Saturday, November 12, 2011

In which Endurance 101 moves us closer to a real event

Endurance 101 – Countdown to your first endurance ride

Your horse is getting fit, and you are getting excited. You visit the AERC.org website and check the calendar: There’s a ride that you can attend! It’s only two months away…

Eeeeeek!

Here’s a bare-bones calendar of stuff you’ll want to do before ride day, arranged in a countdown format. The schedule isn’t set in stone, but it is a handy list of stuff to remember.

Ride day minus 2 months:
  • Check the fit of your saddle, and make necessary adjustments.
  • Take a riding lesson (on trails, if possible). Ask your instructor to focus on helping you and your horse move freely and comfortably at various speeds over different terrain.
  • Call your farrier NOW to set a farrier appointment for 1-2 weeks before the event.
  • Administer any needed vaccinations.
  • Ask your vet about medical paperwork that may be required for the ride. If you need to cross state lines for your event, be sure to alert your vet so that the paperwork can be readied in time.

Ride day minus 1 month:
  • Safety-check your rig: tires (check your spare tire, too!), wiring, brakes, floorboards. Fix anything that needs fixing.
  • Check out your camping arrangements: do your sleeping quarters leak? Do you know how to set up in windy or rainy conditions? Does your campstove work? Repair or replace anything that will fail in camp.
  • Practice administering electrolytes to your horse via syringe. Start with a diluted dose mixed with applesauce or yogurt. If your horse does not take the syringe quietly, start teaching him now to accept it.
Ride day minus 2 weeks:
  • Farrier work is optimally done within 2 weeks prior to the ride.
  • If you need to make any feed changes for the event (switching from your usual feed to weed-free hay, for example) start making those changes gradually 2 weeks before you leave home.
  • Test the arrangements that you will use to contain your horse in camp. Keep your horse in it at least overnight, preferably 2 or 3 nights.
  • Check that your paperwork is current and stored in the rig: horse’s health papers, vehicle papers, etc. 
    • If you need a short-term health certificate from your vet, get it now.
  • Make a list of “emergency contacts” to use while on the road. The list should contain phone numbers for roadside assistance, a vet hospital in the area of your destination, and emergency contact information for every person and animal travelling with you.

Ride day minus 1 week:
  • Load your trailer with horse feed and tack. 
    • In addition to your usual gear, you will need a LARGE water bucket (harder to tip over), a feed pan, and an extra bucket because you can never have too many buckets.
    • Take a warm blanket if nights will be cool in camp, even if your horse is not normally blanketed at home. 
    • If the ride flyer mentions bugs, take a fly sheet, fly mask or bug spray (or all of these).

Ride day minus 2 days:
  • Pack your own gear: 
    • clothing for ride day
    • stuff for camp and clean clothing (and shoes!) for travelling.
  • Purchase and pack groceries for the people in your group.
  • You may wish to give your horse a dose of electrolytes prior to leaving home, preferably the evening before you leave. This will encourage drinking before the journey begins.
  • Pre-mix electrolytes into syringes for the ride. Seal the syringe-ends with duct tape, and store them in a large ziplock bag for convenience.
  • Make sure you have directions to camp. 
    • Check road conditions if travelling through a city, over a mountain pass, or any other places where problems might occur. I print out everything and leave it all on the dashboard of my truck.
  • Some people leave home 2 days before the event, which is nice but not necessary unless the travel is extensive.
Ride day minus 1 day:
  • Pack up and go!
  • When travelling, stop every 3-4 hours for 15 to 20 minutes (or more). 
    • Fuel stops count as rest stops—while your rig is filling up, offer water, plus carrots or soaked beetpulp to your horse
    • My horses travel with haybags in the trailer with them, so they can munch as we drive
    • If travelling in very hot conditions, consider driving at night or in the very early morning to minimize heat stress on horses.
    • Another tip for travelling in hot weather: set up a manger in the trailer and place a pan of very sloppy beet pulp in it for your horse to eat on the road.

