Essential information for anyone interested in having a go at endurance riding.
What Is Endurance Riding?
On its simplest level, endurance riding is a sport whereby the horse and rider take on a long-distance ride at a set speed, often in the grips of a highly competitive environment. In this respect, endurance riding requires mere stamina and the drive to push both yourself and your horse through the distances to come out victorious.
But in reality, endurance riding is this and so much more. Endurance riding allows you, the rider, the opportunity to experience beautiful new countryside, different terrains and major distances. You emerge victorious whether or not you beat down the competition, having conquered incredible distances with your horse and knowing that you have experienced an adventure together.
Of course, endurance riding is not without its challenges. Relying so heavily on the stamina of your horse and his ability to keep a steady pace means that you as the rider are subject to countless things that could go wrong, and so enters the concept of endurance training.
In this article we discuss the basics of endurance riding including how best to train, prepare, and above all avoid those major mistakes. By reading and following this you should be able to experience the incredible charm of endurance riding, while ensuring your safety and that of your horse as well.
What Is the Best Endurance Horse Breed?
The breed of horse you choose for endurance riding is not necessarily important, with the sport featuring everything from small ponies to heavy horses. As a sport in itself, endurance riding does have a few well-known entrants, including George Washington who is a Thoroughbred cross, showing that it is not so much breed that is important, as the individual horse’s ability and drive to keep running.
Each distance included on the endurance race has an age restriction in order to avoid horses being placed under excessive physical demands. A horse that is not yet 5 years old will generally not be allowed to compete, with 7 being the optimum age in which to engage a horse in full distance race rides. Between the ages of 5 and 7, the horse may participate in short and middle-distance races.
Starting Endurance Riding
We believe that endurance racing was first established around 1955 when an American rider named Wendell Robie organised a 100-mile ride in the USA. This became known as the Tevis Cup.
Following this initial landmark race, the sport soon spread to the UK, with the first example of endurance riding being introduced in the 1960’s with a distance of 50 miles. This was called the Golden Horseshoe Ride.
Since these early days of endurance riding, the sport has come under development from a number of organisations, always under the motto “to complete is to win”. It is a well-established agreement that every rider and his horse are in it to complete the race, with finishing being the real prize. The sport of endurance riding consists of two rides, which can be made up of anything from 20 miles to 150 miles or more.
The first ride is a non-competitive test run of sorts, which is set over a specific distance with a set speed limit. The race officials time this first race, which is known as the qualifier, allowing the rider and the horse to undergo checks and ensure they have some experience of the surroundings before competing in the race.
The second ride is the race itself. All horses and their riders set off together as a big group, aiming to complete the full distance as quickly as they can. Mandatory checks are performed by vets at each checkpoint, and the winning pair are those who cross the line with the horse still in full health.
It is possible for riders to take part in endurance riding at any level, undergoing everything from a personal challenge to the full official race. Endurance riding opens your riding experience up to beautiful countryside as you take in miles and miles of different terrains and views, while also placing an emphasis on the connection between you and your horse as you must work together to achieve the goal of finishing. This is a sport that offers so much to some many different riders, and really does have something for everyone. Whether done alone or as a group, we guarantee you will find something to love in endurance riding.
Education is an important part of endurance riding, as it involves not only the ride itself but also the vast amounts of preparation and management that must be done before and during the ride. Due to its heavy emphasis on the consistently maintained well-being of the horse, endurance riding has done wonders for the equine world in terms of advancing management techniques.
Starting Out: Entry Level Endurance Riding
Everyone and anyone can enjoy endurance riding – really! Though there are some minor requirements regarding the safety attire that must be worn by the rider, there really are no specifics in terms of horse breed or special equipment. A hard hat and boots with caged stirrups generally sums up the extent of the clothing required.
A ride of 20 – 25 miles should be a walk in the park for any horse in a reasonable state of fitness. Arab horses are a popular choice when opting for endurance riding, but there is nothing to say you must ride any style of horse. It is important initially to work with what you have to establish if endurance riding really is something you want to pursue – if not, and you have already bought a new horse just for this type of ride, you may be looking at wasted pot of money and a wasted chance for that horse.
