Well, it’s a strange old game, you learn it slow.
One step forward and it’s back to “go.”
You’re standing on the throttle,
You’re standing on the brake--
In the groove ‘til you make a mistake.
Sometimes, you’re the windshield…
Sometimes, you’re the bug. –Dire Straits
I wonder if Mark Knofler, lead singer for the band Dire Straits, ever rode endurance…because the song “The Bug” (quoted above and below) completely captures the experience of the sport:
You gotta know happy, you gotta know glad
‘Cause you’re gonna know lonely
And you’re gonna know bad.
When you’re rippin’ and a ridin’
And you’re coming on strong—
You start a-slippin’ and a-sliding
And it all goes wrong because…
(Sometimes, you’re the windshield…
Sometimes you’re the bug.)
If you ride enough miles, the “rock with your name on it” will eventually throw itself into your horse’s path. If not a rock, maybe a hole. Perhaps your horse will be a little “off” at a vetcheck—not near death, certainly, but not qualified to continue the ride—and will be perfectly sound a few days or even a few hours later, with no lasting soreness or problems.
However, as riders and especially as endurance riders, we need to accept that some horses are gigantic suicidal impulses waiting for an opportunity to manifest. Horses can and do injure themselves in the strangest, most mysterious, and most ill-timed manner imaginable. If you’re lucky, your horse will find “his rock” at home in the pasture during your off-season, and you need only pet his nose and say “poor baby” for a day or two until he is sound again.
But what happens when something happens at a ride?
The most common reason that a horse is disqualified (or “pulled”) from a ride is lameness.
Lameness is defined by the American Association of Equine Practitioners (and AERC) as “a deviation from the normal gait or posture due to pain or mechanical dysfunction.”
There are 5 degrees of lameness, described as follows:
• Grade I. Difficult to observe and not consistently apparent. This is the horse with an intermittent “bobble” to his gait.
• Grade II. Difficult to observe at a walk or trotting a straight line; consistently apparent under certain circumstances, such as working in a circle. This horse shows himself to be lame inconsistently, since you don’t ride down the trail in 20-meter circles.
• Grade III. Lameness consistently observable at a trot under all circumstances.
• Grade IV. Obvious lameness at a walk: marked nodding, hitching, or shortened stride.
• Grade V. Minimal weight-bearing in motion and/or at rest; inability to move.
AERC rules require that a horse who is consistently lame be pulled from competition, even if the lameness is very slight. Therefore, a horse who is Grade III, IV or V lame must be pulled.
It seems crazy sometimes, but a horse who takes a huge lame step every 11th stride can be cleared to continue, but a horse who is showing a tiny bit of left-front footsoreness must be pulled.
This is where a helpful vet and canny rider can put their heads together to make decisions to benefit the horse. A rider can ask for 30 minutes to try to bring the horse back to soundness. If the horse’s lameness is caused by a stone in the shoe, a tight groin muscle, or even an abscess in the hoof, it is sometimes possible to resolve the problem in the time allowed, return to the vet check to get the vet’s approval, and then go on and finish the ride.
Sometimes a rider and vet must try to determine if a lameness is caused by something that will get better or worse if the horse continues to compete. In some cases, as with an arthritic mare I used to ride, moderate exercise actually improved her way of going. In other cases, as with a gluteal muscle pull experienced by a seasoned gelding I rode for many years, even moderate movement made his pain substantially worse. Although they both presented with Grade II lameness, it was better to allow the mare to compete and better to pull the gelding for the day.
So what should you do when you see the vet shaking her head?
· Don’t panic. Lameness is rarely fatal. You might be pulled from the day’s competition, but it’s entirely possible that your horse will be sound again in time to compete at the next ride.
· Try not to cry. This is easier said than done, I know, especially if you are a little tired, a little dehydrated, and more than a little worried about the well-being of your horse.
· Without arguing or holding up the vet line if other horses are waiting to be examined, ask for more information about the lameness. Does it appear to be a foot problem, a leg problem, or a hip or shoulder issue? Is his back sore because of an ill-fitting saddle?
· It’s okay to ask someone else to trot-out your horse for you, so that you can observe the lameness in action. Be polite and kind. Remember that the vet probably didn’t get enough sleep the night before the ride either, and she is there to help you, not hinder you.