Arrive in camp, at last!
  • Find the ride manager’s rig and ask for directions re: parking and camping. 
    • While you’re there, ask how they would like you to clean manure from your pens—some locations require that you haul it home, others ask you to scatter it. Find out and follow the protocol!
  • Set up your horse containment, and put your horse in with access to feed and water.
  • Set up your own sleeping quarters
  • Walk your horse around camp or go for a short ride (or both)
  • Register for the ride. 
    • Be sure to pick up copies of the trail map and ride criteria sheet (if available), as well as your vet card.
  • Get a number painted on your horse if this is part of the ride custom.
  • Vet your horse. 
    • Don’t be afraid to tell the vets that you are new—they will often take extra time to explain what they are doing and why. 
    • Thank the vets politely.
  • Feed your horse.
  • Set out your clothing and food for morning, especially if you will be getting up in the dark!
  • Set up morning feed for your horse, and put it where it can’t be grabbed by a midnight snacker or a passing raccoon.
  • Assemble a bag or box of supplies to send to the vet check.
    • Send out horse food, people food, and any electrolytes you may need (for horse or rider)
    • You may also wish to send a fleece or wool blanket for the horse, and a warmer or cooler layer for yourself.  Fresh socks are a luxury that don't take much room and are wonderfully welcome if your socks have gotten wet. 
    • Keep your vet supplies in a tidy, compact container marked clearly with your name and the distance you are riding.   
  • Attend the ride meeting. 
    • Take your trail map and criteria sheet with you to the meeting, and take notes when the trail is described. 
    • Pay close attention to the ribbon colors that you will follow—trails for different distances will be marked with different colors, and you want to be sure to take the correct route.
    • If there are watersets or landmarks to note, draw them on your map. 
    • Listen politely through the entire meeting, and please don’t talk—others are trying to hear what is being said. 
    • If the vets have concerns about the trail or the weather conditions, pay close attention! Follow their instructions as closely as possible. 
    • Save questions for the end. 
    • If ride management asks to meet with new riders, go with them, and listen to what they say.
  • Feed your horse a final meal for the day, make sure his water bucket is full, and give him a dose of electrolytes.
  • Go to bed and sleep 
    • If you can’t sleep, try to obsess quietly through the night in a comfortable position so you don’t keep me awake. 
    • Set your alarm!

Coming soon: RIDE DAY: how it rolls.

Friday, November 11, 2011

In which Endurance 101 is focused on moving down the trail

Endurance 101:  Basic Training (or, “how long is long, how slow is slow?”)
One of the most commonly dispensed pieces of advice about training a distance horse is the admonition to start with Long Slow Distance, or LSD (not to be confused OR combined with lysergic acid diethylamide).  The problem arises when we start to define our terms:  how long is “long” and how slow is “slow”?

The answer, as with so many things about training for endurance riding, is “it depends.”  If your horse has just finished a successful season of 3-day eventing, or is recently returned from a strenuous week of packing in the wilderness, his fitness level will be higher than the mare who has recently weaned a foal.  The fitness programs for these horses will, necessarily, be very different. 

How long is “long”?
Write down everything you can remember about your horse’s activity in the past year.  If he’s been  attending horse shows, trail rides, jumping lessons, cow clinics or similar activities, he will have a base layer of fitness even if his experience doesn’t apply directly to endurance rides.  A horse who has recently been pregnant, recovered from illness or injury, or who just hasn’t been out of the pasture or stall much will need to be started slower, although once s/he becomes fit, this horse will probably be able to perform in distance work just as well.

Jabba the Hutt
Let’s start with Jabba the Hutt, an overweight pasture ornament who is healthy and sound, but hasn’t done more than demonstrate his skill at eating for the past year.  If your horse is more fit than Jabba, skip down to the section about the Cheerleader.

Jabba needs to start slowly, with 15 to 20 minutes of work at a walk a few times the first week, adding 5 to 10 minutes of work to each session each week.  By the end of a month, Jabba will be able to work 35 minutes to an hour without fainting from the exertion.   When you reach workouts of an hour of walking, add some trot work without adding time. 

Here’s an important guideline for building up a horse: add speed or time, but not both at the same time.  Maybe you will add ten minutes of trotting to Jabba’s one hour workout, then the next week, add ten minutes of walking to the total workout, so he is moving for an hour and ten minutes.  The next week, replace ten minutes of his walk-time with trot-time.  The trot sessions do not need to be ten continuous minutes.  Here’s a sample session for Jabba after he’s been working for six weeks:

Walk 20 minutes.

Trot 3 minutes.

Walk 10 minutes.

Trot 5 minutes.

Walk 10 minutes.

Trot 2 minutes.

Walk 20 minutes.

If possible, when Jabba is fit enough for sessions longer than an hour, try to take a riding lesson or two with him each month.  A good trainer will be able to spot and help you to correct weaknesses in Jabba’s form or in yours.   Gradually replace Jabba’s walking workout with trot work, until you are only walking for a warm-up and cool-down,  and as trail terrain demands.

When Jabba the Hutt can trot for twenty minutes continuously without needing to be carried home in your arms, he can take up the training schedule of the Cheerleader.

