Updated: Nov 14, 2019
Let's not just talk about riding, but competition. We should have an open and honest conversation about what seems to be lacking in the endurance world and what is working very well. I will stick with AERC and the way it all seems to work here in the United States. This is not a rant on how there is abuse or neglect. There is abuse in neglect in every horse related sport.
There are endurance riders and then there are endurance racers. Some are a little bit of both. Bottom line is, in the United States at least, we should be asking "what is sustainable for this horse?". Sustainability is key to any performance horse, but especially any endurance horse. What is sustainable- (pause) truly?
Putting our own goals aside for a minute- looking at the horse in front of you, and then adding goals in later. The goal is sometimes, and maybe even often, pushed through on an animal that is not up for that task.
In many cases, especially in endurance riding, there is a lack of training or finesse in both horse and rider. If you compare endurance training with the hours and hours other performance horses are allowed to learn and process, endurance horses sort of learn as they go. Not in all cases of course, but again I am talking about trends. This isn't necessarily good or bad. But there is a different approach to performance and competition in endurance riders and horses than in any other sport.
Maybe we can learn and grow from this? I hope so.
Many horses who race for a whole season need much needed rest. Unlike your show horses who can literally go from show to show year after year, endurance horses would most certainly burn out if they had to race all year, year after year. Show horses do too, to an extent. But the overall rest and maintenance far out does an endurance horses routine.
Endurance riders are really good at letting their horses rest in my opinion. I have seen in my own experiences that rest is one of the three pillars that holds up an endurance horse. The other two are: nutrition and "callusing". We will talk about those. But first:
Here is how I have any type of knowledge or authority to even talk about such things:
- Endurance is my sport. I have 8 seasons of competing and training endurance horses successfully with no pulls.
- I have two Tevis starts and completions.
-I have been given every horse I have ever ridden in endurance. They were someone else's "I don't want" or "I don't want to compete them" etc... you get the picture.
-Most of the horses I have had are older or have an "issue" that has to be watched or dealt with.
-I have ridden fast (first), very slow (last place) and everything in between.
-I have taken horses through their first endurance rides.
- I am an equine bodyworker
-I work with horses in almost every field of competition from jumping, dressage, trail, endurance and lesson horses.
You get the picture- I'm trying to say I have a well-rounded idea of what goes into this endurance competition thing. Not a perfect idea but perfection has very little to do with endurance.
Knowledge of health, healing, strategy, mindfulness, anatomy and packaging it all together to hopefully help the horse succeed is who I am and what want to be better at.
Three Pillars Of Sustainability And Why You Can't Skip These
The "three pillars of sustainability" is the key to any good endurance horse. For longevity, happiness and success.
These are: Nutrition (what goes into the body based on that particular horse). Callusing (a hardening of the physical body in preparation for a task). Rest (allowing the body and mind of the athlete to adjust and restore).
This concept is great for helping my clients with body issues as well as give a broad perspective of physical ability and where limits are.
It's a way to conceptualize what we all try to do in helping our horses. Some have honed this method for years and others are clueless to its existence. But putting this into writing just gives us a minute to read and pause and say "oh ya that's what I do in a way"... Ok now how can you be better?
Nutrition starts from a young age.
Having a strong nutrition program means skipping out on your sponsor and doing what's best for the horse. A lot of people try and represent a certain company and I just don't believe that there is a one size fits all when it comes to nutrition. Some horses literally do just fine on a forage diet- even at rides. Others need more and some much, much more. But it is always smart to start simple. I don't have vast knowledge with this, and I am still learning and eager to do better. But from what I see, and know, we give way too many supplements that impede on the horses natural abilities to heal and get better.
You should have these diet ideas in mind:
-High fat and fiber, low sugar
-Mostly all forage if possible.
-Additional minerals and vitamins can be added but blood work should be done first. I like simple supplements like California Trace Minerals or the Redmond Clay.
I find that feed-though supplements for joints are not very helpful. And if your horse actually needs joint care or lubrication, then Adequan or Pentosan are much more helpful. But most of the time, a young and healthy horse should not need this. Usually poor conformation is an indication that you will need to do more to help that horse for the long haul. A lot of times when it comes to supplementation, it has a lot more to do with us feeling good about something than it being about actual results. So step into your left brain for a second. And try and classify what is actually helping your horse and what is "fluff". I talk about this with bodywork all the time. You should be skeptical but open. Trying things never hurt but you should see or feel that it is right and working.
