An Inside Look at Endurance Riding
Dr. Nancy Loving
"To Finish is To Win" is the motto of the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) where winning is about far more than who comes across the finish line first.
Endurance riding is an equestrian sport that pits horse and rider teams against each other over a 50 or 100-mile trail, or a multi-day event of 250 miles spaced over five consecutive days. A 50-mile course must be completed within 12 hours while a 100-mile course allows 24 hours for completion. Over the course of 100 miles, most events provide a total of three hours of required rest time spaced at intervals along the trail. Each rest stop is immediately preceded by a rigorous veterinary exam that evaluates a horse's soundness and metabolic ability to cope with the rigors of the trail.
All breeds of horses participate in endurance riding, but the Arabian breed or Arabian crosses, seem to excel. These horses are nimble over rough terrain, and are genetically endowed with a natural ability to exercise for long periods of time with fewer adverse effects than heavier muscled breeds. For example, it appears that Arabian horses have less over-heating incidents, are more metabolically stable over long distances, and maintain soundness more readily than other breeds. A true rider and horse bond develops as hours of training finds equine and equestrian together on the trail, often only in the company of each other. An endurance horse becomes a "partner" in the experience.
To train and condition an endurance horse to an optimal state for this sport takes many years. There are sound physiologic reasons for this slow improvement over the years. Whereas conditioning over the first few months increases aerobic power ("VO2max"), a plateau is reached and other mechanisms must take over. Add a few more months of training, and the endurance horse becomes more resistance to lactic acid buildup. With the resistance, the horse can work longer without fatigue. Add years of training, and there is improved biomechanical efficiency (gait, balance, stride, movements, etc). Not every horse is built to succeed at each of these three major steps, but those that do, have tremendous endurance.
Endurance riders are among some of the most knowledgeable folks in the horse world when it comes to horse care. Attention to every detail is significant and ultimately determines the ability of a horse to perform to its best potential. All aspects of health and horse care are addressed in preparation of an endurance horse including the intricacies of nutritional management, strategies of a diligent shoeing program, a routine immunization and deworming schedule, and a carefully-planned exercise program to develop conditioning. Also important is attention to proper saddle fit, ongoing rider training and obedience of the horse. At the same time, the endurance rider needs to be careful not to cross the line into over-training, where the horse is fatigued and even "psyched out." To carefully condition an endurance horse without creating lameness is another challenge.
Riders Pursue Different Goals
Endurance riding poses a variety of challenges, making it a sport that appeals to many. There is always the challenge of the just finishing the trail. A horse and rider team that successfully finishes any 50 mile or 100 mile course has indeed risen to the spirit of the sport.
For some, finishing the competition is the only goal. There is special honor in finishing some of the more grueling trails in the United States, such as the Western States Tevis Cup Trail in California, or the Old Dominion trail in Virginia. Just finishing these trails, is a major accomplishment because of their high degree of difficulty.
Other endurance riders, however, strive to bring their horses to peak condition in order to compete for the top spot. Snaring a Top Ten slot at most competitions is a significant victory, and such a ranking at high-profile events bring prestige to those horses and riders. Consistently accomplished teams may become eligible to participate at the international level. It is considered an honor to compete at events such as the World Championships or Pan American Championships.
Yet another challenge for many riders is accumulating competitive miles on a single horse with no regard to placing. Herein lies the essence of the motto: "To Finish is to Win." It is not unusual to see horses and/or riders with total accumulated mileages of 3000, 4000, 5000 miles, with some logging as high as 20,000 miles at endurance events. It speaks to an incredible resolve by a rider to maintain a horse in peak athletic condition and soundness year after year to achieve such high mileage.
Veterinarians Play Key Role
Endurance riding is one of the few events in the horse world where vets are required to oversee the health and welfare of competing equines. Endurance ride veterinarians typically are highly informed and experienced with the rigors of the sport, and many ride as competitors.
A horse may be eliminated at the pre-ride check before the event, at anytime during the ride, or even at the finish line if there is any concern about his welfare and safety. There are several veterinary check-spots along the trail where the horse must meet certain criteria and be deemed "fit to continue."
This means the horse must be sound enough at a trot and metabolically stable to be allowed to continue. A strict standard is applied at each veterinary check in assessing the capability of the horses to compete. A horse that is fatigued, or over-heated, or one that is uncomfortably sore, is not permitted to continue. After close inspection, every horse is kept for a specified time to allow the horse to eat, drink, rest, and cool down.
Endurance riding is the only equestrian sport in which there is a strict "No Drug" policy. The horses must be able to compete under their own resources and without the benefit of anti-inflammatory or pain-masking drugs. There is frequent drug testing, with strict penalties for infractions. Most AERC members are proud of this policy, which they believe demonstrates that a horse can excel because of its inborn talent and the diligent care of its rider.