Conditioning horses is a popular topic this time of year. As the weather gets nicer for riding, many equestrians face the challenge of reconditioning horses who might have lost a step over the winter. For senior horse owners and riders, this task can prove more daunting than for riders with younger horses. It's no secret that older horses take longer to get in shape than their youthful counterparts, and unfortunately, they might not be able to reach the same level of fitness they could in their younger days simply due to their increasing age.

Over the years, I've conditioned a lot of older horses. I'm used to starting slow, seeing how they handle work, and slowly moving forward until they gain the condition they need, be it for participating in riding lessons or simply hacking around the field.

Even though it's taken longer than it used to, Dorado is finally nearing the good athletic condition we've been working towards.

Photo: Adam Spradling

But this year I experienced a conditioning conundrum with my now 17-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred, Dorado. No, he's not really a senior horse, but our experience this spring gave me the first real sign that he's not as young as he used to be.

When I brought then 13-year-old Dorado home on March 1, 2009, he wasn't in any sort of athletic condition whatsoever. He was a scrawny little Thoroughbred with a long, curly mane who looked more like he'd excel as a pasture pet than as a riding horse. I knew I had a long road to bringing him back into work since it didn't appear that he'd done much of anything—besides hack around a little and sit in a pasture with his "harem"—since he was retired from racing at age 6.

It took several months of relatively slow conditioning, but by mid-2009, Dorado had packed on some muscle and was actually in pretty good condition. By late fall (and the end of the "riding season" in Michigan), I was quite pleased with what good condition he was in. For a horse with a spotty history who—as near as we could tell—had been relatively sedentary for several years, he'd popped back into shape beautifully.

For the next few years, Dorado stayed in work pretty consistently. He never really lost the condition he'd gained and was quick to get back into shape if he had any sort of short vacation if my schedule got busy. Unfortunately, that changed last year.

As you might remember, an old sesamoid bone injury flared up last July and for several months, Dorado was either on stall rest or turned out for a few hours each day. I tried to keep some of his muscles working and his brain occupied with some stretching exercises, but not surprisingly, by the time we got the okay to start walking under saddle late last year, the vast majority of Dorado's conditioning had dissipated.

Due to a combination of bad weather and a very busy schedule, I didn't have as much time to ride this winter. So when spring finally arrived in Lexington, I found myself with a very out of shape, now 17-year-old horse to condition. It was also here that Dorado really showed me the first signs that he's not as young as he used to be.

For the first few weeks, although he would have willingly kept bouncing around the arena like a wild man for much longer, I kept our rides short and not too strenuous. Much to my ever-energetic horse's distaste, we did a lot of walking and trotting for 15 to 20 minutes and he was always pretty out of breath by the end. Even though his mind said he wanted to keep going, his body couldn't keep up yet. This was new for me; even when we started conditioning back in 2009, his body caught up with his mind much quicker than this year.

While we were still slowly building up Dorado's stamina, many of my barn friends started showing, hauling out to ride, or ramping up their horses' exercise routines. And even though I was a little envious that they got to go galloping and jumping around on their fit horses, I knew that the only way to get my aging horse back into shape without risking his health was go to slow. So I watched them jump, knowing that Dorado and I would get there eventually.

Much to my delight, our slow and steady conditioning program seems to be paying off. Dorado is feeling better than he has in a long time, and he's recovering from exercise as quickly and easily as he has since he got hurt last year. Even though it makes me a little sad to have concrete proof that Dorado isn't as young as he used to be, he hasn't felt this good—both mentally and physically—in a long time and I'm really excited to compete him again this year.

Have you ever conditioned an older horse off a lay-off? What were your experiences, and what advice would you give to other riders?