Part 1 - Preparation and Training
Mention endurance riding to some people and they will immediately conjure up images of night riding, long distances of hundreds of kilometres, slick teams of strappers and extremely fit arabian horses. And their replies will invariably be "Oh endurance riding is waaaay beyond me!".
What many of these people don't realise is that these are images of endurance at its highest level. It's the equivalent of advanced level eventing or dressage. And we all know that newcomers to these sports don't start out jumping 5 foot fences with gaping ditches underneath, or performing piaffes and one time changes! The same is true for endurance.
Most endurance rides in Australia offer training rides which are non-competitive rides of distances of anything less than 80km, and are open to all newcomers. A large majority of endurance events offer 40km rides, a few offer 56-60km rides, however an increasing number are realising the benefits of also offering 16-20km rides to encourage newcomers and provide an environment where the skills of the sport can be learned and enjoyed without worrying about advanced fitness levels or scientific diets.
The Australian Endurance Riders Association website provides calendars of endurance rides for all states, and is also a great resource for other endurance related information.
Membership to your state endurance organisation is not required when first starting out. You may turn up to an endurance event and pay an extra $10 day membership fee to cover insurance.
The purpose of this article is to outline what is required to get to your first 20km or 40km training ride. Naturally, for longer distances, the amount of work and knowledge required increases, however most riders find that they pick up this knowledge as they, and their horse, become ready for it.
Completing your first training ride is just as big a thrill, if not bigger, than winning an open championship years down the track.
Training and Fitness
Your first requirement when starting out is a sound horse. (It does not have to be an Arabian.) If your horse is already in light to medium work (eg ridden on trail rides, or actively showing, or attending pony/riding club), he could probably handle a 16-20km ride immediately. If your horse has spent the last 6 months in a paddock, he could take 6-8 weeks to get it to this stage. If you have chosen a 40km ride as your first ride, then it will take a little longer again.
Lets assume that you are bringing your horse in from a spell, and are aiming for a 20km ride in 6-8 weeks.
Ideally you want to be riding your horse 3-4 times per week, but for these short distances of endurance, even weekend riding will possibly get you by, providing your horse is handling the work you ask of it.
A good rule of thumb is to start at a basic level of speed and distance, and only step up to the next level after a week working at the previous level - AND if you horse has handled the week's work comfortably, without soreness or exhaustion.
In the first week, you should aim to be mostly walking for half to one hour each session, with maybe a couple of short trots thrown in. If you can't always get out to the bush, light dressage or arena work is just as suitable as doing this on the trail. Alternatively you could grab a map of your riding area and mark out a 5km trail (approximate). It should take you about an hour to complete this distance in this first week.
In the second week, either increase your speed or distance, but not both. You could increase your speed by upping the amount of trotting time - for example, trot for 3 minutes, walk for 5 minutes. OR you could keep the same pace as last week but ride for one and a half hours (increasing distance).
Third week, increase either speed OR distance. If you increased distance last week, you might try increasing speed this week. And so on for subsequent weeks.
You are ready for your first 20km training ride when you can go on a two hour trail ride and your horse cruises comfortably at a speed where you spend approximately half the time trotting and half the time walking (eg 5 mins trot, 5 mins walk). For the average horse, this results in a speed of roughly 10km per hour - or 20km in two hours - which is minimum endurance pace.
Keeping a record of your training is not only interesting and fun, but also very encouraging to see your gradual progression over time. It also helps you learn how to pace your horse.
Other Horse Management Considerations
Feeding - For a 20km ride, your horse's diet should be basically the same as what you'd feed him when he is in medium work for other activities - eg trail riding, pony club etc. When training above this level, you will need to start increasing energy feeds according to the level of work. Scientifically calculated performance diets are not necessary in the realms of training rides.
Electrolytes - As for feeding, during early endurance training, you do not have to go delving into the fine arts of electrolyte balance. But if your horse sweats a lot, he may benefit from an extra tablespoon or two of salt in his feed. Or you can make up a basic electrolyte mix with 1 part potassium chloride and 3 parts normal table salt (sodium chloride) and add a tablespoon of that to the feed. Or if your budget can stretch to it, you can buy one of the commercial electrolyte additives. The golden rule with electrolytes is to ensure your horse is drinking well first - ie never administer them to a dehydrated horse.