The Cheerleader
The Cheerleader is the horse who, although she hasn’t been ridden much in the past year, is not overweight or sluggish in any way.  The cheerleader is the one who runs around her pasture just for the joy of running, with her head up and her tail flagged.  The Cheerleader doesn’t need the basic fitness routine required by Jabba the Hutt, but she will need to build muscle and skill in order to carry a rider for long periods of time.  If your horse is more fit than the Cheerleader, skip down to the section marked The Social Butterfly. 

The Cheerleader can start with 20-minute sessions of walking and trotting two or three times a week.  Build up her ability to carry the rider by working her over ground poles or low obstacles on the trail. As with Jabba, gradually lengthen her workouts and add trot-work to the session after two or three weeks, making sure to add speed or time to a workout, but not both on the same day.   Riding lessons twice a month or more will give you another set of “eyes on the ground” to help locate weaknesses that can be strengthened.

When the Cheerleader can work for an hour of walk/trot, she can take up the training schedule of the Social Butterfly.

The Social Butterfly
The Social Butterfly is the horse who has been ridden steadily for the last six months or more.  Perhaps he has been used as a lesson horse, or a cow horse, or even a racehorse (my first endurance mare came to me straight from the harness track).  The Social Butterfly is fit, but he doesn’t yet have the knowledge, skill, or fitness to carry a rider over uneven terrain at a walk and trot for 25 miles or more. 

Work the Social Butterfly on trails as much as possible, teaching him to negotiate different kinds of terrain and trail conditions.  Start at a walk if he hasn’t done much trail work recently, and add trot work gradually.  An hour of training should not tire him, so add time or speed in 5 to 10-minute increments.  As always, don’t add time AND speed in the same week. 

Be sure to train in all kinds of weather as well, although you don’t need to ride for very long when a hurricane or blizzard blows in.  Endurance rides are not always held in ideal weather conditions, and practice with mud, ice, snow, and high creeks is good to have as long as you can be safe while practicing. 

Real Life
Many riders experience a periodic slowdowns in the training schedule as a result of Real Life.  Real Life includes things like a missing horse shoe,  a child's piano recital or dental appointment, a flat tire, a week of late nights at work, and the stomach flu.  These setbacks may seem major at the time, but try not to worry too much.  Your horse will not lose fitness after a single skipped session, or even a skipped week of work.  Try to shorten your first workout when you come back to training, and then proceed forward, gradually and slowly. 

You may have noticed that I didn’t tell you how many miles to travel each week in your training. I recommend that you stick to “time” rather than “distance” at first.  When you are riding your horse at a mixture of walk and trot for two hours or more, borrow a GPS (or a bicycle with an odometer) to find out how far you are travelling in your average workout. If you are covering 10 miles or more in 2 hours, your pace is adequate for an endurance ride. If you are covering less than 10 miles in 2 hours, add more trot work or practice trotting a little faster. 

When you can do ten miles in two hours twice a week, you're ready to start a 25-mile limited distance ride.  You probably won't be first across the finish line at that pace, but your horse will be fit to do the distance, and as you know, the motto of the sport is "To Finish is to Win."  

Remember that the person who finishes the ride in 11th place gets the same prize  and number of milage points as the person who finishes dead last...so take it easy and slowly the first year, in order to build up a horse who will be able to finish and enjoy his events during the second year and beyond.

But, how slow is “slow”?
You may have noticed that this training regime might require MONTHS to get your horse ready for that first distance event.  Yup.  That’s right.  It does.   This regime also doesn’t include any cantering or galloping.    I don’t normally allow an endurance horse to canter or gallop on trails until the second or even third year of competition.  We practice cantering in the arena.  If we want to speed up the pace on the trail, I ask for a faster trot.  This teaches the horse to “rate”, which is the skill of performing a particular gait slower or faster, as requested by the rider.  An easily-rated horse is a joy on the trail—he can trot through tricky terrain at a slow pace, and then speed up without breaking gait when the trail is wide open and clear.

When you trot on the trail, figure out the speed that you and your horse are most comfortable, and practice it.  I call that the “all-day trot,” and it’s different for every horse and rider team.   Your speed at a trot may be faster than you expected, or it might be slower.  It doesn’t matter.  Keep that steady pace, and you will be able to travel farther than you ever thought was possible. 

Remember: your goal in endurance is to finish the ride, and the best strategy to finish the rides in your first year of competition is to spend as much time as possible in your “all-day trot”-- and don’t stop until you get to the finish line. 

Here’s a good trick for rating your horse.  After a few practice sessions, you will find that you can estimate your horse’s speed at the trot without a GPS: 

Sing.

