Ten Commandments of Endurance Riding
1. Buy the best-conformed horse you can afford. It will save you time, money, and disappointment in the long run. Be color and sex blind. Remember the Golden Rule of Endurance: no major conformation faults in the front legs below the knees! Yes, look closely at the feet and the way they strike during movement
2. Fat is good on an endurance horse. It helps to make the distance. In most rides over 30 miles, the horse must tap into his fat storage for fuel and energy. Without stored fat, he will be "flat out of gas!" I am speaking, of course, of fat on a well-muscled, conditioned athlete. It is a statistical fact that a horse carrying extra weight at the start of the Tevis Cup ride has a far better chance of finishing than an equally conditioned horse that is lean.
3. It takes three years to make an endurance horse. Even though a horse can occasionally achieve metabolic and muscular condition in as little as six months, it takes far longer to build bone density and tendon and ligament strength. So don't hurry. Take your time and reap the rewards.
4. Likewise, familiarize yourself with the anatomical workings of the horse, especially the feet. The feet determine a good deal of health in the horse, not to mention the primary locomotion factor. Read "Lifetime of Soundness" by Hiltrud Strasser DVM.
5. "Horses run on instinct, not on intellect." The rider IS responsible for our own horse's well being, not them. Often we hear, "my horse wanted to run, I didn't make him! Why was he pulled for metabolic reasons at the lunch stop?" There are a lot of reasons horses run at endurance races, not the least of, it feels good! Reasons include fear, panic, too much excitement too soon in the horse's career, instinct to run with the herd, and poor training. It is the rider's responsibility to ride the ride the same way the horse was ridden in his conditioning, and to the extent the horse is capable and safe. Horses react differently on race day. It is important to have a strategy to handle this situation and stick with it! Never run the first 10 miles any faster than you know the horse can run the last 10 miles of the competition.
6. Endurance horses pace; cows stampede. This is the logical extension of "commandment #5." In your conditioning training, teach your horse a fast walk, medium trot, extended trot, and an easy canter. The speed of your horse should be exactly the same all the time, just as one would put a vehicle at a practical and constant road speed on a long trip to save gas. Slowing down and speeding up uses energy and that is counter-productive to long distance efficiency. When your horse learns an even pace, he will feel comfortable and confidant when he uses it in a ride and it will become automatic for him and easy for you, too.
7. Horses have a limited number of downhill miles. The front legs of a horse take at least 75% of the concussion on flat terrain. It is exponential on down hill terrain and even worse on downhill terrain with any rider, especially a heavyweight! Teach your horse a collected downhill trot. Use it only on races when it is necessary; i.e., the Tevis Cup is one ride that it is almost impossible not to trot downhill on. During conditioning, walk downhill or get off your horse and lead him at a trot.
8. Rest is as important as conditioning miles. One of the least used tools of endurance riders can be rest. Once a horse is a veteran (approximately, a three-year horse) he should have three months off during the winter. All horses should have a week rest after a fast 50 and a month off after the Tevis Cup. Conditioning should be completed weeks before the rides, not increased in the month preceding the ride.
9. Horses don't lie. Pay close attention to your horse's moods and appetite. If they are suddenly irritable, loose appetite, lethargic, bucks, or anything other than their normal self, try to figure out why! An endurance horse that loses his appetite and drops weight may be being ridden too hard. In this case, you back off on his conditioning until he again begins gaining weight. Any other changes can be due to foot pain, saddle fit, electrolyte imbalance, body misalignment, or a variety of reasons. If you cannot pinpoint the problem or it doesn't resolve in a short time, get a professional to help you!
10. The most important ingredient in endurance riding or training is trust. To have a safe and long endurance career, your horse needs to have total trust in you. You must be his comforter, his leader, and his savior! In moments of panic, he must turn his back on his instincts and trust you to save him. This is a big responsibility for us as horse owners. But, in a moment that can be life or death for you and your horse, you will be glad if you take the lead. To build trust, you must be consistent, kind, fair, and relaxed. Never let him down and he'll do the same for you.
--By Darolyn Butler