Water - When out riding on the trail, it is wise to encourage your horse to stop and drink out of puddles or other water supplies, as this is a very useful trait to prevent dehydration on long rides. After drinking, walk your horse for the next couple of hundred metres, before increasing pace again. The other rule with water is not to let your horse gulp bucketfuls of cold water on returning home from hard work. Offer small sips of tepid water every few minutes instead, until the horse has completely recovered.
Strapping - Strapping is caring for your horse after a long sweaty ride. Unsaddle and throw a rug over the horse's hindquarters to keep them warm and help prevent them from stiffening ("tying up"). Use cool to tepid water to sponge off mud and sweat from the neck, chest, saddle and girth areas, flanks and between the legs. Scrape, then towel dry and rug lightly and walk horse around gently, allowing a pick of grass. This is a common basic strapping routine for after an endurance ride, so practise it after any decent training session you do. Horses who are very hot will benefit from applying water and scraping off, then repeating this water on - water off routine until cooler.
Heart Rate - It is not essential to know how to listen to your horse's heart rate in order to participate in training rides. However, as distances get longer and training becomes more crucial, knowing how to count heart rate provides a valuable tool for determining riding and strapping strategies.
Equipment - There are no set rules regarding types of saddlery or dress codes in endurance. You will see dressage saddles, western saddles, stock saddles, military saddles, specialist endurance saddles, hackamores and halters etc etc. The only criteria is that saddlery is safe, well maintained, and fits your horse. It is very frustrating to "vet out" (be disqualified) from an endurance ride due to rubs and soreness caused by ill-fitting gear. Use the gear you train in at the ride to avoid risking problems with new gear. The same applies for rider clothing - it must be comfortable when working at endurance distances and pace. Helmets are recommended for all riders, but are mandatory for juniors under 18yrs. Whips and spurs are NOT permitted.
Shoeing - Your horse will need to be well shod when training for and competing in endurance. Entering an endurance ride with loose shoes or long hoof growth will greatly increase the chances of your horse vetting out due to lameness.
Part 2 - The Endurance Ride
If you feel your horse's fitness and training is on schedule, pick an appropriate ride from the ride calendar and ring the ride organiser about 3 to 4 weeks before the ride to obtain an entry form. This also provides you the opportunity to ask questions about camping, vetting times, ride times etc. Entries will have to be in at least a week prior to the ride.
Each ride varies as to their program and ride times. Some rides allow 20km (introductory) riders to arrive, enter and compete on the one day, thus eliminating the need to camp overnight. Other rides require all training riders to arrive and attend the pre-ride vet check the day before the actual ride. A few rides are now offering "twilight rides" which involve pre-ride vetting on the Saturday morning, and competition in the afternoon (giving you the choice as to whether you travel on Friday afternoon or very early on Saturday morning).
If you haven't done it before, camping overnight with your horse isn't as scary as it sounds. In fact there are a lot of advantages in arriving the day before, especially if the ride is run as a standard Saturday afternoon check in / Sunday morning competition.
You can pack your car and float unhurriedly on Saturday morning, and head off to the ride so that you will be arriving just after lunch. Everything is done at a leisurely pace on the Saturday afternoon, so there is no hurry in finding a good spot to camp, setting up your yard and checking your horse in. It tends to be a very social and friendly affair and you will meet many people - riders, strappers, officials and hangers-on - who are usually more than happy to help or offer advice. (This social scene can become just as addictive as endurance riding itself.)
Your horse will need to be accustomed to staying in a portable yard overnight. Preparation for this is simply a matter of setting up a yard in your horse's own paddock and putting him in there (with food and water) overnight. If he decides he needs to get out to be with his paddock buddies, then at home in an enclosed paddock is the best way to find out and review your yard structure, rather than worrying about this at your first endurance ride.
You'll see a huge variety of yards at any endurance ride, but the most common ones are made with electric tape or solid steel panels. A few people use rope, but whatever you use it must be safe and able to hold your horse. You are liable if your horse gets out and causes an accident (the same as if he pulls away from being tied to a float or a tree at a horse show).
Pre-Ride Vet Check
When you arrive at the grounds, set up your horse's yard and settle him in, then make your way to the secretary's tent/hall to check in. You will receive an official vet card which will become a log of your horse's performance for this ride.
Then take your horse and your vet card over to the vetting ring for the pre-ride vet check. This is not something to get worried about - it is simply a procedure for obtaining your horse's normal health parameters and check that he is sound to start. The officials are there to help you, so don't hesitate to ask any questions.