That’s right:   sing. 

Singing to your horse as he trots down the trail helps to establish the rhythm that you want to hold.  It relaxes the horse and helps the rider build up good breath control.  It also improves your posture, because it’s hard to sing out while slouching! Singing is a good way to pass the time as you ride, and it is an excellent way to make sure other trail users (like bicyclists or bears) are aware of your presence so that you don’t startle them and they don’t startle your horse. 

The type of song is not important; I tend to sing children’s songs, boy scout songs, and sailor’s songs, because they are rhythmic and have lots of verses.  Don’t worry about the quality of your voice—your horse won’t mind if you miss the high notes.   

If you are self-conscious about singing, try some jody calls, also known as marching cadences.  These are the traditional call-and-response work songs sung by military personnel while running or marching.  (ALERT:  some traditional jodies are quite risqué, and might not be appropriate for everyone). 

Here’s one that Jim loves to holler out, and he insists that we all answer him back:

When my grand ma was 91
She did PT just for fun

When my grand ma was 92
She did PT better than you

When my grand ma was 93
She did PT better than me…

If you sing while you ride, you will notice that some songs “go” best with a particular trot speed. 

For example, I’ve discovered that “The Battle of New Orleans” is the perfect tempo for my mare’s 7 to 8mph trot, while “When the Saints Go Marching In” works well for a trot of 5-6 mph. 

Feel free to experiment and invite your riding partners to join the chorus and sing their own songs. Figure out which songs go best with what speed, and then you won’t be forever dependent on a GPS to determine your speed.

The sport of endurance is supposed to be fun, after all—and nothing is more fun than a song to help you move down the trail!






Wednesday, November 9, 2011

In which Endurance 101 covers rider clothing, with details

Endurance 101 : what to wear, what to wear?
Years ago, the Cascade Challenge endurance ride was held on the Memorial Day weekend at a popular horse-camping  site in the mountains of Washington State.  I went a day early to help ride management get ready for the ride, so I was in a prime spot to watch everyone roll in for the weekend.  What a show it was:  our familiar endurance rig village was amplified by heaps of local “backcountry” riders, out for a weekend of cowboy-esque riding adventure. 


The cowboy rigs looked a lot like our rigs (maybe a little cleaner, since our season had started 3 months earlier and the places we’d been camping were not exactly the paved streets of a KOA campground); it was the attire of the riders that afforded me endless amusement. 


These cowboys were dressed in their finest worked-leather apparel:  elaborately tooled-and-embossed batwing chaps and chinks with full leather fringe, hide-on leather vests with a convenient star-shaped pocket to hold a cell phone or a hip flask.  Long-sleeved patterned cowboy shirts with pearl-snaps for the gentlemen, and plenty of bling accents for the ladies.  The boots were breathtaking, and the hats!  I could pay my kids’ first year of college tuition by selling off a few of those beautiful Stetson ten-gallon wonders.  These folks were dressed for a parade, and as they moseyed past my camp, they even smiled and waved.  I waved back:  I knew I’d see them all back in camp really soon.


Sure enough, not much more than an hour went by, and the parade came through the other way, the horses still perky and beautiful, with their manes and tails un-mussed by strenuous work, and the riders looking a little wilted in their beautiful gear.


Did I mention that temps were in the high 90’s that weekend?  Oh, yeah.


The cowboys were obviously as astonished and amused at the attire chosen by the endurance riders as we were by the chaps and chinks.  Endurance riders are famous in equestrian circles for our collective lack of fashion sense, and surrounded by the beauty of the embossed-leather crowd, our signature dress-from-the-top-of-the-laundry-pile style was more motley-looking than usual. 


The afternoon before an event, most distance riders saddle up and take a horse out for a quick spin—ten miles or so, covered at a nice walk or easy trot so as to loosen up the muscles, tighten up the brain cells, and not tire out anything that might be needful during the next day’s competition.  We don’t dress in our finest gear for a shakedown ride.  We choose riding tights that are still useable but are a bit threadbare, t-shirts that are souvenirs from other events, and any other needful accessories that are clean but aren’t necessarily color-coordinated.  We strap on our helmets, ride for a couple of hours, and come back to camp.  The horses aren’t exhausted, but they have definitely broken a sweat—and so have the riders.  If the trails are dusty, as mountain trails often are,  folks come back with an interesting skin coating, since perspiration + dust = mud. 


Compared to the cowboys?  We looked like hobos on horseback.  