If your existing horse has any kind of medical problem concerning joints or an old injury, it would be advised that you do not put him under the strain of endurance riding. Remember that during an official ride, a vet will examine your horse at least twice and will not allow him to continue unless he passes, so it is worth checking your horse out beforehand in the presence of a good vet.
Assessing Your Horse
So, you’ve chosen endurance riding and you are looking for the perfect endurance horse. Well first off, the perfect horse does not exist. No matter what your horse’s weak points are, it is important that you make up for these by managing and training him to work with his issues, paying close attention to how he moves and how you move with him.
The following should be considered when choosing a horse:
- Correct limb formation, as bad formation may put strain on the horse’s tendons during a long-distance ride and cause joint problems.
- A well-muscled back for the saddle to sit upon properly. If the back is too long then the horse will suffer problems, while a back that is too short will easily become stiff.
- A deep chest to allow room for the heart and lungs to work to full capacity.
- A long femur and hip angle which provides power to propel the horse forward.
- Bigger hooves which can bear more weight and handle the strain.
- A rhythmic and easy-going gait, which doesn’t waste too much energy.
- A good state of health. This is vital as it can affect the horses’ respiration during the endurance ride, or cause problems within the joints and bones. Though you can work on overall fitness, you must ensure the basic levels of health are maintained, for example frequent vaccinations, worming, and health checks.
- The behaviour of the horse is an important factor to consider. The horse must be able to interact with and be around other horses and riders in a busy environment without causing any problems. He will also be undergoing checks from the vet throughout the ride and so must be able to withstand these comfortably. Horses that kick must display a red ribbon on their tail as a warning for others.
- An easy-going temperament. Too relaxed and the rider will suffer on the ride; too excited and the horse will use up too much energy and not be able to complete the race. Ideally you want a horse with a healthy middle ground, who is calm but determined, eats the right amount, is confident but knows the rider is in control, and can drink when required during a ride.
- No difficulty continuing in the face of uneven tracks and unstable terrains.
Feet and Shoeing
If your horse’s feet are in a good condition and he regularly gets checked by a farrier, there should be no difficulty in getting started on the road to endurance riding.
When shoeing a horse for endurance riding, protection and balance take precedence and it is important to make sure that the farrier knows your endurance intentions so that he can make sure the horse’s feet are in the best condition possible. This involved looking at the horse’s shows to check they fit and provide adequate support for his heels.
His hooves should also be in great condition, often influenced by diet and providing the right supplements for growth. Some endurance horses wear wide-webbed shoes during the race, providing a greater weight-bearing surface in contact with the ground, and more protection around the hoof.
Basic Health Care
Worming, teeth and vaccines are a good indication that your horse is healthy enough to get fit for endurance riding. You should make sure you check his pulse and heart rate, keeping an eye on these through training to understand the fluctuation. This is something an endurance race vet will check for so is worth understanding yourself.
If the heart rate is higher than usual, this could be a sign that something is wrong, particularly as the horse gets fitter during training. Pulse rate is a good indication of fitness – measure the pulse rate when you return home and then again after 10 minutes to ensure that the return to resting pulse rate is quick.
Other things to monitor include temperate and respiration as both of these are indicators of good health during and after endurance riding. You would also be wise to keep an eye on the condition of the horse’s skin, to ensure there are no signs of wear and tear after training. Horses with pink skin in their heels may be suffering from cracked heels which can be painful and cause infection.
Basic health care checks to undergo include:
- Check the pulse, either with your fingers under the jaw, or with a stethoscope behind his elbow. A healthy horse has a resting pulse rate of 30-44 beats per minute.
- Check your horse’s mouth for possible bruising. A sore mouth may indicate that a change of bit is needed to make your horse more comfortable.
- Normal respiration rate is between 8 and 14 breaths per minute at rest.
- Look out for new lumps and bumps on the legs, and check for heat or swellings.
- Check the back regularly for tenderness, soreness or any white hairs. These show that your saddle needs attention to ensure that it fits properly.
- Check the girth area to make sure there is no sweat rash and that the skin is in good condition.
