Sunday, June 13, 2010

Road Riding 101

I am a huge proponent of long, slow conditioning work. Having grown up surrounded by Pony Clubbers and other responsible horse people, I feel that it's important to take your horse's entire condition into account. To me, riding is not just about dressage and jumping suppleness and strength. Instead, I believe my horse benefits from long periods of time under saddle crossing over hills and walking by 'terrifying' objects. Riding on the road, is a good way to do this sort of easy build up.

Riding on roads or other hard surfaces, gravel or hard packed dirt (both unavailable where I am), help toughen up your horses tendons and ligaments as well as allow your horse to develop a feel for his traction and balance on a different type of surface. I don't know a rider around who doesn't want their horse to be more balanced and comfortable on all surfaces they might come across!

Since owning Guinness, I've become an even more active proponent of road conditioning. I feel that our long walks have helped cut down on lameness issues and have helped us create trust. By simply walking for an hour+, we build up muscle while avoiding overwear on Guinness' joints. It's not prime cardio work, but it's great for a relaxing ride on a Monday evening after work - or on a Sunday morning! On top of that, we no longer freak out when passing barking dogs, cars or fast moving UPS trucks. And that, ladies and gentleman, is heartening.

But remember, while riding on the road is relatively easy and relaxing, there are a few things you need to keep in mind to stay safe.

GP loves hacking out! It's such a mind break for him.
1. Traction
Whether your horse is barefoot or shod, traction on the road should be your number one concern. If your horse is slipping, you run the risk of a horrible accident for both of you. Nothing is worse than falling on a super hard, abrasive surface. Don't you remember skinning your knees as a kid? Ouch.
For a shod horse, consider adding borium or road studs to your horse's shoes. Which one you go with depends on what you are using your horse for. If you regularly compete on rough ground or live in an area where extra traction is needed, you might decide to go with borium. It's a little less dangerous for your horses joints, though harder to remove in case you decide you don't need it. Studs are easy to customize and remove, but can be dangerous if your horse has a tendency to interfere with himself or if you over-do them.
Luckily, the barefoot horse has traction a little easier than a horse with slick metal nailed to it's feet. The barefoot horse's feet naturally provide a feel for the horse of the ground he is working on, and since they wear, they provide a rougher traction surface to stick to the pavement. Of course, barefeet do wear a lot more than shod feet do. If you are going to work your barefoot horse on pavement a lot, you might consider booting or shoeing to avoid wearing down the wall excessively. With my soft-walled TB, this has been an issue that I watch constantly.

2. Spooking
It's a proven fact (probably) that scary objects are scarier to your horse when he's away from home. I know that while Guinness and I have eliminated nearly all spooking while working on the barn premises, we still encounter utterly terrifying things while out on our hacks. To keep from taking a horrible fall or risking injury to yourself or your horse you'll want to be intensely familiar with the roads you are going to be hacking on. This way, you can be aware of anything your horse might spook at and take extra precautions to make sure you stay safe in these areas.
For example: Guinness is terrified of a certain kind of for sale sign. Knowing this, I am alway extra alert as we approach these. Usually, we do things to keep GP's mind off the whole issue. Working on bend or leg yields typically keeps his mind on me while we pass the scary objects.
Keep in mind that if your horse does freak out at something while on the road, it's better to jump off and deal with the problem from the ground. Having you fall onto the road and get hurt is not going to help your horse at all, and having you both fall could be even worse! Take some time to practice your emergency dismount so that you feel comfortable doing it at all paces. It's definitely a very important skill to have.
In short, stay alert and have a plan for what you will do if your horse spooks.

3. Don't Overdo It!
While working on the road has its benefits, it's not necessary (or even good) to do it every day. Additionally, don't jump right into riding your horse for 1hr. If you have a tubby ball of lard on your hands, he's not going to appreciate you taking him out for a marathon hiking session. Let's face it, none of us really like to be really sore - and you aren't doing yourself any favors if you want to ride your horse again anytime soon. Instead, take a page from endurance riders and long distance runners. Up your mileage slowly and by small percentages each week. This will help you toughen up your horse, without doing damage to his soft tissues or bones.

4. Have fun!
If you're located anywhere like me, it's a blast to ride through neighborhoods and expose non-horsie people to the world of horses! But, don't forget to pick up any messes your horse might leave on the road, that's an easy way to get yourself in big trouble with the locals.
Enjoy the sunshine, relax and learn more about your horse. Riding long distances on your horse helps you learn his personality better than just jumping on for a half hour a couple times a week. It's really fun, and you'll love the bond you two will form! He'll really come to depend on you to tell him everything is okay and that he can trust you.

Now get out there and enjoy your ponies!

Guinness shows his "personality". He's super annoyed at me for taking pictures and not focusing on him! He's also doing his "suppling exercises". Check out that S shape in his neck. What a nutter!

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