The cowboys could accept the t-shirts.  They could ignore the helmets.   But it was obvious that most of them just couldn’t get used to the idea of riding tights.  Some of them made appreciative sounds when a shapely endurance lady in tights trotted by, but they were gobsmacked at the appearance of men in tights.  (I do know several endurance riders who can sing all the verses to the title song from the film Robin Hood : Men in Tights, and they will sing them all if you ask nicely).


Lew Hollander was the fellow who broke the ice between the cowboys and the endurance riders.  At thet time, Lew was in his early 70’s, and had been winning Ironman competitions for more than a decade.  Nobody can look at or talk to Lew and think, “this guy is a sissy,” even if he decided to show up in camp wearing a tutu.  He is also a heckuva nice guy.  (Lew is now in his early 80’s, and still winning Ironman competitions against fellows significantly younger than himself).  Lew struck up a conversation about horses (of course) with one of the cowboys, and pretty soon there were friendly conversations about horses between the two factions happening all over camp.  It was a beautiful thing to watch.  I even saw some of the cowboys wander into Henry Griffin’s mobile endurance tack shop to finger (and purchase) some of the gear he had for sale.


The next morning, just as the sun was rising, the endurance riders pulled on their newer, shinier tights, their newer, more color-coordinated t-shirts and their faithful helmets, and headed out on the trail to enjoy miles and miles of beauty.  When we returned to camp, the cowboys were there, dressed in their fancy leather, clapping and cheering for us as we crossed the finish line.


I guess the moral of the story is that horse people are horse people, it’s just that endurance riders are less wrapped up in the equestrian fashion industry.  Beginning endurance riders want to know what they should wear, hoping for some recommendations of styles and brands.  In a theme that I think is becoming familiar to readers, my advice is, as much as possible, to use what you already have.  It’s okay to ride distance in jeans, if that’s comfortable for you--some people wear pantyhose underneath their jeans to minimize the chaffing, so try that if you are self-conscious about wearing lycra on your bum. 


If you are, or have ever been involved with sports like walking, running, cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, road biking, or other strenuous but low-impact sports, much of your gear for those sports will cross over readily into endurance riding.  My riding boots are the same boots I used for snow shoeing because they are comfortable, sturdy, and waterproof.  The raingear requirements for Volkswalking and riding a 25-mile distance ride are pretty much identical.  And no matter what, you’re going to need sunscreen, so make sure that your clothing includes a pocket where you can stash a tube of it.


 I
f you are more interested in comfort than in the current styles in Paris (and more importantly for ladies like me who are of a certain age: if you have no full-length mirror in camp), tights or breeches are a good choice because a good pair of tights will minimize clothing rubs and burns that are commonly experienced with riding clothes.  There are many good styles and brands of tights available, and they even come in colors that will match your tack if that kind of thing is important to you.  Tights are also available with knee and crotch padding, which may be worth the extra cost for you.


Boots or sneakers, as mentioned above, should be comfortable and sturdy, and the same goes for socks—use good-quality socks that won’t bunch up or wrinkle inside the shoe.  Raingear should be lightweight and allow you to move when you wear it…and ideally, will fit loosely enough that you can put warmer layers under your waterproof layers if you are riding in a location (like the mountains) where the weather can dramatically during the course of a day.


“Foundation” garments need special attention.  Ladies: the bra you wear to the grocery store may not be adequate for hours of posting the trot.  Gentlemen: supportive undergarments will make trotting down the trail for hours on end much more enjoyable.  Stores that supply equipment to runners and bicyclists are your best bet when shopping for supportive underclothes.  When trying on support clothes in the store, don’t be afraid to jump up-and-down in front of a mirror to test them.  It looks silly in the store, but this simple exercise will help you select appropriate clothes that will keep your jiggle-y body parts stable.  Minimize rubbing and chafing from your foundation garments by using products available in the same running and biking stores, especially Anti-Monkey-Butt Powder, Body Glide, or even baby powder.  If you do get a chafed body part and still have a few miles to go, Desitin or a similar product will ease the discomfort.


Last of all, I want to encourage each of you to wear a helmet every time you get on your horse.  Emergency room statistics nationwide show conclusively that the most serious, life-changing injuries that happen to equestrians are head-wounds.  If you’ve never spent time with a brain-injured person and experienced their frustration with an inability to express him- or herself properly, I recommend that you watch the short documentary film Every Ride, Every Time produced by the Washington State University Extension and the Washington State 4-H Foundation.  You can watch bits and pieces of the video on You Tube (beginning HERE), or you can order the video or DVD HERE  for only $15 including shipping.  Why not buy a copy, watch it, and then pass it along to your local 4-H group?


