Many pleasure riders haven’t got the time to keep their horses in consistent work and when the opportunity arises for a Sunday out on the trail, it can be tempting to simply pull your unfit horse out of the paddock and go. However, this seemingly harmless event can have serious effects on your horse’s biomechanical soundness.
By Helle Maigaard Erhardsen
Imagine you have had a month off doing nothing but eating, sleeping and lazing around. Then one day, you get a 15-20kg pack strapped on your back and sent off on a two hour hike, jogging uphill, downhill, across uneven terrain and maybe also asked to perform a couple of sprints or jumps along the way. That doesn’t sound particularly pleasant, does it?
The fact of the matter is, that even if your horse is excited to get out exploring new territory, horses very quickly lose their stamina and muscle strength when they’re not exercised regularly. Especially at risk is your horse’s topline, which are the muscles along his withers and spine, that are crucial for his ability to carry the weight of a rider and tack without injuring his back. Additionally, his hooves are also in jeopardy of getting bruised and sore, when he’s exposed to unfamiliar rough terrain.
Although this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go on that trail ride, now that you finally have the opportunity. But it means that you need to take extra precautions to prevent injuries and to ensure that the outing becomes as enjoyable for your horse as it is for you. In the following, we will look at different things you can do to make your unfit horse comfortable during the ride and what you can do for your horse in between rides, to keep him a little more fit and conditioned.
Assess the condition of your unfit horse
First step to safely bringing your horse back into work is assessing his condition. If your horse is overweight from too much grass during his time off, it is not only his back that is at risk of suffering from the extra load of a rider, but also his joints and ligaments. If your horse is on the skinnier side, it is easier to see the potential loss of muscle mass especially along his back due to inactivity.
In both instances, whether your horse is skinny or overweight, you should keep your ride at a slow pace such as a nice, energetic walk and only include a few short sections of rising trot at a long rein. If your horse is struggling to go long and low on a loose rein, you should retract from trotting, as your horse would be hollowing his back in discomfort.
Always keep in mind that horses are not naturally designed to carry weight on their backs. A horse should never carry more than 20% of his bodyweight and this includes not only the weight of the rider, but also her full dress, boots, helmet, saddle and all other tack. The maximum 20% weight limit refers to your horse’s optimum weight, whereas a fat horse can’t carry more because he weighs more.
And importantly, this weight limit is suggested to be safe only when the horse is walking, as the load of rider and tack becomes more strenuous for the horse the faster he is travelling, and also depends on how difficult the terrain is.
As such, it is useful to also assess the challenges of the upcoming ride in comparison to the environment your horse is spending most of his time in. If he’s usually living in a flat paddock, then suddenly traveling uphill and downhill with a rider would be stressful on his joints and ligaments, and it could be sensible to dismount and walk him in hand up and down the steepest bits of the trail, until he becomes more fit.
Help your Horse become Comfortable on any surface with Hoof Boots
Assessing your horse’s home environment is also important in order to know whether his feet are fit for the upcoming trail. If the surface of his paddock is mostly soft grass or soft, sandy soil, then that is what his hooves are conditioned to be comfortable on. As such, taking him on a trail that includes gravel, rocky ground or a long section of asphalt road, will most likely require some protection of his feet to avoid sore soles and bruising.
Another factor that is commonly overlooked, is the influence that changing weather conditions has on your horse’s hooves. For instance, if your horse lives in a generally dry environment, a sudden wet spell can soften and swell up his otherwise hard and rock crunching feet. Any sudden dramatic weather change can either dry up or soften your horse’s feet, causing risk of bruising or hoof abscesses in otherwise healthy hooves.
Having a pair of well fitting, shock absorbing hoof boots ready in your tack room, will be a great, preventative solution, whether your horse has unconditioned feet or hooves that have been affected by weather conditions. Hoof boots such as Scoot Boots, are quick and easy to put on and will protect your horse’s feet from whichever difficult surface you might encounter on your trail ride.
The shock absorbing properties of Scoot Boots - that can be optimised further by adding a Scoot Pad - will also help your unfit horse to better absorb the concussion from each stride and help prevent damage to the Deep Digital Flexor Tendon caused by toe-first landings. This brings us to look at how you can help your horse keep his feet well conditioned in between rides.
The Paddock Environment can help Keep your Horse Fit without Riding
Horses in the wild are on the move almost constantly whilst grazing and looking for water. In Australia, wild horses have been found to travel an average of 15 kilometres per day. This amount of movement does not only keep the horses fit, it is also conditioning their feet to withstand walking on a variety of surfaces as they move across the natural terrain.
Domesticated horses rarely have the opportunity to exercise themselves that much. However, inspired by the research of hoof care professional Jaime Jackson, creating a “paddock paradise” at home has become increasingly popular with horse owners around the world. The concept is to provide the horse with an environment as similar to the wild as possible in his own, limited paddock space.
The main component of the paddock paradise is a fenced off track around the paddock, which is cladded with different footings along the way to naturally condition the horse’s feet. The track system should be designed to encourage movement by placing hay stations, water troughs, grazing areas and shelters far apart, as they would be in the wild.
If you are lucky enough to have some steep areas on your property, these should also be included in the track so your horse is encouraged to do some daily hill exercise. Gentle obstacles like poles on the ground, a fallen three trunk or a stream of water is also great to keep your horse alert and better conditioned to confidently face a varied trail ride.
Horses are made to move! Replicating life in the wild in your own paddock, is a great way to keep your horse active in between rides.
Pleasure Horses are also Athletes
In conclusion, there are multiple factors to be mindful of before you pull your unfit horse out of the paddock to go for a trail ride. Whilst it is common to think of the risk of overworking a competition horse and the accompanying risk of injuries to such a horse, we too often overlook the risks posed to our occasional trail riding horses, which are in fact athletes too.
Pleasure horses are often asked to carry a greater load than professional sports horses and at the same time, we often expect them to perform on more difficult ground, such as moving up and down uneven hills and rocky terrain. Overloading an unfit horse with too much weight might not show immediate damage, but as we know, horses are silent sufferers and chronic injuries are likely to appear over time.
However, setting up your horse’s home environment to encourage movement and imitate life in the wild, is a great way to keep him more active between rides as well as conditioning his hooves in a natural way. Not to mention his mental wellbeing, which will benefit greatly with more daily stimulus and the opportunity to unfold more natural behavior in a “paddock paradise”.
About the author
Helle Maigaard Erhardsen is an investigative journalist specialising in environmental issues. Her devotion to the outdoors includes a life long passion for horses of which she has two: Pannigan, an off-the-track Thoroughbred and Audrey, a Shetland pony, who are both bitless and barefoot. Helle is born in Denmark, where she graduated from the Danish School of Media and Journalism in 2015. Her work is characterised by comprehensive research and she was nominated for the special media award Bording Prisen for her investigative reporting with the newspaper Ing.dk. She later obtained a Master’s degree in Journalism, Media and Communication from UTAS, when she relocated to Tasmania.