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.


  1. I love this post in so many ways it's not even funny.

  2. Another Question to add - What happens if your vet checks are in the middle of the trail and horses are pulled? How do horses and humans get back to camp.

    Also a chapter on Junior Riders! And maybe a story or to from Junior Riders.


  3. LOLOLOL... zebras are uncommon. Haha. How about unicorns?

  4. Love. It.
    You lost me at "100 miles in 24 hours" but picked me back up again at "everyone who finishes wins". That along with the friendly attitude is gold.

    I know we're still in the early stages, but for later:
    a) how should a beginner condition horse and rider to fitness for a started ride
    b) how do you know when you've reached your fitness goal for the ride?

    This is so cool! What Becky said!

  5. Barbara, the one ride I volunteered at had a trailer at the vet check. Once several horses had been pulled, the trailer was filled with horses & riders and taken back to camp; I can't remember if that trailer then returned for additional horses right away or if another trailer was sent over once folks knew the first one was heading back to base camp. I do know it took 3, maybe 4 loads to get all the pulled horses back to camp, and the drivers tried to minimize how many times they had to drive back and forth by trying to wait until they had a full or near-full trailer.


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