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 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: 


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!


  1. Another excellent endurance info post.

    I love the motto: "To Finish is to Win."
    And I like that the person who finishes the ride in 11th place gets the same prize and number of mileage points as the person who finishes dead last...

    So true! But I bet a lot of very competitive people probably forget that when first starting out.

    By the way, I took your advice about singing during my July ACTHA ride and it truly made a difference for both of us, depending upon the tempo of the song I chose. I think my mare rather enjoyed it, too. :)


  2. Your horse descriptions cracked me up. Jabba the Hut? Love. It. Also appreciate the workout advice. Currently, we walk on the road for 15 min, heavy sand for 30, and trot or canter here and there in between, usually totaling an hour. Some heat and blowing, but not enough to break a real sweat in cool weather.

    Whew. Not Jabba the Hut. Should be fun to see if I can get Mr. I Hate Trotting to settle into regular trot work, and enjoy it (that's key). I am learning so much - thank you!

  3. And I thought I was the only endurance rider who snickered about all the LSD we do.

  4. Few questions, any tips on training horses to DRINK when away from home? Both of my horses will not drink at the trailer/rest stops.
    And, in the same vein, you make up your own electrolite syringes, do you just use powdered stuff and make it into a paste?/

  5. Hey Tara, thanks for reading. The research done by Susan Garlinghouse and others shows that the greatest stimulus for drinking is...hay. Nice, green hay apparently gets saliva moving and causes a mental "ping" to go off, reminding the horse to drink. However, very recent research shows that wetness "stifles the ping"; therefore, if the horse is interrupted once he's gotten a mouthful of water, he will think he's had enough, even when he's still thirsty/dehydrated.

    Electrolytes stimulate thirst. I generally begin electrolyting lightly after dinner the evening before we leave for an event. Horses get another light dose in the morning before we load (and then a syringe of water to rinse the salt out so it doesn't burn the tongue, and then a handful of oats to wash everything down nicely), and another light dose in the trailer if we travel more than 4 hours. I offer water AND wet beetpulp at rest breaks in the trailer, and they will usually accept at least one of those.

    I mix electrolytes with applesauce for palatibility. They still taste nasty, but not quite as bad. I also sometimes give a full syringe of *just* applesauce, so that the horse can experience getting a dose of something nice every once in a while.

  6. This was great! I'm just starting my research in endurance, as I seen that my horse may be naturally made for it and that I also am super interested. It's awesome to come across something funny, informative, and well written! Thanks!

    1. Hi Whitney, and welcome. This post was written several years ago as an early draft for a chapter in the book Endurance 101. The draft is good, but the book is better, so I hope you'll be able to read the whole polished product. Best of luck to you!


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