· If the vet observes a Grade I or Grade II lameness, he or she may have suggestions and advice for you. LISTEN TO THE VET’S ADVICE. If it’s a tight muscle causing the problem, some warm towels and a massage may fix it. Footsoreness may be helped by adding a hoofboot, or by removing the existing boot and washing the sand out. Remember that AERC has a very strict no-drug policy, so if your horse requires a dose of bute to feel better, he is done for the day.
· One of the very best questions you can ask a vet is, “What would you do if this was your horse?”
· If you are pulled from competition, make arrangements with the vet to re-examine your horse later, when there are no other teams waiting in line. This gives the vet a chance for a more complete examination, so that she can give you more specific instructions and you can make better decisions about how to treat the horse for the best chance of recovery.
· Care for your entire horse, not just the lame part. Don’t forget that he still needs food, water, a warm blanket if the weather is cold, and possibly some electrolytes to aid in his recovery from exercise.
The other reason that a horse may be pulled from competition is for metabolic issues.
If a horse fails to meet ride criteria (pulse recovery, etc) or if he has “thumps” (synchronous diaphragmatic flutter, which is a warning sign of serious fluid and electrolyte imbalance) he will automatically be pulled from competition. Likewise, he can be pulled if he exhibits signs or symptoms of metabolic distress, such as extremely low gut sounds, dehydration, an elevated CRI, or notable loss of appetite or attention. One of these symptoms by itself does not mean that your horse will automatically be pulled, but two are more symptoms are cause for concern. The whole reason to have qualified veterinarians as judges at endurance rides is so that a horse may be pulled from competition before it is overtly sick and in need of treatment.
Horses who are metabolically distressed at or after a ride may require treatment, such as intravenous fluids, or even need to be transported to a veterinary hospital. This treatment is not included in your ride fee, and must be negotiated by you with the attending vet.
You may also encounter a situation where your horse passes all of the veterinary criteria, but you feel that there is something wrong. The vets I know call this “ADR”, or “Ain’t Doin’ Right.” They see your horse for a few minutes out of every few hours during competition, but you are there the entire time, and ultimately, the welfare of the horse is the responsibility of the rider.
Remember there is nothing further down the endurance trail that will make your horse less tired, less hungry, and less sore.
If you think there’s something wrong with your horse, you are probably right, and AERC created statistic pull-codes for situations like this. If your horse passes the vetcheck, but you decide that something is wrong, you can take a “rider option” pull.
The code is “RO-L” (“Rider-Option, Lame”) if you feel your horse is not sound enough to continue, even though the vet has judged him at Grade I or Grade II. If you decide that something is metabolically “ain’t right” with your horse, even if the vet has cleared him to continue, the pull code will be listed as “RO-M” (“Rider-Option, Metabolic”).
There is one other RO code, which relates to the rider and not the horse. If a pull is listed in the finishing stats as “RO”, it is because the rider (not the horse) was too sick or injured to continue the ride. There is a tongue-in-cheek code which riders sometimes threaten to use: "RO-AHF", which translates to "Rider Option, ain't having fun." Hopefully, you will never want to use that code!
If you pull from competition at an “out vet check” (away from the main ridecamp) you will be trailered back to camp by a designated driver. Be polite: if trailer space is limited and another horse or rider is in more distress than you and your horse, offer to let others go first. If your horse doesn’t need your attention while he’s waiting for the ambulance ride back, tie him somewhere with access to food and water and lend a hand getting other riders through the vetcheck—this help is appreciated, and may distract you from feeling distress over your misfortune.
Getting pulled is often emotionally very difficult, and yet, it’s an important part of a sport that places the welfare of the horse above the ego of the rider. Pulling your own horse from competition is sometimes even more difficult, as riders tend to second-guess themselves after the event. Nevertheless, I have found that if you listen to your gut feelings, you will not be sorry.
The endurance rider’s motto is “To Finish is to Win”, but the alternate motto might as well be, “Pull Today and Ride Another Day.”
Or maybe, if Mark Knofler of Dire Straits is right, you just need to wait for the day when you are the Louisville Slugger, and not the ball.