Far and away, most horse owners care deeply about the health and welfare of their horses, even at the highest level of demanding activity. I feel that there may be more inadvertent harm that comes to horses through lack of experience and know how than through intentional abuse, and I think the greatest impact we can then have on preventing harm to our horses is through education. This is why I am working toward greatly increasing our mentor activity amongst newbie endurance riders--to usher new riders and their horses into the sport more safely. I think it will add to the enjoyment and longevity of our members, as well. Below is a little something I wrote a few years ago that attempts to sum up some of the things I learned from mentors. I hope it is still valid.
My favorite aspect of endurance riding is "building a new horse." By that, I mean I love the process of bringing a horse to fitness, in all aspects, and successfully campaigning him. I have learned a thing or two from mentors along the way:
1) Julie Suhr told me to always look in my horse's eyes to see how he's feeling at any given time. I list this as #1 for a reason. It's that important. His eyes can tell you when he's vibrant, when he's ready for more, when he's tired, when he's done for the day, when he needs prolonged rest, and what he thinks of you.
2) Jim Holland reminded me of the difference between "training" and
"conditioning." Training involves handling, shoeing, trailering, ground
manners, dealing with fears, camping, tying, etc.,. Conditioning refers
to the actual physical fittening of the horse. They are equally important.
3) Bill Bohannon taught me not to fret when a horse first shows some signs of overuse from overzealous conditioning. We have to be able to recognize how much a horse can take, and back it off a bit, so as to always keep him in a safe zone. Ya gotta know where the "edge" is, so you don't go over it. I have always honored this lesson, and it has served well in keeping my horses from injury.
4) I don't remember who taught me the principle of "The Three D's" of conditioning rides.They are "distance, duration, and difficulty." A good rule of thumb is to only increase one of these at a time, even then by only 10%. This helps assure time for the horse's tissues to super compensate in response to exercise, with less risk of injury.
5) Horses are animals, and, as such, subject to emotion. They may
have a bad day every now and then, or get sour with extremely regimented exercise. Let them have a fun day from time to time. Chase some cows, hike with them, pony a buddy horse, run some barrels--anything to break up the monotony. They will get their mojo back quicker.
6) Matthew Mackay-Smith writes about not feeding the horse heavily in
anticipation of work. Rather, put back into the horse what you took out
of him that day. It works. Or, as Tom Ivers would say, "Work the feed, and feed the work."
7) Don't work the horse if his legs aren't cold and tight. Ever.
8) Working on hills is an excellent way to teach the horse to use
his back end, and build impulsion, strength and wind without stressing his
9) My friend Ron Barrett taught me "Horses get stronger with rest."
In fact, I think horses do better with more rest days than work days.
10) Before, during and after all workouts and competitions, please