Endurance riding is not for the faint of heart. But there is so much more about this sport than meets the eye. In this article, we will explore a little about the trails and rewards of endurance horse riding, and what it takes to go on and do it.
Why We Love Endurance Riding
What we know as endurance riding (or endurance horse riding) is new, as a sport, but its roots go far back in time. The sport began in the United States, but the source of inspiration lies elsewhere — European military. In special, the Russian and Polish cavalry.
The history of endurance horse riding
Before it was a sport, it was a means to an end. Ever since humans first domesticated the horse, one of the main purposes behind it was transportation. From nomads travelling commercial routes to the Pony Express, the need to cross long distances is what made horses useful in the first place. Before automobiles and railroads, the horse (and the camel) was the only way to travel long distances on land.
It is because of this that breeds such as the Arabian and the Akhal-Teke exist. In a time before trucks and veterinary science, this ensured the horses could live to ride for a long time in harsh conditions. Desert races still exist in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Like a great many other horseback riding sports, endurance riding as a sport began as a military exercise. Before, it was a way to test the conditions and capabilities of horses for war — an equally dangerous, demanding arena for horses. Then, it began as a challenge among military officials, and eventually between the cavalry of different countries.
In the Americas, several challenges and trail races, some practical and some not, appeared around the 1800s. By then, the European world already had competitive races in place, and the American ones appeared as a challenge. While the Europeans used well-bred horses, with pedigrees, American would use cow horses — animals without pedigree or registry. The competitions and challenges began to acquire national pride then, with each proclaiming the strength of their own animals.
This meant riding became racing — with a goal in mind and the quest for shorter times and longer distances.
The dangers within
But it isn’t all good. The history of endurance riding is also full of danger and practices that, today, we would consider unethical. While all sorts of riders and horses can compete, it isn’t an easy task. In fact, it’s a very difficult one, and for over a century, a deadly one.
The main goal of endurance riding as a competition, rather than a means to an end or survival, is covering a great distance in the least time possible. For a long time, this meant riding the horse hard — oftentimes, well beyond their actual endurance. In the past, some less than scrupulous riders would work their horses to death. Others would drug the horses so they would continue past their natural ability — just to drop dead at the end.
Endurance horse riding is thrilling and challenging. But without care, it can end in death and pain. The rider must understand his horse, enough to not demand more than the horse can give. It must also keep the horse healthy to the end, enough to pass a critical veterinarian check. Today, the goal is very clear: to finish is to win.
To finish is to win
We’ve said it before, and we will say it again: the goal is to finish. You should not expect to win your first race. You shouldn’t expect to win your first few races. The goal is to finish and this is because riding for 50-100 miles as fast as possible isn’t an easy task at all. You’ll need to carry supplies such as food for yourself and your horse. You’ll need to prepare for weather changes. Often, the ride begins in the morning, and ends at night — you may need headlamps. It all depends on the goal, and the goal is to get to the other side in a good shape.
This might seem like a copout, but it has a purpose. Endurance riding is a gruelling process, and it’s no wonder why “best condition” awards exist. It isn’t a way to reward people just for completing the race — but for completing it in a good condition. To even finish at all, in some races, might be a challenge in and of its own.
It isn’t so different from marathon running. While we do know there are those who race to the finish, trained to peak condition and speed, many compete just to prove they can get to the end. The same happens in endurance riding, and that makes it more enjoyable.
The beauty about endurance riding is that anyone, in theory, can do it. Any horse, of any breed, with or without a pedigree, can compete. This doesn’t mean they will all perform as well, and it’s clear Arabian horses have an advantage. It makes sense, as the breed exists for this purpose. But this doesn’t mean your draft horse cross can’t compete. Ponies and mules may as well — it isn’t always restricted to horses.
No, the only requirement is that in the name itself: endurance. Some horses might have more difficulty with speed, while others may have speed, but not the strength to carry on as long.
In endurance riding, entire families can compete together, as individuals. In fact, some may give special awards for families that travel the farthest together. There is no minimum age and no maximum age for riders, but horses, as per AERC rules, have a minimum age of 5. Limited distance competitions (25-35 mile) may have horses as young as 4.
The horses begin the race together, once the trail opens. Before, they must have their health assured by a vet. During the race, mandatory stops verify whether the horse can continue or not. This doesn’t stop accidents from happening, especially in higher-stake races, but it helps prevent deaths due to neglect and abuse. Once on the move, rider and horse establish their own place — as long as they finish within the time frame established for the race, they are winning.
The American Endurance Riders Conference (AERC) has a full set of rules and regulations for North America. The sport is acknowledged by FEI, as well, and over 300 international competitions exist.
Tack and other things
Much like with the horses, there isn’t any established tack or attire necessary for endurance riding. The main goal here is comfortable. And prepared: a rain cape or coat, and of course, plenty of water and food — for you and for your horse. Some might prefer to carry wet beet pulp, for example, for energy.
This means the rider should be in comfortable attire, and so should the horse. The pad should breathe well enough to let the horse’s perspiration cool it off. Natural fleece might be best for that. The saddle, as well, needs to fit comfortably on the horse’s back. A sore back through hours of riding will become a critical issue that may cause your disqualification (and suffering for your horse). For the rider, dressing in layers that can be removed (or put back on) is best. Being prepared for changes in the weather is a must.
The reins should be long enough so you can lead your horse with them. Some might want to lead the horse by halter during the pauses, others may prefer to go bitless. In this, whatever choice is made should cater to the comfort of both horse and rider, and practicality. You should also have the necessary to camp with your horses. Many people prefer to camp out at the starting point of the ride since it usually begins early in the morning.
Why we love endurance riding
So, why do we love endurance riding so much? The answer is simple. The challenge and endurance aspects are very present during the entire course. Proving to yourself you can ride 50 miles (sometimes as much as 300 miles), can be a feat in and of itself. Unlike other equestrian sports, endurance riding puts you against yourself — even as a rider. It isn’t just your horse’s skill and resilience in play, but your own as well. If you can’t resist the trail, it doesn’t matter whether your horse can, after all. Because of this, it’s easy to see it as a personal challenge just as much as a competition.
The trust and horsemanship necessary to navigate the trail are also very appealing. Many people do it for the vistas, for the places your horse will take you. Many of those places aren’t easily navigable without horses, after all. Camping with your horse and fellow riders has its own sense of fun — all the while, with a goal to spur you on.
In the end, it isn’t so much about trophies or winning, but for doing it for the sake of doing it — because you and your horse can do it.