- Pinch a fold of skin on your horse’s neck to check for dehydration. If hydrated fully, the skin should spring back to normal within a second.
- A normal temperature will be around 38C (101F), with 0.5C (1F) variation either way. It will show significant changes if he becomes unwell.
Basic Schooling and Education
At the age that a horse can compete in endurance racing, he should have a basic level of schooling already. However, it is worth investing some time in introducing him to the common hazards you will come across on the ride, including bridges, railway lines, water and more. By doing this you will ensure that both you and your horse feel confident in his ability to deal with these obstacles.
Gates are a well-known hazard that riders and horses come across on endurance rides, and so giving your horse experience of dealing with these is good preparation. You don’t want to have to get off and back on the horse at every gate you come across, so establishing a plan by which you can open it from the top of the horse is ideal.
Endurance rides often little opportunity for rest breaks, so water must be seen as a free drink rather than an obstacle. Practise crossing and utilising any water source.
Other useful tools include teaching your horse to neck-rein in the typical Western style, making turning easier when out on the trail. One other thing to note is that the more comfortable your horse becomes around vet checks, the better it will be on the day. If you can do a few practise checks prior to the race, your horse should be confident to deal with this on race day.
Fitness and Conditioning
We have provided you with a fitness programme that prepares your horse for a 20-mile ride. It is important you understand at what stage of fitness you are starting out, then tailoring the programme to your individual needs.
Be sure to stick to a routine where possible to enable your horse to stay interested, and ensure you do your training on a variety of high and low ground so as to practise hill climbing.
A ride of 20 miles should take about three hours, so stick to speed and don’t overdo the training.[table id=11 /]
For a horse undertaking a 20 or 25-mile ride, there are no special feeding requirements – a good, basic diet should do the trick to provide the required nutrients and ensure good health. If the level of activity increases then so should the food allowance, though this should be done gradually.
If your horse is starting from a very low base fitness, the feeding will take a lot longer to introduce and get used to. It is possible in this case that your horse will have some weight to lose in order to be at optimum fitness, but this depends on workload and initial condition.
The basic requirements with regards to feeding include as much fibre as possible, mainly in the form of hay or grass. This is the staple of a good diet and will then be supplemented by hard feed which is made up of a good coarse mix. Sugar beet should be added, particularly for horses involved in endurance riding, as it provided fibre and energy. Sugar beet also aids the water retention in the gut, keeping your horse hydrated when training and racing.
In summer, adding salt and electrolytes will ensure any lost minerals through sweat are replaced adequately. Please note though, you should never give electrolytes to a very dehydrated horse.
Your horse may require a particular vitamin or mineral supplement, perhaps to encourage healthy hoof growth. Feeding the horse vegetable or cod liver oil is a good way to provide energy and maintain condition without adding any extra weight of feed.
Endurance Riding Equipment
Any and all equipment used for endurance riding need to be inspected thoroughly, as the amount of use it is put through is extreme compared to standard-use equipment. Any damage may seriously impact your ability to complete an endurance race. Likewise, brand new equipment is also best avoided as it can rub and cause repetitive sores that make riding extremely painful for the horse.
A good endurance saddle should sit properly on the horses back and be comfortable for both horse and rider. It should be able to spread the weight of the rider evenly across the horse’s back, by encompassing a large and flat surface on which the rider can sit. High-quality materials will be best suited to withstand the distance, and in the case of endurance riding – the lighter the better! There should also be sufficient space on which to hang tools that may be needed during a long ride.
The saddle pad that sits below the saddle should be well adapted to soak up the sweat, acting as a padding for the horses back to protect it from the hard saddle. It is not important if this is brand new or well-worn – the preference is really down to that of the rider. The girth should fit well with buckles sitting away from the horse’s skin, as another form of protection.
Most bridles are allowed in endurance riding, so selecting this is a matter of choice – both of the rider and the horse. Using a bridle that is without a bit can be positive in that it allows the horse to eat and drink freely, however in this case the horse must be well under control at all times. When looking at reins, you will want a strong material that won’t slip through your hands at the first sign of rain or sweat.
