Things to know before you begin distance riding
It is not easy to summarize in just a few lines and for riders at different levels of knowledge and riding ability, what distance riding is, how to begin, what horse to chose, how to get him ready for the first race, and what not to forget while getting ready; even how to decide if this is the right discipline for every one, personally.
stance, or endurance riding is really one of the oldest riding disciplines, one that uses the horse in the most ancient way that man has ever used it - to get "from somewhere to somewhere else". The rider with his horse negotiates distances that in the time available he could hardly attempt on his own. When that happens, the horse becomes a means of transport, and thus enters a realm fraught with many pitfalls. Because a horse is not just a mechanical means of transport, but rather (and foremost) a living being. And this becomes somewhat confusing to us. We want to be first at the finish, yet at the same time want to spare the horse as much as possible. In the past, when horses were used mainly for work, and there were many more of them, our attitude toward the horse's health and well-being has not been as clear-cut as it is today. Horseback rides over great distances in those days were nothing unusual, but a necessity. Just think of the travels of King Charles IV across Europe, or the hundreds and thousands of miles ridden by cattle drovers over the prairies of North America. However, all those people changed horses as necessary, and often could not afford to spare their horses. On the other hand, they did not need to expose their best horses to the hardships of a distance ride. When they "competed", they did so by showing off all that they could do with their horses, what they were able to teach them. They had much less need to compare and show off their horses' endurance, because that was simply a necessity, and a horse who lacked in that respect ended most likely in the pot.
Enough of history. The horse here and now is in an altogether different situation. He became a friend and companion, to some extent a sports "prop", and an object of care and admiration. By the way, it is not always to the horse's benefit, because his natural need to keep moving is often overly restricted by our "humanised" care, and a horse, albeit in a luxury stable box and with fabulous tack, actually suffers if all that he does is every now and then an hour of arena work. Proper care for the horse's health and well-being is something else entrely.
Which brings us back to our subject - endurance riding. A discipline which intrinsically connects with the historical role of horses in the lives of humans, it finds expression today mainly in the increasing popularity of trail riding and in the use of horses for leisure activities. At the same times it is a discipline that puts great demands on the horse, and the natural human competitiveness and drive to be the best can easily lead to overtaxing the horse and irreversibly damage his health. The current trend toward immediate gratification and fastest success is particularly hazardous to the horse's health. For that reason, endurance riding has strict rules and veterinary control, and no one with experience is surprised when sometimes even half of all participating horses are 'pulled' during veterinary checks. It is said, with justification, that to finish is to win. The Best Condition award, granted at many races by the veterinary committee, is coveted no less than a first-place win.
Endurance competitions in Europe are held under the FEI (International Equestrian Federation) rules in the Czech Republic issued, together with national specifics, by the Czech Equestrian Federation.
The latest, 7th edition is effective as of 1.1.2009, and all who are interested should become familiar with the rules.
This article is not meant to comment on or to explain the rules, but I believe it is important to explain at least what the competitions involve. There are two types of races - Endurance per se, and Competitive Trail.
In an endurance ride, the winner is the one with the shortest time in which the horse and rider complete a prescribed course, never less than 40km (for adults); the longest race is 160 km (100 miles) in one day. During the race the veterinary committee checks the condition of each horse and its ability to continue. In addition, after completion the horse should also be sound and able to carry on, otherwise it is disqualified, despite having finished the race.
Competitive Trail rides have a predetermined, set time limit during which the horse and rider must complete a given distance. The limit is somewhat flexible, the goal is to ride wisely, as fits the horse's condition, and to keep appropriate speed. Faster completion is penalised as well as finishing too late. Often the organisers set additional evaluation rules. Veterinary supervision is a given here as well. The competitive rides for beginners may be shorter, starting at 20km. These competitions help prospective endurance riders learn how to pace their horses (and themselves), and thus often become a means of transition from recreational trail riding to endurance racing.
Other competitions may be multi-day rides, combinations of set-time and shortest time rides, with or without additional evaluation, etc.
