by Stephanie Meza
Aptly called the sport of a million steps, Endurance riding is a competition that challenges horse and rider to complete a 50-100 mile (80-160km) course in one day.
Limited Distance (LD) rides are 25-35 miles (40-56 km) long, and any rides under 25 miles (40 km) are generally considered a training or introductory ride.
While the winner is the first one to cross the finish line on a healthy and sound horse, for many riders the motto is simply, “To Finish is to Win.”
Thus the love affair of Endurance and LD riding begins...
This has made Endurance riding one of the fastest growing equine sports in the world today; with 53 nations participating and 900+ FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale) sanctioned rides a year.
There are many reasons people enjoy Endurance and LD rides. It allows one to take pleasure in time spent on the trail with their horse, participate in the camaraderie of fellow riders, set personal goals and records, and then of course, race to win.
Endurance riding was initially developed in the early 1900’s for the military to test their Calvary mounts. By the 1950’s civilians picked up the sport and in 1978 FEI recognized Endurance riding as an international sport.
The FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale) oversees and implements the rules for the sport for Endurance on an international level. While USEF (United States Equestrian Federation) and AERC (American Endurance Riding Conference) set rules and policies in place for the non-international, recognized rides in the USA. Each country participating in Endurance will have their own governing body that implements rules and policies for their country. Such rules and policies include a pre-ride vet check and mandatory vet check points along the way to ensure the physical health and soundness of each horse as riders’ progress along the course.
In general Endurance rides have five divisions: Four weight divisions for adults; featherweight (up to 160 lbs), lightweight (161-185 lbs), middleweight (186 -210 lbs) and heavyweight (211 lbs and up). There is also a junior division for riders under 16 years old. These weight divisions include the tack for the horse.
Individual rides usually provide awards for weight divisions as well as for overall placings up to top ten. There is also a Best Condition award earned by the horse and judged by the veterinary team, and is only awarded to one of the top ten finishers.
The maximum time a rider is allowed to complete a course is as follows: 25 miles (40 km)-- 6 hours, 50 miles (80 km) --12 hours, and 100 miles (160 km)-- 24 hours. However, in the heat of competition the completion times drop tremendously with winning riders often crossing the finish line in less than half the allotted time.
A horse must be 4 years or older to participate in an LD ride, and 5 years or older to enter an Endurance ride. While any sex and color of horse can be used, geldings currently dominate the FEI rankings by almost 3 to 1 over mares. All else being equal, greys are often preferred, especially in very hot climates, since their coloring reflects the heat better than darker horses.
Yet like any sport, the more competitive a person wants to be; the more important it will become to ride an endurance horse that is mentally, physically and conformationally adept to not only handle the rigors of endurance but excel at the sport. Due to the inherent qualities of an Arabian horse, the majority of endurance horses are Arabians, and specific traits within the breed are most prevalent to succeed at the highest levels of endurance racing, dominating the winner’s circle time and time again. Arabians that have been specifically bred and trained for the sport of Endurance can cost upwards of one hundred thousand dollars.
Christoph Schork, World Record holder winning over 280 races and 100+ Best Condition Awards
When selecting an endurance horse one must take into account overall correct confirmation and a sound mind. Some attributes to consider are as follows:
Straight legs, well-shaped hardy feet, good bone with matching joint size, and strong sinews will help prevent lameness many miles down the trail. Does the horse have a long ground covering efficient stride as it moves freely, with short cannons and a long forearm? Does it have a strong back that won’t get sore when carrying a rider for hours on end? Does it have a muscle structure designed to carry itself over long distances?
The respiratory system of the horse is also a primary consideration. Can the horse breathe easily? Does the horse have large nostrils, an unobstructed nasal passage and windpipes, well sprung ribs for lung capacity, and a large heart with a low resting heart rate that can recover quickly?
While the physical attributes are important, the mind is equally important. An endurance horse needs to be competitive, have a will to work and keep going, yet also stay calm and controllable for a rider. The horse must be able to cope with many different environmental changes before, during and after the ride. A high-strung horse that continually stresses and won’t listen to its rider, will not make a good endurance horse regardless of its physical attributes.
Centuries of breeding Arabians in the desert has predisposed the Arabian to the above attributes needed for endurance. As the Bedouin’s very survival was dependent on the Arabian horse that could carry them for many miles across the desert while withstanding extreme temperature changes from day to night and limited food and water rations. The Arabian horse was so prized by the Bedouins that many would take them inside their family tents for safety and protection.
A successful conditioning program tailors to the current physical condition, training, mental well-being and age of the individual horse. The dietary needs of an endurance horse can vastly differ from other horses and must also be addressed for the horse to perform at its peak. The first step should be to consult with a veterinarian to ensure the horse is physically sound and healthy for Endurance riding. The vet can also provide guidance in conditioning and dietary needs. While there are many articles and books on the subject of training and feeding the endurance horse, it is highly recommended to seek out an experienced endurance rider who can mentor and/or train both horse and rider when getting started in the sport.
While much of the focus is on the horse, the sport is physically and mentally challenging to the rider as well. Rides can start before the morning light and end in the dark. Many hours are spent in the saddle where dehydration, fatigue and hunger can set in, not to mention experiencing extreme heat and cold under various weather conditions. Proper planning and attention to detail is required in order to successfully complete the ride. It is not uncommon to hear that a rider forgot to drink often enough and ended up dehydrated out on the trail. Understanding the course layout and learning how to read the directional markers will help a rider stay on track and not get lost, especially in the dark.
Within the endurance riding community, one doesn’t need to look far to find an experienced rider who is willing to mentor and share their knowledge and love of the sport with a new comer. The camaraderie found in a ride camp and on the trails is most welcoming and hospitable. An experienced mentor is a great resource to glean information from. They can give recommendations on how to properly prepare one’s self for a ride, preferred tack to use for the horse, rider etiquette and useful tips like, “Drink at least every time the horse drinks!” A mentor can also ride alongside a new comer providing moral support, a companion for both horse and rider, and guidance along the course as one learns to navigate the trail and sync to the rhythm of the ride.
Endurance riding provides an opportunity to spend time in the saddle, bond with a horse, develop life- long friendships, revel in beautiful scenery, derive new tales to tell and create lasting memories.
Most important, it is a fun time to be had by all as each step brings horse and rider closer to a million!
The website links below can help facilitate learning more about endurance riding, rules and regulations, and connecting with local entities.
National Equestrian Federation Links to 132 Countries
South Africa Endurance