Draw-reins, tie-downs and anything else that restricts breathing are not allowed.
The Horse’s Equipment
Not really! We suggest you keep it simple by riding your horse in the gear he is used to, providing it is safe and comfortable for you both. The less the horse is wearing, the less potential there is for a problem, so once you feel confident that you have everything the race requires, keep it light!
If you compete and ride long distances frequently, it may be worth investing in a proper endurance saddle and other equipment. These rely on the need for equipment to be as light as possible, with the saddles in particular being designed to spread the rider’s weight across the whole back.
Endurance bridles are lightweight and convert to a headcollar so that the horse may eat and drink easily and without faff.
The Rider’s Equipment
The rider’s clothing should, for obvious reasons, be practical and airy. The ability to dry quickly is one of the best features you can look for, as this means there is no chance of you riding 30 miles in wet socks.
There are specialist endurance jodhpurs available that include a reinforced knee and eradicate chafing, though if chafing is a big issue, we would equally suggest that you can wear a secondary pair of thin leggings below the jodhpur so as to stop the material rubbing on your skin.
Waterproof clothing is essential, and we recommend carrying a bum bag to keep important pieces such as vet cards and a phone for emergencies. Opting for shorter boots will keep your feet safely in the stirrups.
The most important part of your rider wear is the riding hat, which must conform to the safety guidelines as laid out by the race. Gloves are also highly recommended.
Essentially, as long as you have comfortable clothing and conform to the regulations, you should be fine. Carrying a bag is a good idea, and it is vital you wear a good hard hat and check your stirrups to ensure the feet will remain in place during the ride.
That isn’t to say there is no specialist clothing available, because there absolutely is. It tends to be very specialist and rather expensive, providing the most lightweight comfortable ride possible, with ventilated hats and breathable lycra. But it isn’t necessary, and we would suggest giving endurance riding a shot to make you enjoy it first, before investing in all the gear.
The most common footwear is a soft riding trainer paired with half chaps, allowing you to get on and off the horse easily and comfortably.
Rider Fitness and Preparation
Endurance riding isn’t just about preparing the horse. By preparing yourself and ensuring a good level of fitness and understanding of horse management, you will make the job of the horse much easier. It is also recommended that you learn basic map reading before undertaking an endurance ride, as getting lost is one obstacle you definitely want to avoid!
It is important you concentrate on your own horse and don’t become distracted by the competition around you. An endurance race is about completing at your own pace, not the pace of the one in front. Take the time to become used to your horse’s speed thresholds and don’t push them.
It is also key to take care of your own wellbeing during the ride, eating and drinking regularly including carbohydrate drinks and bars. Avoid too much sugar as this can cause dips and spikes in your energy levels.
Back-up Support Crew
Just like any endurance athlete, a steady support crew is a vital tool to completion, and in many endurance rides it is compulsory to have one. This crew will be meeting you every 5 miles or so, making sure both you and the horse are fit and healthy and have everything you need. Though it is unlikely you will need full hydration and feeding at every stop, chances are you will need them at some point and it is better to have them than to not! Your support team can also be responsible for keeping an eye on the horse and checking for any injuries that may need attention.
It’s a good idea to practice using a crew, particularly for the sake of the horse who may become nervous when surrounded by people every couple of miles. The routine will become familiar and so much easier on the day, eliminating an unnecessary worry for both you and the horse.
The support team should be able to map read, and will be best placed carrying some spare essentials that you may then call upon during the race. This could be anything from energy bars to spare reins – nothing is too much when it comes to preparation!
Choosing and Entering a Ride
The first endurance ride you take part in should really be no more than 25 miles, with a terrain and route you may well be familiar with already. Pick a date when you know your horse will be performing at his best and ensure all of your equipment has been checked well in advance.
Our top tips for preparing for the race itself include:
- Work out the estimated time you plan to reach each checkpoint.
NB: Good meeting places for your crew include quiet lane crossings, or car parks.
- Work out where the route crosses water where your horse can drink.
- Study the terrain to see where you will go faster, e.g. across flat country, or slower, on stretches of road.
