In which Endurance 101 presents a list of skills (for the horse)
Endurance 101 : Skills you will want a horse to have
This list is NOT a list of “must-have” skills. It is, rather a list of “ideal-world” excellent skills to have.
Don’t feel badly if your horse doesn’t already do a lot of these things. I competed for many years on a horse who wouldn’t allow himself to be caught promptly in a pasture, who couldn’t be trusted inside an electric corral, and whose idea of “rating” consisted of pulling my arms out of the socket for the first 60 miles and then trotting on a loose rein for the rest of the day unless he saw a scary cow…or a scary leaf…or a scary air molecule. I completed a lot of miles with him, but I knew that he was missing some skills that would make my life easier; at the time, I lacked the knowledge and support to teach them.
This list was created so that riders can use it as a starting point. If there’s one thing that endurance riders have a lot of, that thing is time. Learn to use your time to improve your horse’s training in ways that will make your life easier!
· Enthusiastic eating
I’m not sure you can teach this, but I find that finicky eaters are incredibly frustrating. If your horse is a “picky eater” even when he is thin and/or working hard and the feed is accepted by others in the herd, ask your vet’s advice. Blood work, dental work, or an endoscopy may find something that, when remedied, will make your horse eat…like a horse!
· Wait patiently for food without running over the person carrying feed buckets.
My pushy mare is obligated to stay three steps away from the feed pan until I say “okay.” The less-pushy horse doesn’t need this practice. Horses get hungry in camp, but still need to mind their manners!
· Easy to catch, halter, and lead
Practice, practice, practice. It may be convenient for you to open a stall door and release him into a pasture at home, but if your horse doesn’t walk politely on a leadrope, consider moving him from place-to-place on a lead every day for a few months. When the skill becomes routine, you will be glad you took those extra minutes each day to teach and practice it.
· Stand still for brushing, tacking up, de-worming, and other routine activity
Endurance horses get fiddled with a lot, often by strangers. If your horse is goosey, wiggly or impatient, teach him to stand quietly as you perform routine stuff around him.
During a competition, your horse may be examined or handled by 10 or more people in a single day, so prepare him for this by recruiting people he doesn’t know well to pick up his feet, apply a stethoscope, draw numbers on his bum (I use my thumb for practice, it feels the same to the horse), poke at his gums, and sponge him with water.
· Load into the trailer promptly and ride in it without fussing
Again, practice is key. If your horse is a reluctant loader, consider feeding all his meals inside the trailer for a month or two. If he is a fussy traveler, borrow a calm “teaching” horse to ride with him. Vary the length of your journeys, so that he doesn’t come to expect a trip of a specific length and then grow anxious if you keep driving longer. Put the loveliest hay you can find into a haybag for him to snack on as he rides. When you stop for a break, offer some carrots or apple slices.
· At home and away, stand quietly while tied to the trailer or hitching post.
You really want to know that the horse you tied to the trailer will still be there—standing calmly, rather than twirling around, setting back, or trying to commit suicide with the rope—when you walk away from him for a few minutes or longer. Practice tying to the trailer for long periods only when your horse has learned to stand quietly in the barn at home.
· Stand quietly while blankets, sheets, and tack are taken on and off.
· Accept being hobbled.
Hobble practice is also useful if a horse should become entangled in vines or wire: a hobble-trained horse will stand and wait to be freed from the entanglement and will not panic or thrash around.
· Walk flat-footed away from the trailer
A horse who will do this at your normal training grounds may still be very light-footed at the start line of ride, but a horse who isn’t expected to walk calmly away from the trailer at home will never spontaneously walk calmly to the start line of a ride in an exciting ride camp!
· Trot at the speed you ask, extending or collecting as needed
This is called “rating.” Here’s where arena practice will help: rehearse your communication and balance skills in a flat, controlled space without any strange obstacles to distract you, and then apply those skills on the trail where you encounter changes in terrain and footing. Teach your horse to save energy by keeping in-gait while adjusting the length and speed of the stride with minimal cues from the rider. You want to avoid situations where you can only slow him down by yanking on his face or running him into a tree. Practice on the trail by varying your routine—if you “always” canter up a particular hill, periodically walk up it instead.
