O. M. G. It’s finally ride day. What to do first? And…then what?
Wake up, greet the day
· I set my alarm for 1-2 hours before the start time.
· Get up, dress in ride clothes (if you didn’t sleep in them), pull warmer layers over the top if needed.
· Feed your horse
o Many ride vets recommend that riders not feed a large grain meal the morning of a ride. Beet pulp and hay are fine.
o Check the water bucket too, fill it if necessary.
· Eat breakfast.
o If your tummy is iffy (common, even among experienced riders), try to eat some yogurt.
o Stash a snack in your pockets to eat on the trail if you get hungry before the vet check.
Tack Up, Warm Up
· Your horse may be excited, because of all the other excited horses in camp. Alternately, your horse may be really, REALLY excited. Be ready for some equine exuberance, and give yourself extra time to cope with it.
· I like a very long warm-up on ride morning, to focus my mare’s attention on me as well as get her muscles (and mine) moving.
· Other people prefer to start the ride slowly and warm up on the trail without wasting energy before the start of the ride.
· If ride management will be collecting numbers at the start line, go there before the start time and give your number.
· Allow the fast-moving, experienced horses to leave camp first. There’s nothing more un-nerving for an inexperienced horse than to start down a trail only to be bulldozed by a horse and rider aiming to finish first.
· It’s okay to wait 5, 10, or even 15 minutes after the official start time before you hit the trail.
· Your horse at the start of a ride may be significantly more FORWARD than usual, thanks to the excitement of camp and the other horses. Be ready.
o You may need to school him on the trail, or even put a stronger-than-usual bit in his mouth for the first few miles. Do whatever you need to do to keep control and stay safe.
Move down the trail
· As soon as you are able, pick up your “all-day trot”, and try to stay with this pace as much as possible during the ride.
· If people behind you ask you to yield the trail, please do so as promptly as you are able; if you wish to pass, ask politely and wait for riders to find a safe place to allow you to go by.
· A horse with a red-ribboned tail is a KICKER! Stay back! Call out to the rider in a friendly way so she knows that you and your horse are there.
· A horse with a green-ribboned tail is NEW TO THE SPORT. Approach carefully, and kindly.
· A horse with a yellow-ribboned tail is a STALLION. Mare owners, please be courteous.
· A horse with a purple/red/green-ribboned tail is visiting from New Orleans. Shout your favorite Marti Gras slogan when you come near.
At water stops and other places of pause
· If other horses are drinking from a water tank when you approach, stay back until they finish and move away.
· If horses approach the tank as your horse is drinking, allow him to finish, and then ask politely if the other horses will be bothered if you leave.
o Sometimes, horses get so interested in the departure of another horse that they will forget to drink.
· If your horse is drinking well on the trail, you may wish to administer a syringe of electrolytes at the water stops.
· If you stop along the trail to adjust tack or take a sanitary break in the bushes, expect people to ask if everything is all right. It’s okay to say yes.
o If you actually need or want help, don’t be afraid to ask. Most folks are happy to assist if they are able to do it.
o If you see someone stopped along the trail, ask after their welfare. It’s the polite thing to do.
The Vet Check
· As you approach the vet check, slow down, dismount, and loosen your horse’s girth a notch.
o Walk beside your horse into the check.
o I like to offer my horse a few carrots or a granola bar as we enter the vet check. This is her signal for a break, and also brings up her gut sounds, which tend to be quiet.
· When you arrive at the check, an in-timer will ask for your vet card. An arrival time will be written on your card. You have 30 minutes to pulse your horse down.
· Your horse will ideally pulse down within a few minutes of your arrival.
o Walk him to the water tank for a drink of water.
o If he is hot, sponge or scoop water onto his neck to cool him and bring down his heartrate. Scrape the water off to promote faster cooling. Don’t sponge out of the water tank; use the smaller sponge buckets provided for this.
o When the water scraped off his skin is no longer hot, his pulse has probably dropped.
· Step away from the water tank and ask for a pulse.
o When the pulser approaches, move your horse’s left front foot slightly forward, and ask him to stand still.
o The pulser will use a stethoscope to listen to your horse’s heart for 15 to 60 seconds.
· When your horse’s heartrate reaches the required criteria (usually 60 to 64 beats per minute), he is “down.” The pulser will relay this information to the timer, and get a “down time” and an “out time” to write on your card.
o Your “out time” is the time you are allowed to leave the vet check and continue down the trail. You may not leave before this time, and you must see the vet first!
· Take some hay with you if there’s a line for the vet. Allow your horse to eat as you wait.
· If you’ve still got food in your pockets, eat it now.
· The vet will examine your horse quickly, but thoroughly. A more thorough explanation of this exam will be covered later.