AERC rules do not require the use of a helmet, except by junior riders.  However, as I tell my junior riders, it only takes a single bee-sting to turn the best broke, gentle horse into a bucking bronco.  Given the hours and hours that you will spend training and competing on your horse in the sport of endurance, you will have plenty of opportunities to encounter that single bee…and I hope that when you do, your helmet is strapped on tightly.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

In which Endurance 101 addresses tack needs for the horses

Endurance 101 : the art of getting dressed
This is the part about tack for the horse:

IT NEEDS TO FIT.

Technically, after that sentence, I should be able power my computer off and go watch a movie with my family.  The rest of this section will just be details and variations on that single sentence.

Still reading? 

Dang.  We were gonna watch Pirates of the Caribbean, part ten-thousand.  They could film Johnny Depp reading the phone book in pirate garb, and I’d still watch it.  You too?   Ah, well.


There really is no substitute for tack that fits.  You can buy space-age materials, ultra-light designs, color-coordinated everything in the latest styles, or copy the tack selections of your favorite equestrian hero who has won every ride you’ve ever heard about for the last five years, but it will still be inferior to tack that fits.

The problem with tack that fits is that, to paraphrase the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “you can never ride the same horse twice.”   Over months or years of training in long-distance trail work, your horse will change shape dramatically.  Your horse changes shape slightly every day, depending on the amount and quality of his feed, the type and duration of his daily training, the amount of time he spends on pasture, and even the seasonal changes in his haircoat.

The good news about this constant change is that everybody else experiences it too…so, theoretically, we could all have a gigantic “Mad Tea Party” tack trade two or three times a year, and everyone could just swap gear until they found stuff to fit.

The real world is, alas, a bit more expensive than that. 

So what can a real person in the real world do?  My advice:  do the best you can. 

Saddle fit is most crucial.  If you ride your horse in a saddle that pinches his shoulders or rubs his back, the horse won’t fall over dead…but he may travel for a long time with his back hollowed or his hips angled strangely, or any one of a million different ways that horses do their best not to show pain.   If you don’t notice the contortions for a long time, he may eventually show up as “lame”, which is just a visible symptom of a need for extensive work and chiropractic treatment to move his body back into alignment again. 

If you have access to a professional saddle fitter with a computer sensor pad, by all means, take advantage of it!  Most of us don’t have that kind of expertise at hand, however.   Here are some work-arounds:

Evaluate your saddle fit by running the flat of your hand under it when your horse is standing squarely with the saddle on his back but not cinched tightly.  Your hand will ideally fit uniformly under the saddle without getting “caught” by a tight spot or being “freed” by an empty spot.  Ask a friend to repeat this evaluation when you are sitting in the saddle.  Remember: your weight makes a difference!

If your horse were entered in a “standing still with a saddle and a rider” competition, you would now be finished with your fitting exercises.  However, endurance is a sport of motion, and you need to evaluate the fit of your saddle on a moving horse. 

You can easily pay a bunch of money for a re-useable “cookie dough” pads online; these pads are infinitely re-usable, so if you are trying to fit tack for a bunch of horses, or if you have a bunch of friends who want to fit tack, it may be a good investment.  Place the cookie dough pad between your saddle and the horse and go for a ride.  When you return, carefully remove the saddle and examine the pad.  The flexible clay filling inside a pad will have squeezed thin where your saddle is tight, and it will be thick where your saddle bridges.  The cookie dough pad gives you immediate insight into the fit of that saddle with that rider over that terrain.  If there are no dramatic thin or thick spots, you will know that your saddle fits adequately.

A cheaper version of the cookie dough pad can be made with ordinary office-supply bubble wrap.  Get some spray adhesive and stick a sheet of bubble wrap (big bubbles work best) to a thin saddle pad.  Saddle up, and go for a ride.  Burst or stretched-thin bubbles (you can feel the texture with your fingers after removing the saddle) will indicate locations where your saddle is too tight. 

Don’t give up.  Borrow saddles from friends, use the “free trials” available at tack stores, experiment with saddle pads.  Unfortunately,  even mass-produced saddles have a huge amount of variation, so finding a saddle that fits and then ordering a cheap version online won’t work.  If you find a saddle that fits, ride in that saddle. 

Yes, it’s frustrating.  The only upside to hunting for a saddle is that everyone else has to do it too.  Sorry.  Anybody who tells you differently is probably selling something (most likely, they're selling a saddle that they will claim is a permanent, perfect fit for your horse!)

