Winter – A Great Time to Start Conditioning?


My second favorite “regular” day of the year is almost here! December 21 – the day our days start getting longer. My favorite day of the year is “Spring Ahead” day, which this year falls on March 12 2017. An extra hour of daylight after work for yardwork riding. December 21 always gets me psyched for the upcoming endurance season, and the upcoming season means: Conditioning.

 What? Conditioning already? Well, maybe not quite. Winter is a great time to give your horse some R&R. In early winter I ride just enough to keep my horse tuned up so she’s not tossing me into snowbanks by the time we get riding again. But if you are planning on any early season rides, you can really get a leg up by starting conditioning early. So when are those first rides in the greater Bozeman area?
  • Bridger Trail is the first ride of the season within 250 miles of Bozeman, near Otto, WY on 4/15. One day ride offering a 25 and a 50 miler. Great leg-up ride, easy flat desert terrain. 
  • Medicine Lodge is the second ride of the season within 250 miles of Bozeman, in Hyattville, WY, on 5/6 and 5/7, offering  a 25 and 50 miler both days. Absolutely gorgeous camp and ride.
 If you want to start with one of these early rides, and have an 8 or 12 week conditioning plan, conditioning day one is looming:
  • Jan 21 is 12 weeks before Bridger Trail
  • Feb 18 is 8 weeks before Bridger Trail
  • If you just can’t bear riding before March, “Spring Ahead” day magically falls exactly 8 weeks before Medicine Lodge.

Am I suggesting riding on a minus 20 windy day? NO. Not good for your horse’s lungs or your fingers and toes. But choose conditions that you can deal with (over 25 and sunny? over 30 no wind and sunny? Pick your poison). Once you decide your threshold, if you get one of those days, SEIZE IT!! If you really look for them, there are enough “reasonable” riding days over winter to get your horse started. The hardest part about winter riding is just the getting going. But once you do conquer the getting going, it will be a good time, I promise! I can’t tell you how many times I didn’t feel like getting going, and did anyway, and was glad I did. If there is enough traction for trotting, you may be amazed at how cold it can be and you still find yourself stripping layers off.

Tips for caring for your horse and yourself when conditioning in winter weather:
  • Go just after a fresh snow. You’ll have traction and it’s often warmer and less windy.
  • Ride earlier in the day so your horse has time to dry off before it gets dark and cold. Give him a good rub-down with a towel and a good brushing.
  • Toasty Toes in your shoes and gloves and invest in a good pair of gloves! Mountain Horse makes great winter riding gloves. I found a pair of Uggs at a thrift shop and boy are they warm!
  • Take a cue from your horses – If you don’t have a barn, tack up in your run-in shelter, on the lee side of any building or stand of bushes, or in a gully. It’s amazing what a difference wind-block can make even in a very slight breeze.
  • Only able to do a walk due to traction issues? No problem. You can condition for “to finish is to win” rides doing mostly walking, especially if you have hills.

Got an older horse? Or a non-Arab? Winter conditioning may be your best chance for a Best Condition award. First, you’re out there conditioning while others are sitting on their tushies (lucky you?). Second, there is less competition at the early season rides.  Rosie and I were awarded our one and only Best Condition at an early season ride.  Starting January 1 we just rode when we could, walking a lot of hills which replace the need for speed. I picked my “minimum required weather condition” and vowed to get out when it appeared, and adopted the motto “Just Do It”.  Some might scoff at our BC award since there were only three other riders, but hey, I’m adding to that all those other riders that didn’t even show up!

You may have very limited areas to ride in winter. How do you do ride the same terrain over, and over, and over again, without your horse hating you? My neighborhood is untrailerable in winter and I have only one 5-mile loop where I don’t risk vehicles sliding down the windy mountain roads into me in in winter. Hey at least it’s a loop! The year we got the BC I had done something like 160 miles on that Same.    Five.    Mile.    Loop.   I didn’t mind – the scenery changes on this loop day by day and the views are amazing. But Rosie has the same attitude of an old Chinese lady I used to know: “Who care about biew!!” So I kept changing things up in as many ways as possible. Most of these ways apply to a single-loop situation but you can adapt to riding neighborhood blocks, up-and-backs, around a ranch or small acreage, or whatever you’re stuck with.

  • Ride the loop frontwards and backwards. 
  • Out halfway and back.  Out 3/4 of the way and back!
  • Multiple loops in different directions with a mock vet hold in the middle. This one is really good training for the newbie horse who thinks when you hit “camp” he’s done!
  • Ride with a neighbor.
  • Ride without a neighbor.
  • Pony another horse.
  • Pony your endurance horse off another horse.
  • Practice obstacles in your yard. 
  • Try out ski-joring if you have a flat area!
  • Deliver home-made cookies to your neighbors on horseback.
  • Too icy to ride at all? Lead your horse – getting yourself in shape is just as important! 


  • Try bareback.
  • Alternate ride days with lunging and groundwork.
  • If you have an arena, use it. Mixing in some dressage training is GREAT for the endurance horse!
  • Other ideas? Comment!
Make sure your horse is well-fed and watered in winter. On winter rides I always make sure hay is out several hours before riding and I offer a nice warm mash afterwards. If you have a hard keeper remember that replacing those extra calories you burn conditioning is especially important in cold weather.
Speaking of well-fed, winter is the easiest time for we humans to gain weight. Unlike my horses, I need to be a little LESS well fed, so gotta work on that!  Anything we can do to get in shape is good for our horses, especially for endurance riding. My new horses aren’t rideable yet, so we’re going to be doing a lot of leading around the 5 mile loop. Pilates is also an excellent way to build core which helps your riding. It’s not a very aerobic activity, low impact stretching, so doesn’t help lose much weight directly, but it does indirectly because it makes you very body-mindful. I’ve never thought about posture so often before! And… the thought that my instructor is going to be pressing on my belly to line me up correctly – that’s enough for me to give up a few Twinkies! Riding is more enjoyable (and easier on my horse) when things aren’t blob-blob-blobbing around.  Jan 1 is a great day to get serious about all this stuff.

See you all on that (snowy) trail!!


  1. LuAnn Rod says:

    Hey Karin,
    Great article. Lots of good advice. If you’re really desperate, you can usually rent ride time at an arena. Some arenas sell packages for riding time. It would be a great Christmas gift. It’s something I’ve always said I was going to do, but never followed through. But it makes sense. Consistently riding one or two days a week in an arena for about an hour, will do wonders for kick-starting a conditioning plan for your horse and yourself.

    • Karen says:

      Some arena time is definitely in the plans… as soon as I can safely get my trailer down my driveway and road!

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