The first thing you need to understand is that your horse is just like any other athlete. And just like an athlete, you cannot expect it to perform like an Olympian right off the bat if it has been parked in a stall for months on end, or if it has been lazily grazing in the fields. In our culture, horses have been romanticized in books and movies as creatures of unlimited power and capability. It is often just assumed that they are born with and always maintain the ability to carry a rider for miles upon miles at a full run. But the truth is that a horse must be carefully and methodically trained to perform at top levels, it is not something they are just born being able to do.
Just like you could not expect yourself to be able to run a marathon tomorrow if you had spent the last six months on the sofa with a bag of chips. So, before you start making high demands of your steed, you need to do for your horse what any good trainer would do for his athlete. You need to condition it.
Your horse’s age and the amount of work it has previously done, if any, will determine where you need to start as well as what you want him in shape for. Remember, you can injure a horse by taking him out of the stall or pasture and immediately start riding him if he has had little or no riding time in weeks or months. A horse that gets ridden once or twice a week needs a gradual training program that starts out with a half hour ride every other day-this ride does not need to be hard, simply walking for one or two miles a day is a good way to start out when conditioning any horse that has not been ridden very much previously. You want to do this walking for a couple miles about every other day for at least two weeks, then you can work up to a trot for a minute or so in between long periods of walking during your ride. This is similar to what athletes call “interval training.” The horse needs restricted to these slow paces; if he is not accustomed to being ridden often, you will injure him by trying to make him move at a pace that he is not capable of moving at. For two weeks you will want to do these walk/trot intervals as you ride, just to get him used to a riding schedule again. Then, you may build up to a canter; but again, no long canter periods, you must canter for just a few seconds and then have several walk/trot intervals, then take another canter. After about six weeks of this cumulative work, when the horse is used to being ridden for a good solid hour or more, you may begin more strenuous work, such as riding uphill and downhill at the trot and then gradually to the canter-riding downhill at the trot will improve your horse’s and your own balance-and the toughest part of the training program begins.
Once your horse is in great shape and is conditioned for more strenuous work, you can begin to train your horse for whatever specific task you want. I.e. jumping, dressage, barrel racing, cross country, etc.
All of these sports demand that your horse be in top shape before beginning to train for them. Thinking that you can just skip the conditioning and move right into the specific training is very dangerous and counterproductive. The idea that your horse will just get conditioned as it goes is a recipe for serious and even permanent injury to your horse. Do not risk your horse’s health or your safety in an attempt to speed up the process.
Once conditioned, you will want to find a good source of instruction in your particular discipline. While you are looking, here are a few things that you can do you get started.
If you are jumping you want to start out trotting over poles on the ground, then trotting over small jumps spaced a couple feet apart (a good rule of thumb is usually about four feet apart, but you may need to adjust it depending on your horse’s stride), and finally going over small jumps building up to whatever height jump you and your horse are ready for. You must always start out conditioning slowly or you can injure the horse to the point where it cannot be ridden anymore. Conditioning the barrel racer would involve setting up three barrels and trotting in the pattern around them, gradually building up to faster speeds. As you can see, any particular sport that you may want your horse conditioned for can be achieved pretty easily once the foundation for strength-building has been laid. Start out slowly when conditioning any horse. If you are not sure how to go about it, it is always better to ask an experienced horse person than to take unnecessary chances. You will find that most experienced horsemen are more than happy to help and offer advice.