Endurance Riding 101

Sharpen your trail skills with this series from endurance champion Lari Shea, owner of California’s Ricochet Ridge Ranch. This issue: Eight-step guide to competitive endurance riding.

“Most people enter endurance events not to win but to ride beautiful, well-marked trails,” says seasoned endurance rider Lari Shea. “There’s also the camaraderie of kindred spirits, camping in a beautiful place, and riding with friends.” Lari Shea

Why ride endurance? 

[READ: What is Endurance Riding’s Appeal]

“For the absolute fun of it!” says Lari Shea, an enthusiatic, winning endurance rider who’s completed more than 6,500 miles in 50- and 100-mile endurance riders. 

It’s very much a ‘personal best’ type of sport,” says Shea. “It’s about the challenge for yourself and your horse. You’re there for the fun of doing it!”

For endurance riders, “to finish is to win.” This is a heartfelt belief and the motto of the American Endurance Ride Conference.

“Every ride finisher receives the same finishing award,” Shea notes. “Endurance riders really get that a person out there for 10 to 12 hours is just as worthy of this award as someone who’s out there for 5 or 6 hours. 

“Most people enter events not to win but to ride beautiful, well-marked trails,” Shea adds. “There’s also the camaraderie of kindred spirits, camping in a beautiful place, and riding with friends.” If you’re an avid trail rider who’s tempted to try the sport of endurance riding, follow Shea’s eight-step guide to get

1. Learn More Endurance rides sanctioned by the AERC are carefully monitored events in which the health and safety of the horses are of primary concern.

Credit: Lari Shea “The veterinarians and other riders at American Endurance Ride Conference events are very helpful and encouraging,”notes Shea. Here, AERC competitor John Fenger, aboard Pryvate Party, points out a turn to the left at a Mendo Magic Endurance Ride.

The shortest AERC sanctioned ride is 25 miles long and is also known as “Limited Distance.” (Or “Luxury Distance,” as Shea and other seasoned endurance riders call it.) You have six hours to complete a 25-mile ride. 

You have 12 hours to finish a 50-mile ride and 24 hours to complete a significantly more challenging 100-mile ride. 

To learn about endurance riding before you actually enter a competition, the best tactic is to first volunteer at an event. 

“This will enable you to see what happens during an AERC event and how veterinary
checks are performed,” Shea says. 

You’ll find AERC-sanctioned events across the country. To find a ride in your area, go to
the AERC website (www.aerc.org).

2. Find the Right Horse

Despite the fact that Arabians and part-Arabians dominate the 100-mile rides, don’t despair if your horse is of different breeding. The important thing is that your horse is conditioned, is an efficient mover, and is, of course, sound.

“You’ll see nearly every breed from warmbloods to Icelandics to mules,” says Shea. “Gaited horses, such as Tennessee Walkers, have done very well. Quarter Horses and Morgans have placed at national championships.

“Many grade horses and half-drafts compete at every level. A Friesian gelding regularly completes 25- to 35-mile Limited Distance AERC events here in California, and a half-Friesian top 10s and wins Best Condition at 100-milers.

And, for the most part, size doesn’t matter. “For years I competed with great success in 50-milers on a 12.2-hand-high Welsh-Arabian cross gelding named Sham,” relates Shea. “At first, folks thought I’d brought a pony for my kids to ride around camp. Nope. Sham was my personal winning endurance horse.”

The beauty of endurance riding is that horses often get better as they get older. Some riders have competed on the same horse for 10 to 20 years.
“I was recently at a 50-mile endurance ride where four of the topfive horses were in their 20s, and the ride was won by a 21-year-old horse,” Shea points out.
“Many horses are as strong as they’ve ever been in their mid- to late teens and some can continue
to do endurance well into their 20s. These fit athletes often live into their mid-30s.”

3. Get The Right Tack

To make sure your horse is fit enough to enter a ride, ride him at a walk and trot, with a bit of cantering, over varied terrain for an hour. Then check your horse’s pulse rate. It should recover to 60 beats per minute (bpm) within 15 minutes, providing he has water to drink, and you can cool his body with running or splashed water. Lari Shea

Be sure you have properly-fitting tack before conditioning your horse and entering a ride. The right tack can make all the difference during training and on a long ride. 