· Step or hop over fallen logs
· Tread carefully through rocky areas
· Choose good footing when it’s available
Some horses seem to do this instinctively; others learn by watching more experienced horses. If necessary, hop down from the saddle and lead your horse on foot, asking him to follow in your footsteps through brushy or otherwise iffy terrain. The ideal endurance trail is free of rocks, brush, and other barriers, but the ideal endurance trail is a very rare thing. With practice, your horse can learn to choose the best footing available on the trail. I sometimes train in areas that are professionally logged, a process that sometimes leaves a weird tangle of branches atop the trails; because of this practice, my horse has become very good at picking her way through branches without worry.
· Cross water without incident
Horses don’t have the same kind of depth perception that humans have; to their eyes, a mud puddle might possible be bottomless or full of alligators. Practice crossing as many kinds of water as you can find: clear puddles, murky puddles, running creeks, etc. If you live in an arid climate, you can practice walking over tarps, which partially re-creates the experience of a weird sensation underfoot.
· When riding with a group of horses, take the lead position, the tail position, or a middle position
Many horses have a preferred “marching order”, however, you may not always be able to give your horse his preference. Teach him to accept various places within a travelling group by trading positions during each ride with your riding partners.
· Leave a group of horses and move down the trail without them
This can be very difficult for horses who are very herd-bound. Practice separating from a group in slow stages; at first, you may only be able to walk your horse away to the far side of a tree. Gradually lengthen the separations until you can safely leave the group or be left behind by them.
· Move down the trail solo
Again, this is sometimes very difficult. For other horses, however, going solo is a preference, and these horses will be much happier when allowed to leave the group. No matter what your horse’s preference, be sure to practice solo work and group riding.
· Allow other horses to pass on the trail
Some horses become anxious when other horses pass them on the trail; others become aggressive. Know your horse’s tendencies and learn to keep him moving forward politely and calmly as other horses move around you.
· Pass other horses on the trail without incident or misbehavior
As with the situation of being passed by horses, your horse may become anxious or aggressive. Practice this until you are confident that he will behave properly.
· Grab bites of grass or leaves when directed to do so by the rider
In stark contrast to everything we learned in 4-H and Pony Club, endurance riders encourage their horses to eat along the trail when directed to do so. Don’t make the mistake a friend of mine made by allowing her mare to grab bites of food any-old-time, or you may find yourself sailing over your horse’s head when he slams on his brakes to grab a bite of grass between his feet. I use the verbal cue “Oh look: food” when I want my mount to turn to the side of the trail and take a few bites of grass. It’s a stupid command, but my horses all know what it means: we won’t be moving forward until their mouths are full.
· Drink out of buckets, streams, puddles, or a water scoop
A normally-fastidious horse will learn this skill very quickly if he gets thirsty on the trail.
· Take treats politely from your hand while you are mounted
This can be a convenient way to allow your horse a snack of carrots of apples on a long ride. Some riders are even able to administer electrolytes from the saddle, and I know at least one mare who will drink Snapple out of a bottle held in the mounted rider’s hand.
· Stand quietly when the rider is dismounted
There is nothing more distracting than having a horse use you as a maypole when you’re trying to pee by the side of the trail. Practice this!!!
· Stand quietly to allow a rider to re-mount
I am short and my horse is tall, so I’ve also taught her to sidle up to any stump, rock, or man-made artifact that I can scramble up to use as a mounting block. She allows herself to be placed into a ditch if that’s the only “low ground” I can find. Finally, I taught her to stretch out one or both front legs on command, an action which drops her back down by about 2 inches—which makes mounting from the ground possible for me.
· Stand quietly while the rider chats with other riders, checks the map, fixes helmet straps or unwraps a sandwich.
· Transition between activities smoothly and without debate
Practice trotting down the trail, and then stopping for a bite of grass, followed by more trotting. Practice walking, dismounting, remounting, and then walking again. Your horse will learn that he may be asked to change activities at any time. Do some bending practice, or work on laterals while you’re on the trail. This will keep his mind engaged, and his body limber.
Looking at this list, I see a lot of words and phrases repeated: “Stand quietly,” for example. Also “without fussing.”
Endurance horses need to save strength for the trail ahead, and not waste your time and their own energy by being knuckleheads during absolutely routine activities. For many horses, this can be an enormous challenge. For others, not so much.
Help your horse to remain quiet and calm by keeping your own demeanor quiet and calm, your movements smooth and deliberate, and your voice low and friendly.
Practice calm, quiet behavior at home and in training in order to encourage that kind of behavior in a ridecamp!
Coming soon: Skill-building for the rider.