Well, in my this month's Barrel Horse News, I think I read one of the most down to earth, reasonable conditioning programs for barrel horses I have ever come across. It was written by Lisa Lockhart of Oelrichs, SD...
'...I do a lot of long trotting. I wouldn't say that I keep track of the miles or anything like that, but I try to judge what my horses need by the experience of being an athlete myself. I start out slow and then long trot a lot, and then graduate to loping. In order to make sure their wind is built up, I think you need to lope your horses. Now with that said, it is a proven fact that long trotting exercises more muscles in the horse's body than just loping.
I try to do a lot of riding at both the long trot and the lope. Depending on how rushed I am, I would say that from the time I leave the barn to the time I come back is somewhere between 25 and 45 minutes. Of course, that allows time to warm up just walking and then time for the horse to cool down. You don't want to jump out and start on a stringent exercise program that is too much for your horse. You need to build up to the maximum workout times. Just make sure you incorporate all gaits in your workout.
I also really like to turn my horses out and allow them to have enough pasture time to keep them happy. Turn-out time helps them relax...
...If you're wondering if your horse is in good shape, you need to assess how winded he gets when working out. If you can lope a horse to build their stamina and then, every once in a while, go maybe a quarter of a mile at a faster lope, you are covering your bases. You have to gauge your horse and see how long you have to ride to get him to sweat or get their breathing labored....'
I have always kind of thought the rigid, I do this for this long and that for that long type of conditioning just didn't jive. I suppose that is why I just never could get with 'the program'. Every horse is different and if you try to make each one perform a set standard, you have a good chance of either ending up with a horse that lacks what they need or ending up with an injured horse because you expected too much.
Since I have multiple horses that need rode, I have to focus on getting the most effective workout for each horse, in the most efficient time-frame possible. I also have horses all over the board in terms of condition. If I tried to ride Frosty the same as I do Moon, he would probably fall over from a heart attack. Spooks is getting there, but still he can only take so much. Turk will keep going no matter what and I have to be careful of that because he has been unbalanced for so long, that I don't want to re-injure him or make him unnecessarily sore.
You have to pay attention to what your horse is telling you, but you also have to know your horse. Over-achievers need to be backed off, lazy horses need to be pushed. I ride 4 horses the same mileage every day, but it depends on the horse as to what I ask for in those miles. I have the opportunity to add miles as my horses gain condition, as I have a lot of pretty much endless riding areas within a few miles of my house, but I am not creating endurance horses. I need a horse who has the physical ability to run, rate and turn in short bursts, so that is what I gear my conditioning toward.