Endurance riders ride in endurance,English, treeless, paneled, Australian, and other types of saddles. Whatever type you choose, invest in a high-quality saddle that offers plenty of surface contact area with your horse’s back, and is comfortable for both your horse and you.

Make sure all equipment is clean and broken-in, and that your horse is accustomed to it well before the ride.

4. Condition Your Horse

If your horse hasn’t been ridden regularly, it can take two or even three years for him to reach peak fitness. But you don’t have to wait that long to enter your first endurance ride.

Riders who finish the ride among the top 10 are eligible for the prestigious Best Condition award. “This award is given to the horse with the best veterinary score, combined with best time and rider/tack weight carried,” explains Shea. Here, Shea crosses the finish line at the Chamberlain Creek 50-Mile Ride aboard her endurance horse, Rascal. Nancy Barth

“It takes about six months to condition soft tissue and the heart, one year to condition tendons and ligaments, and two to three years to remodel bone,” says Shea. “Nearly any horse that’s at least 4 years old (I prefer age 5 and older), and is being ridden regularly, should be able to complete a 25-mile ride at an AERC event.”

First, gauge your horse’s current fitness level, as well as your own.

“You and your horse should be comfortable at home on a two- to three-hour trail ride that alternates between walking and trotting, with maybe a few canters,” says Shea. “And that includes going up and down some hills.”

Where you keep your horse contributes to his fitness. If he’s fortunate enough to be turned out 24/7 in a large area with changing terrain, he’ll naturally be more conditioned than if he’s kept in a stall or small corral.

Your conditioning program must include “long slow distance” (LSD) work, which is a working trot alternating with breaks to walk.

The goal is to systematically expose your horse to increased levels of physical demand, in small-but-steady increments.
“Riding for an hour or two a couple of times during the work week, with a longer ride on the weekend, should do it,” says Shea.

To make sure your horse is fit enough to enter a ride, ride him at a walk and trot, with a bit of cantering, over varied terrain for an hour. Then check your horse’s pulse rate. It should recover to 60 beats per minute (bpm) within 15 minutes, providing he has water to drink, and you can cool his body with running or splashed water.

5. Go on a Ride

When you’re ready to enter your first event, a 25-mile ride is the best place to start. Typically, you’ll arrive at the campsite the day before the event. You must present your horse to the veterinarians for a pre-ride veterinary check, which he must pass for you to start the ride.
Don’t be shy about letting people know you’re new to the sport. 

“The veterinarians and other riders at AERC events are very helpful and encouraging,” notes Shea. “We even have a mentoring program.” (To find a mentor in your area, contact the AERC.)

If it’s your first endurance ride, tell the ride manager when you arrive.

“Everyone is given a map and attends the Ride Meeting,” notes Shea. “But the night before the ride, there’s also a meeting for first-timers at which everything is explained in detail. “If you don’t have a mentor, ask the ride manager if someone can ride with you during the event. You’ll be able to pair up with a rider who doesn’t plan to go fast. His or her veteran endurance horse will be a comfort and companion for yours.”

Don’t look at the competition as a race with other horses and riders. Instead, consider it an opportunity to improve and enjoy the entire event. Look at it as a time to learn more about yourself and your horse as you discover your strengths and weaknesses.
The goal is to finish, so pace yourself, and learn as you go. If there’s one word of advice common to the sport, it’s this: “Ride your own ride.”

6. Prepare for Vet Checks 

Veterinary checks held before, throughout, and after the ride assess the horses’ condition. The purpose of vet checks is to stop the horse before he is in distress.

“The vets are there to help you take care of your horse through the ride,” notes Shea. “They’re not trying to be picky; they’re there for your horse’s welfare.”

The time you enter each vet check is noted, but there’s a mandatory hold time of 15, 20, 30, or 60 minutes (this varies by vet check) before you can leave the vet-check area and continue.

The hold time begins not when you enter the vet check, but when your horse’s pulse comes down to the required rate. (This varies by ride; 60 bpm is common, but it must be 64 bpm or less.)

“Say you enter the vet check at 9:00 a.m., and your horse’s pulse rate comes down three minutes later,” explains Shea. “Then the hold time would start at 9:03 a.m.,” says Shea.

