Endurance Riders’ Secrets

Learn endurance riders secrets to stay comfortable while spending hours in the saddle.

Recreational trail riders tend to view endurance riders as a bit of a motley crew. They seem to ride too far, too fast. They wear funny-looking clothing and seem to prefer brightly colored tack that looks as though it was made for a drill team.

[READ ABOUT: Endurance Riding]

In truth, endurance riders were all recreational trail riders first—and many still are. Over time, they’ve merely adapted. Think survival of the fittest. They’ve learned valuable lessons along the way—some painful, others expensive, and all as a result of mistakes they don’t want to make again.

Endurance riders have mastered the secrets to staying comfortable while spending many hours in the saddle. This applies to their horses, as well. They know that their horse’s comfort is just as important as their own, if not more so.

So, if you want to know what type of riding pants won’t chafe, what footgear won’t leave you crippled, what tack stays looking new for years, what girth won’t rub, what water bottles won’t bounce, and more, just ask an endurance rider.

Here, I’ll share 17 riding-apparel, trail-tack, and on-trail secrets directly from those who’ve logged countless miles on the endurance circuit. (For a resource guide to brand names mentioned, see page 70; for a comprehensive guide to endurance riding, tack, and equipment, visit www.endurance.net.)

Learn endurance rider’s top secrets.

5 Riding-Apparel Secrets 

This insider advice will help you stay comfortable and safe; it’ll also help you look like a serious trail rider rather than a wannabe.

Apparel secret #1: Ditch street jeans. For every trail rider who’s ever gawked at an endurance rider in a pair of brightly colored tights, there’s an endurance rider cringing and muttering, “I can’t believe that person is riding in blue jeans.”

Leave your street and fashion jeans at home. Although riding jeans, made with stretchy materials and flat inside seams, can be comfortable, consider adding riding tights to your trail-apparel wardrobe. If you’d sooner give up riding than be caught in a pair of neon-colored tights, then consider a more conservative color, such as tan, navy, or black.

Most tights designed for long-distance riding are made of a cotton/spandex blend specifically designed for saddle comfort. The fabric keeps you warm in inclement weather, cool on hot days, wicks moisture, and, most important, doesn’t chafe or rub.

Riding tights made by Carousel Action Wear, Inc., for example, are durable, breathable, and fast-drying, because they’re made from a Dryflex cotton/poly/Lycra Tactel fabric. Other popular brands with endurance riders are Irideon, Kerrits PowerStretch, and Saddle Bums. (Guys, if you just can’t bring yourself to don tights, then consider wearing them under your jeans.)

Apparel secret #2: Layer. To keep warm and dry, layer. If your outerwear becomes too hot or heavy, tie it around your waist or to the back of your saddle. Don’t bother with a hooded jacket; you’ll never use the hood, and it’ll just fill up with water if it rains. Do, however, wear a raincoat long enough to cover your bum.

As a base layer on top, endurance riders usually compete in slogan T-shirts from previous rides. Cotton is cool, comfortable, and easy to wash. If you tend to burn easily or will be riding through brush, layer a long-sleeve cotton shirt over your T-shirt.

Apparel secret #3: Buy comfortable footwear. Comfortable footwear is also important. Find a riding boot or shoe that’s wide across the ball of the foot, offers your toes ample room, has a cushioned, yet sturdy, sole, and has a heel just high enough to catch your stirrup.

Many riding shoes come in Western styles, so you won’t feel as though you’re riding in athletic shoes (although they’re the most comfortable). Both Ariat’s Endurance Collection and Mountain Horse’s line of paddock boots offer a variety of styles for both men and women for summer, winter, and wet-weather riding.

Apparel secret #4: Invest in half-chaps. Another important article to the endurance rider is half-chaps. Before you frown on these, answer these questions: Do you have more hair on your head than you do on your inner calves? Have your calves ever been rubbed so raw from chafing against your horse’s sweaty sides (making your calves also uncomfortably wet) that you scream in pain when showering after a long, painful day in the saddle?

If your answer to either of these questions is yes, seriously consider buying a pair of half-chaps. They’ll keep your calves from being rubbed raw and will keep the bottoms of your riding pants dry and down on your ankles.

Apparel secret #5: Wear a riding helmet. The single most important piece of equipment you can wear is an ASTM-approved, SEI-certified riding helmet. Don’t shun a helmet because you’re “just meandering down the trail”; you can suffer a serious head injury falling off even if your horse is standing still. Think of a helmet the same way you do the seatbelt in your car. You hope you never need it to save your life, but if you do, you’ll be grateful you wore it.