· If the vet does not “pass” your horse, he is “pulled” from competition.
o If there is something urgently wrong with your horse, the vet will immediately start treatment. This is rare.
o If nothing is urgently wrong, ask the vet for more information and advice when there is no line of horses waiting to be examined.
o Talk to the timer or other ride management personnel about what to do next. You will probably be trailered back to camp by a designated driver.
· If you are given a passing grade by the vet, get ready to go back out on the trail.
o Make sure your horse eats!
o You need to eat too!
o If you haven’t peed yet, do that! If you don’t need to pee, you haven’t been drinking enough fluid on the trail, and should stay in the vet check until you do.
o Refill water bottles and any other supplies you need in your saddle packs and pockets.
o You can stay in the vet check longer than your required hold. If your horse needs some extra time to eat, take it--but be aware that extra time in the vetcheck is not counted as "hold time", and you must still get to the finish line before the cut-off set by the ride.
o Before leaving the vetcheck, offer your horse a last drink of water, and administer electrolytes.
· As you leave the vetcheck, verify with the timer than you are authorized to go. Check once more that you are aimed at the trail with correctly-colored ribbons for your distance, and off you go!
o Some people like to leave a vet check at a walk, others prefer a trot (or even faster). Do whatever you like, as long as you are safe.
Back on the trail
· Return to your “all-day trot” pace after the vet check, and try to maintain it as much as possible.
· When you need to walk on the trail, use the opportunity to encourage your horse to stretch his neck down and to each side. This only takes a few strides and will help keep him (and you) more flexible as you become more fatigued.
· Contrary to the teachings of Pony Clubs everywhere, it is okay to let your distance horse eat while he’s working. A quick snack break every hour will keep his gut motility working, and provide a mental break for both of you.
o If there is no grass growing along the trail, carry some carrots to feed from the saddle.
o As crazy as it seems, you may need to practice this at home, so your horse will actually EAT—some get so focused on their work and so excited by the activity of the other horses that they won’t eat.
o It’s worth spending the time at home AND at rides to enforce the “eat when I say eat” injunction, so that your horse can refuel between vetchecks later in his career when he’s doing longer distances.
o I use the phrase, “Oh look: food!” to direct my horse to grass. She recognizes my words and tone of voice, and she knows that we won’t leave again until she’s got grass or a carrot in her mouth.
· After your snack break, return to your “all-day” pace.
· If you hit the “doldrums” at some point, where you or your horse (or both of you) starts to drag mentally and physically, change what you are doing while still moving down the trail.
o Ask for a different gait, practice collection or extension, flexion, or lateral movements for a minute or two. Praise your horse’s efforts for these exercises.
o Sing a cheery song out loud
o Join up with another rider, if you have been riding alone. Or, stay back from the group if you’ve been riding with others.
o Set your watch for five minutes; walk on a loose rein for that entire time. When your five minutes is finished, pick up the “all-day trot” again.
· When you approach the finish line, SLOW DOWN.
o Dismount and walk into camp as you did at the vet check.
The Finish Line
For Limited Distance (LD) events, you have not “crossed the finish line” until your horse has reached the heart rate criteria! Endurance distances (50 miles or more) are considered finished when the horse crosses the line. ALL horses must pass the final vet check in order to "complete" the event.
· As tempting as it is to fly across the finish line, racing will raise your horse’s heart rate and his level of stress—exactly contrary to what you need at the finish of a ride.
· Offer your horse a drink of water before beginning your “cooling off” procedures.
· If the weather permits, drop your saddle to allow your horse to cool off faster (which brings down his heartrate).
o In cold, wet, or windy conditions, you may wish to keep the saddle on to keep the horse’s muscles warm and loose.
o Sponge the horse with cool water as you did at the vet check.
o When his skin feels cool and water no longer sloshes off feeling “hot”, his heartrate is probably lower.
· Step away from the water tank and ask politely for a pulse.
· When your horse’s heartrate reaches the criteria (usually 60 or 64 beats per minute), the pulser will notify the finish line timer that he is “down.” Your finish time is the time that he officially pulses down.
The final vet check
· See the vet for your final evaluation as soon as possible.
o You have 30 minutes to complete your evaluation after pulsing down in an LD ride (according to AERC rules), but it is rarely better to allow a horse to stand around before getting the vet check done.
o Feed your horse as you wait in the vet line.
o If the vet requires “tack off at completion”, remove your saddle and leg protection if you haven’t done so already. If he is wearing hoof boots, they can be left on or taken off, at your discretion.
o If the weather is chilly, throw a fleece or wool blanket over your horse to keep his muscles from getting stiff while waiting in the vet line.
· If the vet has concerns about the soundness or metabolic health of your horse, s/he may “keep your card”, advising you to return within 30 minutes after feeding, massaging, or icing the horse.
o Follow the vet’s instructions. Remember that the vets want you to complete!
o Ask for help if you need some.
· When the horse passes all parts of the final vet exam, congratulate him and yourself: You have completed your first distance event!
Coming soon: horse-care after the first competition