During the check, the veterinarian will also monitor your horse’s locomotion (soundness), dehydration factors (including capillary-refill time), gut sounds, and attitude. The vet will also check to see whether your horse has developed any lesions or sores from tack, and/or trail or interference injuries. 

A well-conditioned horse’s pulse rate will drop quickly, usually within a few minutes. If your horse is fit, you can expect his pulse rate to recover within 10 minutes or less. 

“If your horse’s recovery takes much longer than 10 minutes, you’re allowing him to go faster than he should,” says Shea. 

AERC rules state that any horse that takes more than 30 minutes to recover is disqualified from the ride as “not fit to continue.” During the hold time, you’ll move your horse to the crewing area of the vet check, and allow him to drink and eat the remainder of the time. Before the hold time ends, you’ll re-tack, mount, and prepare to continue the ride.

Riders often use vet checks to their advantage. “If you ‘ride smart,’ you can actually ‘pass’ other horses in the vet check,” Shea notes. “If your horse’s pulse rate comes down faster than that of the other horses in the vet check, you get to leave sooner.”

The opposite is also true. “If your horse isn’t as fit as another horse, don’t try to go faster on the trail, because it’ll take longer at the vet check for your horse’s pulse to come down,” Shea advises.

Veterinary checks held before, throughout, and after the ride assess the horses’ condition. Any horse found unfit to continue for any reason is eliminated. Here, a rider trots out her horse for the veterinarian to check locomotion (soundness). Lari Shea

7. Follow Finish-Line Protocol

Your horse’s condition is of paramount importance, so he must not only pass the vet checks during the ride, but also the all important post-ride vet check. 

“On a Limited Distance ride, your horse’s ride time doesn’t stop until his pulse comes down,” says Shea. “You cross the finish line and take your horse’s pulse. When it’s down to the stated criteria, you call out ‘time!’ ”

A ride official will check your horse’s pulse and announce the finishing time. If two horses cross the finish line at the same time, the winner is the horse whose pulse comes down first, if that horse passes the post-ride vet check. 

At an endurance ride of 50 miles or more, your finishing time is exactly when you cross the finish line. However, your ride time is calculated from the start of the ride minus the vet-check hold times.

“For instance, if you start at 7:00 a.m. and finish at 3:00 p.m., your finishing time is 3:00 p.m.,” explains Shea. “If you had 1.5 hours of hold time at vet checks, your ride time is 6.5 hours. And your horse still has to pass the post-ride vet check.”

At the post-ride vet check, your horse must be considered “fit to continue,” even though you’ve completed the ride.

“Knowing that the horse has to pass the same vet check at the end of the ride as he does during the ride helps to keep people from ‘over riding’ during the last phase,” notes Shea.

If a horse tests lame, he’d “flunk” the vet check at the end of the ride, even if he horse had a low pulse rate, great attitude, and no tack sores. Riders who finish the ride among the
top 10 are eligible for the coveted Best Condition award.

“This is the most prestigious award. It’s given to the horse with the best veterinary score, combined with best time and rider/tack weight carried,” explains Shea, who’s honored that her horses have won 31 Best Condition awards.

“If two riders finish at the same time, and their horses have the same vet score, the one carrying the higher weight would win Best Condition,” notes Shea.

Best Condition judging includes metabolic and locomotive factors. You’ll trot your horse in-hand and circle him in both directions. At the end of the day, most endurance rides include an awards banquet, barbecue, or potluck.

8. Follow After-Ride Protocol

You shouldn’t leave ride camp until a veterinarian has rechecked your horse at least two hours after you complete the ride, to make double sure your horse is good to go.

Ride recovery is another area where an experienced endurance rider can be of enormous help. He or she can help you learn how to replenish your horse’s energy stores.
After the ride, run your hands over your horse’s body and legs to check for any heat, swelling, filling, or anything out of the ordinary. Pay attention to his attitude, how he’s eating, and how much water he’s drinking. Notice whether his manure and urine are normal.

You’ll probably trailer home the day after your ride. Before loading your horse into the trailer, lightly exercise him for 10 to 15 minutes and trot him out so you can closely observe how he’s moving.

Cynthia McFarland is a seasoned trail rider and full-time freelance writer based in Central Florida. She regularly contributes to national equine magazines and is the author of eight books.

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