In the old days, helmets were hot and heavy. But today’s helmets are comfortable, cool, and even stylish. For helmet makers, see the resource guide; it’s best to try on several makes and models before you buy.

7 Trail-Tack Secrets

Now that you’re set, consider your tack. Endurance riders have learned a lot from their miles in the saddle; here’s what they recommend.

Tack secret #1: Check saddle fit. Your saddle is the single most important piece of tack you’ll use. You’ll spend hours sitting in your saddle, and your horse will spend hours wearing it. Thus, it’s imperative that your saddle properly fits you both. An ill-fitting saddle can cause significant bone and joint problems. Your horse can suffer behavioral problems and, worse, muscle, tissue, and nerve damage.

Finding a saddle that fits perfectly shouldn’t be a problem, provided you do your research. Consider a saddle custom-made for your horse. Many endurance riders choose saddles that are semi-custom; that is, they select the tree size that best fits their horse and the seat size that best fits them.

Custom saddles endurance riders prefer include those made by Kanavy Endurance Saddles, the ReactorPanel Saddle Company, Sharon Saare Saddles, Specialized Saddles, SR Saddle Company, and Synergist Saddles,

There are also innovative saddles on the market that offer optimum fit and comfort at a reasonable price – and weight. Two popular brands are the Bob Marshall Treeless Saddles and the Freeform Saddles from Action Rider Tack.

Tack secret #2: Buy biothane. One reason endurance riders appoint their horses in brightly colored tack is because they can. Biothane, which is what most endurance tack is made from, comes is more colors than a rainbow.

If you select a custom-made biothane bridle or tack set, you can choose any combination of colors and accents that you’d like. If you want a bridle made of 10 or more different colors, no problem! And if you have a favorite color, why not dress your horse in it? (Biothane tack does come in brown and black if you’d prefer a more understated look.)

Why biothane? This man-made material lasts virtually a lifetime and is easy to clean; you simply hose it off or dunk it in water. Or, to make it look sparkling new again, throw it in the dishwasher, bit and all. Biothane also doesn’t chafe your horse or become stiff.

Endurance riders especially like biothane halter-bridle combinations. “Combo halter-bridles allow you to unclip the bit, leaving you with a halter,” notes endurance rider Terre O’Brennan. “Together with a single long rein, you can tie your horse, which is far superior to tying by the reins or bit (gasp!) or having to pack a halter.”

Sportack is a leading retailer of custom biothane tack, but also check out the other tack makers listed in the resource guide.

Tack secret #3: Enhance comfort. Endurance rider Angie McGee shares humorous stories in her book, The Lighter Side of Endurance Riding. However, the horse’s comfort is no laughing matter to McGee.

“The object is NOT to see how tight you can get your girth,” McGee notes. “That was the rule when you were a child, but once you’re a grownup, you can definitely overdo it. Get it good and snug, and check it often to make sure it’s snug. But it does not need to be tight.”

McGee also recommends checking your horse’s back a couple of hours after a ride, or the day after, by pressing his back with your fingertips. “What you consider training problems may be saddle-fit problems,” she says. “It’s often the second day that the bruising effect kicks in and he acts up.”

So that you can walk again after your ride, don’t set your stirrup length as though it’ll never change again, says McGee. “If you have leg pain, go up or down a notch, and spread the effort out amongst other muscles. Get off and walk if you hurt!”

Tack secret #4: Add a breastcollar and crupper. A breastcollar is an absolute necessity to keep your saddle in place while going uphill. It’ll also give you lots of great places to hang things, such as a sponge. “Using a sponge on a string to cool a horse off during the ride on a really hot day will sure freshen him up and make the ride more enjoyable,” says McGee.

Endurance riders like breastcollars made from biothane or neoprene, which are lightweight, easy to clean, and come in an array of colors.

Also consider a crupper to keep your saddle in place when going downhill. “A crupper is a wonderful thing,” says McGee. “If you buy a good-quality, soft one – I don’t like the leather – you quit having to wonder, Is my horse’s neck getting shorter?”

Tack secret #5: Attach a seat cover. For those of you with tiny hineys, seat covers do wonders to make a hard saddle seat more comfortable for a bony behind. Most endurance-tack retailers carry them in sheepskin (check out EasyCare’s line of Shear Comfort covers), and Toklat makes a cushy gel seat for most any type of saddle. Aaahh!

Tack secret #6: Find a good saddle pad. While it’s true that no saddle pad can make an ill-fitting saddle fit better, a proper saddle pad is important. For long hours in the saddle, a pad that wicks heat and moisture, distributes weight evenly, protects pressure points and is easy to keep clean is a must for endurance riders. Top on the list is the Skito Pad from Carousel, which can be custom-ordered to fit any saddle. Supracor pads also receive high marks from endurance riders.

