There's been plenty written about riding as an athletic endeavor. It's not a way to get fit (though it does help maintain fitness); it's a sport requiring the participant to maintain some level of fitness prior to engaging in the craziness of sitting on an animal and doing strange things at four feet above the ground (and sometimes in direct contact with the ground as well).
But there's another participant in this drama, and s/he needs to be kept in shape as well. No Hoof; No Horse is an old saw. No Muscle; No Ride is my new one. Are you fit, or will you flounder?
Back in the days when I was schlepping to random boarding farms to visit my horses, I owned fewer of them and rode them more often and for longer periods per ride. It's a "bang for the buck" thing as well as an "I drove all this way, so I'm going to ride till I drop" thing. As a result, fitness wasn't an issue for them. If we weren't getting ready for a show, we were hacking out on the trails or the roads for hours on end, and their bodies and stamina and prowess (and mine) reflected that.
|Full Double Flounder|
Now that my animals are right outside my window, I have as much time to ride as someone working two jobs and moonlighting doing computer tech support. I ride when:
1. It's daytime and the weather is good (no indoor).
2. I don't have an appointment somewhere (because old people have appointments everywhere all the time).
3. There's no fence repair needed, no hay needing to be cut, tedded, raked, baled, or stacked, no pasture needing mowing, no vet, farrier, or dentist appointment, and no need to run to the feed store for anything, and I finished that un-put-downable book I was reading.
4. I'm in the mood.
As a result, with four horses needing riding and one needing ground work (Duke, the mini, objects to my riding him) , no one is in shape. Okay, that's not quite accurate. Since Dolly is the most fun to ride, she's in shape. She gets a good workout at least twice a week (given 1 - 4 above are in alignment with the phase of the moon). Leo is such a pleasure to ride that he, too, gets at least semi-weekly workouts. The other two...well.....
Workouts are between 30 and 60 minutes, never more because I rarely have more than an hour before I have to feed, muck, make dinner, or be somewhere.
If so, then your horse probably is as out-of-shape as he can get and still haul you around, and every ride you're starting over again.
I hear voices in my head yelling at me to make a schedule and stick to it. I have one, and I do. I get up in the morning, and I go to bed at night. That's my schedule. Anything in between is up for grabs. Every Sunday (today), I sit myself down and tell myself that I can block out three 20-minute chunks daily and at least longe three horses, or longe one and ride one and shift one to another day. Or ride one and shift two. Or go out to lunch and have a glass of wine and call it a day. And Duke, given enough incentive, will run laps around his pen for a cookie. Such a deal! I still always wind up with one horse left over.
What do you get if you have five horses and you take away one?
One horse, of course, and four pissed-off equines wondering why they didn't get a cookie too.
Back to the issue at hand, if you want your horse to do well, feel well, and perform maneuvers worthy of a YouTube video that isn't tagged "funny horse crashes", you have to put in the effort to keep him in shape. Research (here and here) has shown beyond question that horses kept on pasture are fitter than those kept stalled. The bigger the pasture, the fitter the horses. That's because they spend their time walking around and even running, while those in stalls basically eat and stand. So you can get a leg up (snicker) by giving your buddy ample time outdoors to be horsey. Do that, and you can get by with half-hour hard workouts or a few long walks (as per the linked article by Denny Emerson that started all this) up and down hills, which is fun for both of you as long as you're not against doing nothing that's likely to let you brag to your friends. You might look like Poppin' Fresh, but your horse will be reasonably fit.
Do those things, and on the weekends, when you suddenly decide you need to run some barrels and poles or do a couple of jumping rounds or dressage tests, and both you and your mount will sparkle instead of slopping around in an endless discussion about just how fast you need to do that next line...or at all.