An endurance beginner is not likely to buy a horse just for the discipline. However, everybody should know that any distance competition places heavy demands on the horse, and that competing without prior conditioning is an irresponsible gamble with the horse's health. The horse must be mature, his physical development completed - thus the rules usually exclude those under 6 years old (with exceptions for 4 and 5 years of age). It is no coincidence that most successful endurance horses are over 11 years old. Another thing to keep in mind is that the conditioning of a healthy horse, even for an easy endurance race, takes at least 2 to 3 months. The horse has to get used to working three or more hours per day. This workload should not be abrupt, speed-related, but endurance related. The horse must be accustomed and ready to work at walk and trot for long periods, to acquire respiratory and circulatory fitness so that the circulatory system will supply enough oxygen to the muscles. Often horses in the best condition are those who are daily used for work - be it in the arena, on recreational trail rides, or even in harness. Well-fed horses grown fat from inactivity seldom succeed, despite their good looks. So start by riding out as often and as far as possible, teach your horse to negotiate varied terrain, and acquaint him with different environments. Try to figure out how to keep him on the move as much as possible, but not in bursts, rather long-term and regularly. Start training with an initial walk-to-trot ratio of about 3:1 and gradually work toward a 1:1 ratio. Always monitor your horse closely and don't overwork him. Do not forget to let him rest after the exertion. Learn how to measure his pulse and remember that, on the average during training, the working pulse rate should not exceed 120 beats per minute, and the respiration rate should never approach the pulse rate. Ten minutes post exertion the pulse ought to fall back to normal or at least below 64 beats per min. Feed the horse in due proportion to his workload and so as to encourage development of muscle rather than fat. An endurance horse must be easily handled, calm, and willing. Teach him that.
Don't expect to find here how to train a successful endurance horse. It is something of an art, and everyone jealously guards the finer details. Be aware, though, that if you do decide to train for endurance, you need enough time over a relatively long period, and that you must learn to understand your horse. Recognise when he is truly tired as opposed to just lazy; when only his inborn obedience and devotion pushes him to respond to all your demands, despite being at the verge of exhaustion. or conversely, when you can push a little harder for good result. Don't rush! Learn to think a bit like a horse, and heed the laws of nature. It will help you in many ways.
If you intend to participate in a distance race, remember that your horse must normally be capable of travelling at least half of that distance three days in a row, at the chosen speed, without tiring. And once you have registered, remember during the week before the race to just maintain the horse's condition and his appetite for work. You won't be able to change anything about his performance this late.
While distance riding does not require supreme horsemanship, it does require a rider who is able to handle his mount in all circumstances and definitely one who is able to take good care of his horse. It does not matter if he uses English or Western saddle, and no specific bridle type is prescribed, but don't forget that the tack must always be comfortable and well-fitting, allow the horse free breathing and circulation, and cause no rubbing or bruising, even after several hours of riding. The bridle should allow the horse to drink easily on the trail. All parts of the tack should be well "broken in".
Learning how to ride and how to care for horses is well described in many publications. But be aware that theory alone is not enough. What you may not find in general handbooks is that an endurance rider must himself be in good condition. A rider who can hardly stay in the saddle makes his horse's life very difficult. And trust me, after sixty kilometers an untrained body hurts a lot. The rider must be able to ride actively the entire distance, and at the finish be able to take care of his horse, too. Customarily, in difficult endurance races the rider dismounts for the more difficult sections and runs along the horse, sometimes for 15-20% of the full distance. So make yourself fit as well!
Endurance riding as a recognised sport has been in existence in Czech Republic for less than 30 years. Even in the rest of the world its organised form, with firm rules, is not much older. The current shift in the use of horses from work to leisure predestines recreational riding and its competitive forms to increasing popularity. In CR, the international rules of FEI are issued by the Czech Equestrian Federation, which also has an endurance commission. Unfortunately, currently few people are willing and able to organise endurance races, so there are usually only some eleven rides per year on the calendar. Still, it can be expected that the number of competitions will increase, particularly rides suitable for beginning riders, just as the numbers of qualified veterinarians increase. The CEF also expects to educate endurance judges and create rules for licensing endurance riders.
This introductory text cannot even indicate, let alone answer all the questions in connection with distance competitions. Since Czech literature about endurance riding is practically nonexistent, I have to leave you to word of mouth and your own reason and feeling, and to mainly English literature sources.
If despite the above warnings your decision to become an endurance rider hasn't faltered, you can expect a great deal of work and worries, but also splendid rewards in the form of mutual understanding between you and your horse, and many lovely hours spent in his company, in the great outdoors where since time immemorial both man an horse belong.
Leša Leiský, 2000, 2009.