Endurance 101 : choosing a horse (or mule, or donkey or zebra or unicorn, if that’s what gets you down the trail!)
Say it with me:con. FOR. may. shun.
Say it with me:con. FOR. may. shun.
I conFIRM that the conFORmation of your horse is something to consider, when you’re considering the sport of endurance.
- confirmation: establishing (something) as true.Ratification; verification.
- conformation: the structure or form of a thing.
The ideal endurance horse:
Stands between 13 hands and 18 hands tall, either dainty of form or sturdy of form or average in form; in gender the equine should be male, female, or some neutered form of either.
The horse shall preferably have more than three feet, but fewer than five, and for ergonomic reasons should have a tail located at the far end of the body from the nose.
Permitted colors are black, brown, red, grey, painted, pocked, spotted, mottled, speckled, or bluish-green. Mixing of the permitted colors is allowed; other colors are allowed on a hardship basis.
Horses may not compete in LD events until they are 48 months in age; for 50+ mile events, the equine must be at least 60 months. There is no upper age limit for equine competitors. (The famous competitor Elmer Bandit was able to compete in long-distance competitions while in his mid-thirties, although he is considered extraordinary).
All silliness aside, there is much truth (which I can confirm) in the statements above.
Regarding the size and build of a beginner’s endurance horse, I urge the reader to look out in the pasture to see what is standing there: if there’s a horse out there who is willing and able to carry you down the trail, then, by all means, start with what you already have.
Certainly, if you get serious about the sport and decide to start winning world-class events, you may want to obtain a perfectly-conFORMed specimen. That, however, can wait. For your first season or two, at least, I encourage you to give Old Reliable a try. You can always buy or borrow another horse later. Who knows? If you used to enjoy riding Reliable over barrels or around jumps, the two of you might still have many years of fun on the trails ahead.
Here are a few things you will want to check out on Reliable before you decide that he is your future distance horse:
Endurance riders focus on soundness. Strong legs and feet are essential, because long miles of trotting create a lot of concussion! There is a saying among endurance riders that “sound enough” isn’t sound enough for endurance. In other words: a horse with old tendon injuries, a wonky knee, a tendency to abscess or any other recurring lameness issues should look for a different job. However, old/cold splints—no matter how ugly—are not a concern for endurance horses.
Your horse should be consistently well-trimmed or shod; there are places that one can cut expenses in endurance, but foot-care is not one of them. Determine the best hoof-protection option for your particular horse, and don’t be afraid to bake cookies every 6 to 8 weeks to enclose with your check for the farrier. Just as race-car drivers must change out tires at an alarming rate, so you will also learn to monitor the wear and balance of your horse’s feet and shoes when you begin to ask for long miles in training.
A horse with a “greyhound” or “radiator” build will be superior at cooling than one with a “stocky” build, and an endurance horse generates a phenomenal amount of heat (which must be dissipated) during a competition. However, the shape of a horse’s muscles--actually, the shape of the entire body--will change over time to better suit the work. Therefore, don’t discard your “big-boned” horse immediately. Substance can be a good thing, and a canny rider can assist a large-muscled horse to stay cool. (This will be addressed more specifically later).
In fact, the “ideal build” of an endurance horse is different depending on the terrain in which s/he is asked to work. Larger, bulkier muscles are often seen on horses who win the mountainous Tevis ride, while a longer, stringier appearance is common among horses in flat-desert rides.
No matter what the terrain, endurance horses need to take care of themselves during a long day of work. They must be willing to eat and drink whenever food and water is offered, be willing to relax and rest at vet checks even as other horses and people and machines create a chaotic and non-restful environment, and be willing to return to the task and continue down the trail after a rest break. A horse with a fretful temperament can do the work, but s/he will need your careful attention to guard against metabolic problems. If your horse is a worrier, enlist the help of your vet and trainer; these people may be able to suggest a feed, exercise and training regimen to help a dither-prone equine.
A good endurance horse has a long attention span and doesn’t spend a lot of energy spooking or worrying. This can be taught to many horses, with patience and practice, but if your backyard horse has already impressed you with an ability to concentrate while surrounded by noise and confusion, then hand the good creature a carrot and move forward with your plans to try an endurance event.
If you don’t already have a horse in the backyard, and are faced with a field full of prospects, I urge you to choose a horse with whom you enjoy spending time and riding.
After all, an endurance ride is not just a long event; it is a strenuous event that requires a horse-and-rider team to spend a lot of time together every week in the months leading up to a competition.
If you must choose between an adequate mount who makes you smile, and an athletic phenom who gives you nightmares, by all means, choose Mr. Adequate and leave the phenom for somebody who likes that kind of challenge. By contrast, if you are offered the choice between a sensible horse who bores you to tears and a dingbat who leaves you grinning after every ride, then take my blessings and saddle up your Dingbat.
Notice that I do not spend a lot of time worrying about the size of a prospect's cannon bones, his or her resting heartfate, or the angle of the shoulder or croup.
Ride the horse. Are you comfortable? Are you happy? Do you and the horse have fun together? Okay, then.
There is room in the endurance universe for horses—and riders—of all kinds. Tall and short, sturdy and slender, sensible or silly; you will often find your good horse much closer than you may have thought. Now, go out there and have some fun!