Nutrition should stay pretty consistent. Horses will naturally fluctuate weight with changing of seasons and fitness. This should not give you permission to flood them with more food and grain. Let the body do what it should do. Nutrition is so fleeting for most people in this country. It should be a daily practice for both horse and human. But horses are much better "regulators". Keep it clean and keep it simple. That is your best bet by far!
The second pillar is callusing. Callusing is a word I use for any horse learning endurance or the high-physical-risk jobs such as jumping. Their bones, muscle, bodies have to work up to the rigors of competition. Without callusing, a horse will most often hurt themselves or think that a small knick or imbalance of footing is reason for three-legged lameness. The younger this process starts the better for development of bones, tendons and everything else (mind).
Take a horse that has perfect synthetic footing from day one. They always wear safety boots , bell boots and have a perfect shoeing schedule and wear shoes from an early age. This three or four year old is not being properly prepared for the task you one day want to ask them. Studies have shown that varied footing such as hard packed ground, hillsides and deep sand combined are the best ways to callus a horses tendons and bones and prevent injury. Take off your protective gear and let the horse understand their own bodies.
Some people even train an endurance horse to go packing or something to that degree because it is hard, slow work that will emulate the endurance horses life to some degree. Some people choose off the track horses for endurance and that callusing has already been done to some degree.
There are other features of an off the track horse that can come into play such as a tight poll and jaw, PTSD and the right-hind to left-front holding pattern. Callusing can take years and to me only helps the endurance horse. I personally like a young horse that has been barefoot its whole life, has lived outside in large groups of horses, and has had at least 4 years to "grow". Put on top of that another 1-2 years of training and callusing, and you should have a pretty nice 6 year old to start their career. For sustainability remember.
Pillar three is rest. For sustainability, there is no doubt that rest in the endurance horse is necessary. Any competitive horse needs rest, but it looks quite a bit different with an endurance horse than let's say a dressage horse.
A dressage horse, who is sometimes pampered or protected to prevent injury or ailment is doing a different job than an endurance horse. A dressage horse will need more mental "let down" and muscular relief from all of the compression they have to do. And they can stop work at anytime. An endurance horse is literally enduring a 50 mile ride- no matter what the terrain.
An endurance horse needs time off in a field.
Rest for an endurance horse can come in the form of 6 weeks with no riding. A horse fitted for a 100 mile ride, who completes or doesn't complete that ride can go 6 weeks with no additional fitness and come out stronger at the tail end. One thing endurance riders rarely need to hear is: "you need more fitness".
We are fitness junkies.
Often we just don't know how to properly fit.
That is a different conversation.
Horses sustain fitness much better than humans do.
Rest means figuring out your particular horses path and plan and sticking to it. My suggestion and what I have always done is have a baseline rule: one week off for every 25 miles. This means after a 50 your horse would get two weeks of no riding. That gives micro-tears time to heal. Their backs a break and their minds time to settle.
I don't think that rest has anything to do with bad behavior. A lot of riders fear giving their horse too much time off because they will have a naughty animal to work with. That's a mental game and a hole in training not a rest issue. Let's call a spade a spade. A lot of endurance horses do not get the proper training and consistent handling that they should. After a 100 mile ride, plan on a four week period of rest.
If you need help from a professional please get it.
Endurance is mostly an amateurs game.
Realize you are one. And that's OK!
See what needs to be fixed and fix it.
Rest should not be pushed aside because of fear.
Fix the holes, let your horse rest and have a more successful season.
Don't sell your horse short and give in. It's hard to not ride- but sometimes the right thing is hard. For many multi-day riders, they literally just go ride to ride. Their horse is properly callused, travels well and has a good head on their shoulders. Going from one pioneer, giving four weeks off and attending another is a great way to put miles on your horse. Just remember to check in with them and be willing to change your plans. Horses hold on to a lot more pain than we might think. They are very good at hiding it and holding it for years. Having a great equine bodyworker handy can help with the in-between times when you think "my horse should be doing something".
These three pillars are what I think holds up and helps the sustainability for an endurance horse. This doesn't mean they will compete faster, win, be able to get you through Tevis etc... This is a formula for sustainability. There are three other pillars for competition and even for training. I love talking about those. But for an endurance horse specifically, sustainability is key.
If you are looking for your lifelong partner in crime and want to get ten or more years out of them riding endurance, think about these aspects often. When looking for an endurance horse, think about how they were raised, how they have been cared for and how that has prepared them for this sport.
This is an idealistic strategy and is in no way summing up all endurance horses. There are outliers everywhere. But critically thinking about these three pillars when training, riding or competing should up your chances of long term success. To Finish Is To Win!