Get Ready for the Mountains, by Dr. Ruth James

Nothing is worse than taking an out-of-condition horse (or mule) on the trail. At best, it is a miserable experience for the animal. He may be rubbed sore by ill-fitting equipment, causing skin damage that may take months to heal. He can even be rubbed by good-fitting equipment when his skin isn’t in shape. Think of going hiking all day, in a perfectly fitted pair of boots, when you haven’t been out of the house in three months. Worse yet, he may become injured or seriously ill. At the very worst, he may die, especially if the stress of the ride is combined with altitude, heat or humidity. So, get your equine companion ready for the trip.

For a soft horse fresh out of the stall or pasture, begin AT LEAST a month before your planned trip or regular trail riding season. Six to eight weeks are even better. Deworm the horse if that hasn’t been done within two months. Put on new shoes if needed or make sure the feet are trimmed to a reasonable length. I like to plan the last shoeing three weeks before I go to the mountains to allow time for healing if the animal is trimmed too short or quicked by a nail.

Make sure that vaccinations are up-to-date. Tetanus is important as the horse may be poked with twigs or brush on the trail. Influenza is also important if he will be around strange horses. Encephalitis (sleeping sickness) is a good idea for northern horses in the summer and southern horses at any time of the year if mosquitoes will be present. A rabies vaccination is a good idea in many parts of the country. Have the horse checked by your veterinarian if you have any questions about his health or ability to withstand the trip. Do NOT vaccinate within a week of a trip – you may be unable to take the horse at all if he has a reaction the vaccine.

During the conditioning period, be sure to use all the same tack you will take to the mountains. This gives you a chance to check the fit of the saddle, pad, breastcollar, bridle, bit, crupper, etc. and change anything that doesn’t fit. A saddle that fit perfectly last fall with the horse in good condition may pinch or rub after a layoff when he is fatter or thinner. It also gives you a chance to get all of the animal’s tack in the same place. I once arrived at the mountains without a bridle when I hurriedly gathered for a trip. This can be annoying with some horses; with other, the animal may be unusable.

Start your conditioning regime with two or four miles at a walk. After three or four of these easy sessions, move up to trotting, after a mile warm up walk. Save a mile of walking for cooldown. By the end of three weeks (4-5 rides per week), you can move up to combining time at a trot and a lope. One of my friends says, “trot for legs, lope for lungs.” When the opportunity permits, add more difficult workouts: up and down hills or mountains, through water, deep sand or plowed dirt. You can check the animal’s pulse and respiration rates to check his conditioning progress.

Meanwhile, I like to get myself ready for the trip. Riding the horse to get him in shape gets my body in condition and toughens my hide too, so that MY tail doesn’t get sore on the trail. I like to ride in boots that are also great for walking. Make sure that these boots are broken in before heading out. I’ve had to walk out of the mountains more than once, leading an injured horse or leading a sound horse carrying an injured hiker. Being in condition can save YOU from being miserable if your horse is hurt. Losing weight may be on your pre-mountain agenda. Every pound that you can take off the horse’s back will make him more comfortable for the long haul.

Get ready, get set, HAPPY TRAILS!!

Excerpted with permission from "How to Be your Own Veterinarian (Sometimes)" by Dr. Ruth James, 2007