In which Endurance 101 quotes some appropriate song lyrics

Endurance 101: Sometimes you’re the bug

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.


  1. Aarene--I have to admit I found this post a bit disconcerting. As someone who trail rides a lot, but never competitively (and I've got to say I doubt I ever will do it competitively), the idea that a person would have a difficult time deciding to "pull" a horse that felt "not right" kind of bugs me. I guess I really don't admire that. When I ride, if something isn't right with my horse, that comes first. Yes, I will ride a horse that has a "grade 1 or 2" lameness if I know what that lameness is and that the exercise won't do the horse harm. But I sure wouldn't have any trouble giving up any ride if that was what was best for my horse. I'm guessing most endurance riders feel like this--at least, I hope so. The reason I quit competing (at team roping and cutting in my case) was a lot because of the harm done to horses because people were competitive. Just saying.

    Is it your perception that most endurance riders put the well being and health of the horse before "finishing?"

  2. Oh, and I should say, I don't mean to pick on endurance riders--just the idea that a person would persist in a strenuous ride with a horse that was "off". I knew a backcountry horseman who killed a horse that way--was determined to keep going with his planned pack trip even though his older horse got injured the first day out. That horse was eventually put down from complications resulting from the injury...but the rider finished his trip and seemed proud of that fact. All I could think was what a jerk. In this case competition was not a factor, just a human's indifference to the needs of his horse when they conflicted with his own desire to complete his proposed ride.

  3. GREAT questions, Laura, and thanks for asking them!

    In my experience, it's unusual for experienced riders to try to "squinch" their way out of a legitimate pull. If the horse is lame, they want to see the lameness for themselves and get advice for treatment. If the horse has metabolic issues, they are sad to pull but happy to do the right thing by the horse.

    It's the in-between cases that are difficult for the rider and the vet. If the vet can't SEE anything wrong, but the rider has a "nagging feeling" that something is wrong, it's sometimes really tough for the rider (especially an endurance beginner) to trust his/her intuition.

    On the other hand, I've known riders to hand-walk a mount back to camp several miles because they got out onto the trail and couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong. When they got back, maybe the horse had colic symptoms later in the day, and maybe it didn't...and maybe it didn't because the rider brought it back to camp.

    The peer pressure and pervasive culture of the sport of endurance in the United States is to put the welfare of the horse above all other considerations. The longer people participate in the sport, the more I see them make choices that support the wellbeing of their mount.

    Longterm riders value a horse (their own or somebody else's) that has been doing the sport for YEARS. I can't tell you who won Tevis this year, but I don't have to think hard to name a bunch of horses who have competed for ten years or longer. When you're in the game for the very long haul, you learn to give up a few completions in order to keep your pony friend happy and healthy. As I mentioned in the post, AERC's no-drug policy is very strict, which forces riders to think rather than just apply the latest pharmeceuticals that will keep Dobbin on his feet a little further, a little faster. The no-drug policy is one of our very best rules--surpassed only by the "no baby horses in competition" rule, which I love.

    It's the newer riders (plus a few bad apples, I won't deny that there are always a few jerks) who worry me most. One of the reasons for writing all these articles is to try to start applying that "horse welfare is most important" peer pressure really early!

    It would be nice if every time you thought "something is wrong", you would find something wrong, because that would teach you to trust your intuition all the time. Unfortunately,horses are often stoic, and won't display overt symptoms of ADR until something REALLY wrong.

    And sometimes, I guess, your intuition might be wrong...though I think that is pretty rare.

  4. @Laura -
    There's a couple of reasons for this. One is that you think the vet is seeing things that aren't there. Which leads me to something Aarene left out - if there's any doubt, get a re-check. Most of these things will get better or worse after the hold. A metabolic issue will either go away, or if it is still there after 30 minutes rest, you're done. A lameness issue may well go from barely visible to consistent once the adrenaline dies down.

    For example, my horse once punted a rock down the trail with his hoof, causing a small bruise. The vet saw something, but not enough to pull me. So we asked for a recheck with me mounted before we left. He was fine, so we went on, and he improved throughout the day.

    A counter-example - my wife's horse had a slight lameness, and then it became consistent at the end of the hold. Turned out to be a mild suspensory injury, and 3 months rehab. If we'd have not asked for the recheck and continued, it might have been a year rehab.

    There's always going to be edge cases, no matter where you personally put the bar, and there's some vets where you can take their word to the bank, and some that have never been at an endurance ride before and your opinion might be better than theirs.

    I've also seen people get off the horse and jog the next 10-15 miles, and it works out the cramp/whatever, and they get a completion.

    Especially with metabolic issues, there's stuff you can recover from, and stuff you can't. You came in too fast, but you know your horse is OK because he's eating everything in sight. The vet is concerned because his gut sounds are low, so you ask for a recheck, let them eat, maybe for longer than the hold requires, then see if they've improved. If they have, then you slow down and complete.

  5. Aarene, I am so enjoying these posts, and learning a lot about your sport.

  6. Aarene and David--Thank you for the interesting and informative answers. As someone who competed very actively for many, many years (not in endurance, but in cowhorse, cutting and roping), I saw much abuse that was fueled by the desire to be competitive. Also, as someone who has done many long pack trips with my horses (Ok, 30 miles was a long day for us, but we stayed out there for a couple of weeks at a time some trips, traveling every day), I have a notion of how much those 50-100 mile rides must take out of a horse. A little issue/lameness could darn sure become a huge one if a horse was pushed to go on when he really shouldn't. Its obvious that both of you are totally clear on that, but the point that being pulled or choosing to pull was very difficult just made me wonder how often people push to go on when they should probably back off. And I think you explained a lot of what goes into that choice quite nicely. Thanks.

  7. @Laura (and everyone else): THANK YOU for your questions and comments. Your feedback is awesome!

    Also: packing in the mountains for 30 miles in a day is FREAKIN' HARD! (I've done it--with Fiddle!)

    That kind of distance with a pack string is much harder than most endurance rides, I think...

  8. I've seen this go both ways. The worst case I ever saw was a horse in extreme distress that actually died later that day, and the owner was insisting it was OK. She has a huge number of miles of experience and should know better, but just doesn't care about the animal. It still horrifies me to think about it 8 years later.

    Then there's people who are just caught up in the adrenaline of the whole thing, maybe they're tired and frustrated, and they're not making good judgment calls.

    But once you take all that out, there's always going to be edge cases, and you have to make a decision. I tend to err on the side of caution, but there's a lot of these situations you can recover from if you're smart and paying attention. For example, one ride I had a horse who was really too tired, so I compensated by getting off and walking a lot, he got a rest, and we won and got best condition (and he was just fine). (Documented this in a Facebook note - "Sometimes you just get what you need")

    Or there was another case where it was a hot day, he was tired, the vet said he could go, but I didn't like the way things looked - we stayed an extra hour, got some rest and some feed, and finished, then went and did another 50 miles with no problems the next day.

    Another case where I was on the fence, he still wasn't doing right a couple miles down the trail from the vet check, so we turned around, went back, and were done.

    I've also pulled one of our own horses when I saw something on the trot-out the vet missed. Asked for a recheck, pointed out the problem, and stopped.


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