You’ve reached ride day, congratulations!
First things first, set an alarm and make sure you leave home in plenty of time so that you reach the start venue nice and early for your start line vet examination. You will need to collect your ride number and will need to work out where the vet, farrier and start line are located.
Allow your horse a chance to get used to the surroundings before taking him to the vet. The vet will take your horse’s pulse rate, test for dehydration, and check him all over for lumps and bumps, including his legs, back and girth areas. He may look in his mouth to check for bruising, and may pick up his feet to examine his shoes before trotting him up for soundness. Make sure that you trot your horse up steadily and on a long rein so that the vet can see his usual action.
You may also be required to visit the ride farrier, whose job is to check your horse’s shoes before you are allowed to set off.
Once through the necessary checks, then it’s time to warm up! Go to the start a little early so that you are ready to set off at the right time.
Your Own Ride
Possibly the most important piece of advice we can give you is this – ride your own ride, focus on yourself and your horse, and don’t fret about the competition around you. The aim of the ride is to have fun and get around safely, so now’s the time to trust in all your preparation and enjoy yourself.
It is important to set the pace with your horse and keep it consistent, without allowing him to piggyback onto the speed of the other horses. Help your horse conserve his energy by keeping pace riding carefully, taking advantage of any pit stops and opportunities to take a drink.
Endurance riding is a sociable event and a great opportunity to make friends, so remain friendly and polite throughout the race! It will serve you well later and at future races.
Once the ride is finished, wash down your horse and allow him to be as comfortable as possible. Return his pulse rate to normal and keep him relaxed for his post-ride presentation. This is the final stage of the day so enjoy it, smile and feel proud that you have successfully completed the race.
Don’t forget to collect your rosette!
Much like a marathon runner, it is important that once home your horse has a chance to stretch his legs and unwind. Don’t put him straight back into the stable with limited space – instead reward him with some time in the field where he can feed, roll around and relax. If the horse doesn’t have enough recovery time, the stress of endurance riding can have a negative impact on his overall health so it important to ensure he gets enough rest and is in good physical condition before you ride again.
Though the vet will have completed a post-ride examination, keep an eye out for any injuries or bruising that may come up over the next couple of days. Re-start training mildly with gentle exercise, which will allow you to see how well he has recovered and check how fit he is.
Take care of all your ride equipment as this is an expense you have invested in, and you want to keep it in the best condition possible both for yourself and your horse.
Prevention and Treatment of Injury
There is always a chance with endurance riding that the vet will not allow your horse to ride the race, and this can be for a number of reasons: perhaps your horse was tired, struggled with the terrain, or was just overheated and had a high pulse. By getting your horse to a better state of fitness, you can prevent him being turned away again.
There is also the chance that the excitement of the day caused a spoke in heart rate, which is more a matter of experience and something that will rectify itself in time.
Minor lameness could be a result of stone-bruising or a pulled muscle, so follow the vet’s advice and allow your horse to rest as much as you can. Ice can refresh over-exerted legs and see improvements within a couple of days.
Dehydration can be a common problem after endurance riding, so it is important to avoid this by encouraging drinking wherever you can.
Great, So What Next?
So, you’ve done your first ride and now want to get into endurance riding properly? Most people feel this way after their first experience, wanting to go further and faster and explore new areas. Your horse’s recovery will dictate when you can take part in your next endurance event, but you should space them out with weeks between each to allow for a full recovery.
It is important to recognise that distance build-up is a gradual thing and pushing any horse to do too much, too soon will simply result in injury or breakdown.
Over about 40 miles, the demands placed upon both you and your horse will begin to increase, and this is when your whole regime needs to be tailored towards real performance management, both in terms of your horse’s training, management, diet and nutrition, and in your own fitness and equipment.
Endurance riding is all about having a wonderful time with your horse out in the countryside, and achieving your own personal goals and overcoming challenges. It is a win for you and your horse no matter what position you finish in, so enjoy it and keep the well-being of your horse at the forefront of your mind at all times. Remember, without him, you wouldn’t be able to compete at all!
Good luck, and have fun!