a wall." A horse can and will overtax its body to the point of killing himself. "It may not happen that day, but the horse may colic the next day and die," Scrima said. "When that happens people forget about the ride the day before and the death is blamed solely on colic."
Dehydration, specifically, can affect horses. "The horse's digestion system has not advanced and it requires small amounts of food and water frequently," Scrima said. When riding on lengthy trail events, it is important to consider when and how the horse will have access to food and water to replenish his energy sources.
Distance and competitive trail riding
Having a horse participate in long distance or competitive trail riding involves advanced conditioning. A training program will be determined by the horse's current condition.
"It would really depend on what condition the horse is presently in," said Laurie DiNatale, Executive Administrator for North American Trail Ride Conference (NATRC). "A horse that is already being ridden several times a week for a couple hours or more, in varied terrain, with some stress of hills or trotting, will not take long to get in shape for a Novice ride."
However, a horse starting from scratch could take several months. And along with the conditioning of the body, is the conditioning of the mind. "The training of the horse's mind, to be capable of handling the negotiation of the terrain, along with being with many other horses, takes time too," she added.
"Riders entered in a Novice Division ride will be expected to complete 15-24 miles at a pace of 3.5 to 5 mph depending on terrain," DiNatale said. "The horse should eat, drink, and act like they could do it again the next day.
The horse should have good pulse and respiration recoveries, no dehydration, good capillary refill, and the mucous membranes should be pink and moist," she added.
"In the mountains, the Novice Division wouldn't be maintaining a pace of 5 mph, but on the plains they could be asked to. The horse should also be prepared to safely cover the terrain where the ride will be held," she noted.
A veterinarian can provide suggested training routines based on the horse's current body condition for riders interested in competitive rides, multi-day rides, or for rides in rugged terrain. "A person running a 5k doesn't have to work out as hard as a person running a marathon," Scrima said. "Working an endurance horse is a full-time job, like training for a marathon."
"The rider needs to realize that they are an athlete, too. A tired rider can't help the horse through good equitation. Along with conditioning the horse, the rider needs a good conditioning program," DiNatale added.
Horses have denser muscles, allowing them to travel longer distances than humans. However, horses are expected to carry additional weight that a human does not. "Riders should be balanced, not too far forward or too far back," Scrima said.
Basic equitation principles such as sitting in the middle of the horse, with the rider's ear, shoulder, hip and heel in line are critical to helping a horse negotiate varied trail footing.
"In ACTHA we stress that riders get light in the seat when going up hill to take pressure of the horse's backs and so it doesn't pull on the horse's loins," Scrima added.
The rider also needs to know how to read a horse's vital signs. They should know their horse's resting pulse and respiration. "A good stethoscope is a great investment," DiNatale said. "After the stress of a long hill or a trot, the horse should recover to 12 or less on pulse, and 9 or less on respiration, for a count of 15 seconds."
Riders should also know how to measure dehydration and how to read the mucous membranes. A horse should be encouraged to drink wherever possible. A relaxed horse is better able to recover at rest stops. "Teaching the horse to drop their head and relax will help them to recover," DiNatale suggested.
For a successful trail ride of any type, the rider should be familiar with the terrain and prepare their horse for what might be encountered. Horse and rider should work well together and the horse should listen to and trust the rider, while calmly doing what is asked of him.
The American Competitive Trail Horse Association (ACTHA) is an organization that sponsors ACTHA sanctioned trail rides, and enables more casual competitions through its "Ride Host Program."