The good news is that, as a beginner, you need not feel obligated to drop Big Bucks on a saddle, because your horse will change shape as he grows into the sport.  It takes two or three years for a horse’s body to grow into “fit” shape, so don’t blow your budget in the first six months. 

Did you notice that I don't recommend a particular brand or style of saddle?  English, Western, Aussie, or any one of a hundred variations on them are all perfectly permissible for the sport of endurance, as long as the horse and rider are comfortable. 

Remember:  you’re going to be spending a lot of time with that saddle  next to a very, ahem, important location on your own body.   When you’ve found a saddle that fits your horse adequately, make sure it’s comfortable for the rider, too!  Some riders prefer a narrow twist; others prefer a wider, flatter seat.  Some riders won’t leave home without a saddle horn; others want English-style stirrup leathers that swing freely.  Test-ride in as many saddles as you can, and choose the style that suits you best.  As always, if you already own something that has worked well for you in the past, try that first.

Bridles, cruppers, breast-collars, and other tack can be found in infinite variety.  If you spend a lot of time training in inclement weather, consider synthetic tack as an alternative to the traditional leather.  Nylon tack has been available for many years, and it is inexpensive and lasts a long time without tearing, stretching, or breaking. 

Many endurance riders prefer bridles and other tack pieces made from biothane or beta biothane, which is a synthetic polyvinyl-coated polyester webbing.  Biothane is more expensive than nylon, but it doesn’t stretch, tear, break, or wear out even with years of heavy use in horrible weather.  Beta biothane feels like good-quality leather and requires very little care to keep it looking nice.  I wash mine on the top rack of the dishwasher, but you can also just toss biothane tack into a bucket of soapy water and then rise it off when you remember where you left it.  The additional appeal of biothane is that it is available in a wide variety of colors:  in addition to traditional brown or black, you can have a bridle that is bright red, neon or forest green, shiny white, sparkling blue, or matte lilac. 

I recommend using only the tack you need to use.  If your horse doesn't need interference boots, leave them at home.  If he has withers like a dorsal fin, you might be able to work without a crupper.  If you don't do a lot of hill work, think about not using a breast collar.  The same goes for martingales and other gadgetry:  use what you need, and don't bother with anything else. 

Saddle packs, like everything else, are infinitely variable, and subject to rider preference.  Of course, I advocate using what you already own before deciding that you absolutely must spend money on the shiny stuff in the tack catalog.  Endurance tack is often specifically engineered to minimize “bounce”, but the same performance can often be achieved with computer-cable ties and adjustable dog-collars wrapped around packs.   

I do recommend that a pack be weatherproof if possible, and have enough room within to carry sufficient water for the rider for the day, plus a little extra room for a carrot or two for your equine friend.

Beyond that, I leave experimentation as an exercise for the student. 

Coming soon:  dressing the rider for endurance.

Monday, November 7, 2011

In which Endurance 101 proceeds, but first: a grammar lesson

Choose your partner, and get ready to enjoy the trails!

Endurance 101 : choosing a horse (or mule, or donkey or zebra or unicorn, if that’s what gets you down the trail!)



Conformation.

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.
Now that we’ve got that pesky business out of the way
(and now that everybody reading this will use the two words correctly in print forever after, lest they bring down the wrath of Doctor Peters, my university grammar professor.  Doctor Peters is long-deceased, but I am convinced that his wrath will live forever in matters of grammar and spelling) we can move forward into an examination of a properly conFORMed endurance horse.

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!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

In which I answer the question: "What is this crazy Endurance thing?"

Endurance 101 : What is this crazy sport, anyhow?
You know those bumper stickers that say “You don’t have to be crazy to do this, but it helps”?

Endurance riders should all have that sticker on their rigs.

Endurance riding is, very simply, the sport of getting up at 4am and riding your horse 50, 75, or 100 miles in a single day.

(Can you feel the crazy yet?)

Riders leave camp (sometimes in the dark or near-dark) on a marked trail over a rolling hill, a mountain, a desert, or any other kind of terrain that can be traversed by a horse.  They travel solo or in small groups, usually at a trot, but walking wherever the terrain dictates and sometimes cantering or even galloping for stretches of trail.  They are allowed 24 hours to complete a 100-mile ride,18 hours for a 75 miler, and 12 hours for a 50.

Veterinary checkpoints are set along the route where the horse is checked from stem-to-stern for health and well-being.  If the vet judges that a horse is lame, overly-tired, or metabolically challenged, that horse is “pulled” from competition for the day.   The vets serve as advocates for the horses, but they also help the competitors to make good decisions so that the event can be completed safely and happily.  Vets help riders keep horses healthy and sound, and stringent veterinary controls in the sport allows many horses continue to participate in the sport for years and years. 