Return to your camp, set up your own sleeping arrangements, and organise your gear for the ride. Fill a few extra buckets with water for after the ride, for both strapping and horse drinking. If things have gone smoothly, you should still have ample time to saddle up and go for a light "warm up" on the course. If you have been able to find out which colour arrows your particular ride distance is following, this warm up becomes an excellent opportunity to check out the first 5km of track.
After the pre-ride vetting ring has closed, there will be a ride briefing given by the ride organisers and the chief steward. This briefing covers riding times, checkpoint locations, course markers and any hazards out on the course. It is compulsory to attend this briefing. Many rides offer a subsequent talk for novice riders, and this is a great opportunity to ask more questions and meet other riders.
Although most 80km+ endurance rides involve some riding in the dark, training rides start just on or after sunrise, or finish before sunset if its a twilight ride.
Assemble near the starting line about 10 minutes before the ride start time. Your number will be recorded by the time stewards. If you are worried that your horse might be hard to keep under control if he's out with the frontrunners, you are certainly welcome to start 5 minutes later - just ensure that your number has been recorded before you head out. You may ride alone, or with a friend or two, or with a whole group if you prefer.
Once out on course, enjoy the scenery! Endurance rides take you through some beautiful parts of our country. Follow the arrows (the correct coloured ones for your division). Don't feel obliged to keep the pace that everyone else is doing - ride your own ride. If you feel your horse needs to walk, then do so. If you are on your own, you can buddy up with someone else who seems to be keeping a similar pace, especially if your horse is the type who will waste a lot of energy worrying about where the other horses are.
Try to pace yourself by keeping an eye on the time. Most rides have distance markers on course every 5 or 10km, and you will be told how far out the checkpoints are. But if you have practised pacing yourself in your training, you will have a good idea how far you have travelled by looking at your watch. Novice riders currently have a minimum riding time restriction, which means that you will be disqualified if you come in too fast. At the other end of the scale, you don't want to travel too slowly or you'll run out of time. No need to panic though, there is plenty of margin between maximum and minimum riding times.
Offer your horse water whenever there is an opportunity. When you reach a checkpoint, you will need to call out your number to the stewards and wait until they have confirmed it before proceeding. Many checkpoints also carry drinking water, so take the opportunity to stop and refresh yourself too. Don't be afraid to dismount and walk next to your horse occasionally, especially up or down steep slopes.
If you run into a problem (eg your horse treads on a stone or loses a shoe or becomes distressed), dismount and walk your horse to the nearest checkpoint (or base if its closer). If this is not possible, then stop and send another passing rider with a message for help. All rides have emergency retrieval plans and a float will come and pick you up.
After The Ride
After crossing the finish line, dismount and wait until a time steward gives you your time slip. This little piece of paper gives you information about the time you crossed the line, the time you have to present to the vetting ring (30 minutes on) and the time you are allowed out on course again (the latter is only for those who are attempting a longer training ride which may have two legs).
Go back to your float and immediately make your horse comfortable with your regular strapping routine that you have used in training (see Part 1). Offer sips of water (not cold, and not too much at once) and picks of grass or hay too.
You must ensure that you present your horse to the vetting ring at the time indicated. Lateness results in disqualification.
When your horse has finished vetting, return to your camp and make him comfortable in his yard. Then you can pamper yourself!! If you have attempted a longer training ride with a second leg, you can start getting ready to do it all again!
If you have successfully vetted through, congratulations! You will probably feel elated as well as exhausted.
If you vet out, make sure you fully understand why. Most vets and officials are very friendly and will try to explain it to you anyway. The common goal for riders and vets is horse welfare - not exclusion for competition's sake. Try to regard the vet out constructively as how to improve for next time, and don't get too discouraged.
Whether or not you complete, its good sportsmanship to hang around for the presentations at the end. Your vet card will be returned to you at this point, and if you have completed, you will most probably be awarded a trophy or ribbon or other award.
For some maybe. For the others, it's only the beginning. Endurance riding opens up a whole new world of learning and adds dimension to the term "horsemanship". But whether you are aiming for the stars and the challenges of legendary rides like the Tom Quilty Gold Cup, or you are just happy to enjoy training rides, the motto of endurance riding always applies:
To Complete is to Win
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Copyright Jo Brock 2001
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