Tack secret #7: Secure your saddlebags. Buy saddlebags designed to stay secure. “There’s no reason for stuff to bounce when you trot,” says McGee. “Get packs that will stay anchored instead of flogging your horse.”

The brand of choice that most endurance riders prefer is Stowaway (available from Synergist Saddles), which has both pommel and cantle packs. These handy packs come in a variety of colors for English, Western, and trail saddles. They come small (just large enough to hold two water bottles and a small snack) to large (enough to pack an assortment of beverages and a three-course meal).

5 On-Trail Secrets

You and your horse are well-outfitted. Now, consider these tips to on-trail safety and comfort for you both.

On-trail secret #1: Pack snacks and water. As for packing snacks for the trail, anything that will hold up to being stuffed into a saddlebag will suffice, such as granola bars, jerky, and hard candy. Never put a banana in your pack. If it doesn’t get smashed beyond recognition, you’ll forget you put it there, and find it weeks later.

Never hit the trail without water, even if you’re just going for a short ride. Carry at least one bottle per every hour you plan to be on the trail. If you don’t drink it, there’s a good chance that someone else in your group will. For longer rides, especially in hot weather, supplement your water with electrolytes, or pack Gatorade.

On-trail secret #2: Carry a safety kit. Endurance rider Karla Perkins recommends always carrying an Easyboot, a hoof pick, a knife, Vetrap, and a small roll of duct tape. “I have been on rides when all of this stuff has been used, and not necessarily by me,” she says.

An Easyboot – or other top-quality temporary hoof boot – is a necessity if your horse has the misfortune of losing a shoe. Duct tape comes in handy for just about anything you need to fix, and also works well to help keep on the Easyboot; just wrap it a few times round the hoof, avoiding the coronet band, before applying the boot. The teeth inside the boot will grip the tape.

“With Vetrap or duct tape you can spell words out on the ground,” Perkins says. “I did that during the Pony Express endurance ride. The famous Dave Rabe and Holy Toledo got stuck in mud. None of us noticed. With the Vetrap, Laura Hayes and I spelled out ‘NO’ in bright colors, so those after us didn’t make the same error.”

Glow sticks are handy in case you get caught out after dark. Attach them to the front of your breastcollar, where they’ll illuminate the ground without affecting your horse’s (excellent) night vision.

On-trail secret #3: Keep your horse hydrated. The infamous endurance rider Crockett Dumas once said, “From the moment horses are born, they spend their entire lives trying to kill themselves.” For this reason, it’s important to look after them as best you can.

“Let your horses drink!” declares

McGee. “I’m amazed how many riders still think ‘six swallows.’ If you’re going to continue on down the trail, let them have their fill. If you’ve got a very hot horse, as in [one that] has been racing, that’s when you offer six swallows, walk a while, then six more, but not out trail riding. And let them eat! Grass has lots of electrolytes in it. On a long ride, give them a chance to replenish.”

Endurance rider Steve Shaw also believes hydration is key. “If your horse won’t drink, and you know the next water is far away, then wet your horse down using your hands, your sponge (on a string) or water bottles to cool him,” he says. “Water not lost is as good as water taken in.”

On-trail secret #4: Keep cool. Endurance riders have devised some interesting ways to stay cool during long hot rides. The most important is to carry plenty of water, as mentioned. Freeze your water bottles before your ride. As they thaw, you’ll always have a supply of ice-cold water. (Don’t freeze all of them, though, in case they don’t thaw fast enough.)

Tie a water-soaked bandanna around your neck to both keep the back of your neck cool and to protect it from the sun. If you really want to stay cool, try CoolMedic’s cooling vests, helmet liners, and neck bands. The unique fabric actually keeps you cool and can be worn under or over your riding clothing.

On-trail secret #5: Stay warm. There’s nothing worse than being freezing cold as you go down the trail. Your fingers are numb; your toes feel like someone smashed them with a hammer. You’re miserable.

The key to staying warm is twofold: (1) Dress to protect yourself from the elements with layers, as mentioned earlier; and (2) enhance your circulation. The reason your extremities get so cold is because they’re the farthest from your heart, and the cold weather has compromised your circulation. Gripping the reins and sitting in the saddle only makes it worse.

To keep your circulation moving in your hands and feet, wear warm gloves and comfortable socks that wick moisture. Also wear properly fitting footwear that offers ample room. Finally, just get off and walk!

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