(Seem slightly less crazy?)

For riders who want a slightly “less-challenging challenge”, shorter rides are usually offered in conjunction with endurance rides.  A ride with a distance of 25 miles or more (but fewer than 50 miles) is called a “Limited Distance” event, or “LD ride”.  Participants in LD are subject to the same veterinary controls as endurance riders; there are some special rules in place that pertain only to LD which serve to protect the horses and keep the competition fair.

Some rides also offer an “introductory” or “novice” ride in conjunction with endurance and LD events.  These shorter distances are usually a portion of the longer ride, 9-15 miles long, which gives horses and riders an opportunity to practice skills that are used in endurance riding like camping, navigating a marked course, and experiencing the vet check before and after the ride. 

Endurance is unlike most other equestrian competitions because it is possible for every competitor to “win” the ride.  The American Endurance Rides Conference (AERC), the national governing body for long-distance riding in the United States, has a very unusual motto:  “To Finish is to Win." In other words:  all horse-and-rider teams to finish the proscribed course in the time allowed with approval by the attending veterinarian(s) are awarded a prize and mileage points, even if that team finishes dead last.

(Some rides even give a special award to the “turtle” or last-place finisher!) 

The prize for finishing an endurance ride is often a t-shirt.  The prize for finishing first is sometimes something like a long-sleeved t-shirt. Cash prizes are rare, and usually discouraged. “Winning” is something that even slow-and-steady horses can achieve…and competitors in an endurance ride are often willing to help other competitors because their own win is not hindered by helping another rider to finish.  The endurance community is known for a friendly, helpful attitude towards both experienced competitors and brand-new riders.

Crazy, I know.  It’s a good kind of crazy.

In fact, the most prestigious award at an endurance ride is not necessarily given to the horse/rider team that crosses the finish line first.  That distinction is the “Best Condition” award (commonly called the “BC award”), which recognizes the horse (not the rider) among the first ten finishers, who is given the highest point-score based on distance travelled, speed, weight carried, and final vet exam.  The Best Condition award is not always given—if the vets feel that no equine deserves to win it, for example.  Peer pressure in the sport is strong, and always geared towards the health and safety of the horses.

And the mules and ponies, too.

The sport of endurance is, in fact, open to any breed or type of equine, including horses, ponies, mules, donkeys and even zebras.

(Zebras are uncommon in endurance, in case you wondered.)

Equines must be at least 60 months old on the day of the ride in order to compete in a 50-mile ride.  Age is determined by the actual foaling date, and in cases where a horse’s age is undocumented, the control vet’s opinion and discretion will prevail.  For an LD ride, the horse must be at least 48 months old.  No baby horses are allowed to compete until they grow up!

There is no required or restricted tack in the sport of endurance.  Some people ride in expensive, custom-built saddles with color-coordinated biothane accessories, while others use elderly saddles and bridles on their horses.  Equipment is usually freshly cleaned before an event, but rarely will a rider use a new piece of equipment in competition because of the need to make sure that everything fits and works properly—and most are not confident of a proper fit until equipment has been used for weeks or months in training.  Some horses travel down the trail in steel or plastic shoes, some additionally have pads in their shoes to protect from stone bruising.  Other horses compete barefooted, or with boots designed for hoof protection.  The riders need only suit themselves, their mounts, the terrain, and their own budgets when selecting equipment.

Riders are not subject to age, health or ability restrictions by the rules of the organization.  Some riders are as young as 5 or 6 years old.  Junior riders (those under the age of 16) must ride with a “sponsor”—a responsible adult over the age of 21.  Some riders are in their 70’s—or even 80’s.  Riders can be cancer survivors, diabetics, or heart transplant recipients.  At least one current competitor is a double amputee.  Most rides do not employ a doctor or EMT; the responsibility for rider health rests upon the rider.   Riders crossing the finish line are sometimes hungry, thirsty, tired, cranky, sunburned (or cold)…and almost invariably, happy to have spent the day with their horse on some of the most beautiful trails on the planet.

Why do we participate in this grueling, difficult, demanding crazy sport? 

Louis Armstrong said it rightly, when he was asked to define jazz music:

“Man,” he said, “if you got to ask the question, you won’t ever understand the answer.”
"Finish Line"  photo by M. Bretherton

If this grueling, difficult, demanding crazy sport sounds like fun to you…read on!

I'll continue posting entries labelled "Endurance 101", which may eventually end up as part of a book proposal.  Your questions about the sport are welcome--I'll try to answer questions in future posts.