If you are planning a horse-related vacation this year and will be bringing your horse along to enjoy daily long rides, you have more to think about than just packing up and going. Your horse isn’t like a car. You can’t just take him out of the garage, dust him off, turn him on and go.
If you regularly ride only a few times a week or on weekends, and for a relatively short time compared to what you will be asking of the horse on your vacation, you need to improve his level of conditioning. Horses need formal exercise to be fit for what we ask of them.
As a bare minimum, your weekly mileage (literally – miles covered) needs to be at least double what you will be asking the horse to do on a daily basis. If you don’t know how many miles you ride, plan on spending at least twice as many hours in the saddle per week as you will be per day on your trip. Allow six to eight weeks to work up to this amount. As an example:
Current level of riding: 3 hours/week
Anticipated time in the saddle on vacation: 7.5 hours/day
Target number of hours/week riding at home: 15+ hours/week
As you can see, in this example you would need to increase your time in the saddle from three to 15 hours/week, a difference of 12 hours. If you allow six weeks to accomplish this, you’ll increase your riding time/week by two hours each week:
Week one: 5 hours/week
Week two: 7 hours/week
Week three: 9 hours/week
Week four: 11 hours/week
Week five: 13 hours/week
Week six: 15 hours/week
As an added bonus, your own thighs, back and rear end will thank you for making the increase gradually.
The pace of your riding is also important. If most of the vacation riding will be at a walk, walking and a little trotting is all you will have to do during conditioning too. If more trotting will be going on than you usually do, you’ll need to make sure you also increase your trotting time.
Find out about the terrain as well. If it’s hilly and your horse isn’t accustomed to that, you will need to increase your mileage to get him fitter. Going up and down hills is much more tiring than traveling on flat ground. For a walk/trot pace, plan on increasing your target mileage by at least 20% if you can’t work on hills.
So, in the example above, your target mileage would be 18 hours/week instead of 15. Therefore, increase the time by 2.5 hours/week instead of two. If you do have the opportunity to ride over hilly ground at home, but don’t normally do it, introduce this gradually. Keep your total weekly riding time the same, but ride the hills one day a week for your first week, two days a week the second, three days/week the third, etc. until you are doing all your riding over hills the last week.
Feeding During Conditioning
As you progress from infrequent work to several hours a day, your horse’s calorie requirements will likely go up 50-100%. You’ll need to think not only about feeding him more, but what you will be feeding him.
The first thing to do is find out what will be fed along the ride – if you must bring your own provisions or if they are provided. If provided, find out exactly what will be fed and the brand names. Part of your conditioning program is gut conditioning too. You want the horse to be fully switched over to the same type of diet he’ll get away from home by the time he leaves.
If at all possible, try to match brands of concentrate feed, and definitely hay types too. A rapid change in hay type can cause digestive upset just as easily as a change in concentrate.
All horses are going to be different in precisely how many calories they need, so the following is just a guideline. If you know your horse gains and holds weight easily, adjust down – and vice versa for the hard keeper.
A complete feed, supplemented by whatever grazing may be available, is an attractive option because it takes less space to store. Complete feeds contain the hay and grain portions of the diet in one bag, and are often fat-fortified for extra calories. The horse will need to consume 15+ pounds of complete feed/day.
To introduce a complete feed, begin by adding about 10% of the expected total (e.g., 1.5 lbs. of complete feed) to the regular diet for two days. Then double this and begin reducing your hay and grain by the same amounts. That is, when you double the amount to 3 lbs./day, reduce both your grain and hay by 20%. Allow two days between each adjustment.
Day 1 and 2: Feed regular diet and 1.5 lbs./day of complete feed
Day 3 and 4: 3 lbs./day complete feed, reduce hay and grain by 20%
Day 5 and 6: 6 lbs./day complete feed, reduce hay and grain by 40%
Day 6 and 7: 9 lbs./day complete feed, reduce hay and grain by 60%
Day 8 and 9: 12 lbs./day complete feed, reduce hay and grain by 80%
Day 10: Complete feed only, 15 lbs./day
From day 10 onward in the conditioning program, adjust the complete feed as needed to keep body weight normal. Some horses may need as much as 20 lbs./day or more.
If you will be feeding hay and grain, hay cubes are much easier to deal with away from home and take less space. Make your switch from the regular hay to the hay cubes on the same schedule/substitution rate as above. The same goes for any switch that needs to be made in grain. By starting this process several weeks before the ride, you will have time to make changes if something doesn’t agree with your horse and his intestinal tract will be fully adapted to the diet long before you actually leave.
As for how much hay and how much grain, some practical considerations may come into play. Hay cubes have only about one-third the calories of most grains, but take up a lot more space. Your horse needs hay, though, for his intestinal tract to function normally.
If you know he will also have access for good grazing several hours a day, set your hay cube intake at about 1% of his body weight, so 10 lbs./day for a 1,000-pound horse. If he won’t be able to graze, plan on 1.5%, 15 lbs./day for a 1,000-pound horse. To make up the difference in calories he will need during the last two weeks of conditioning and on the ride, he’ll also have to eat anywhere from 7.5 to 10 lbs. of grain/day.