Having done some expos and endurance clinics, a couple of interviews and a bit of mentoring over the last year or so, I find that riders contemplating our sport fall into one of two categories: One group believes it is all about racing and they want to know how to get out there and win as quickly as possible (a tiny minority, thank goodness, who quickly move on to a mentor other than me) and the ones who are scared to death that this is an extreme sport and that they could hurt their horse in attempting to compete.
This is no big surprise.
When I take a gander at the people coming to the clinics or coming to the table at the expo, they are predominantly women and mostly of a certain age. When I say “certain age” I mean the age at which they’ve worked hard, perhaps raised a family, have earned the time and money and resources to be able to consider dipping their toe into our sport. It is an adventure that they are contemplating, in many cases a big bold leap of faith, and it is very exciting indeed. I am empathetic, having reached a certain age myself.
Many of them are concerned that their breed of horse is not ideal for endurance competition. I wave my hand dismissively when they bring this up and shake my head, having started my distance career with a very drafty draft cross mare (“Bertha Butt” as she was known to horses using her as brakes at a few rides). I reassure them that if their horse is sound, biomechanically, and metabolically capable of eating, drinking, peeing and pooping their way happily down the trail (perhaps not all at the same time), they probably have exactly the right horse, as long as their goal is “to get around.” Almost always they nod vehemently. “Oh I just want to finish — do you think we CAN?”
Some of them have never camped with their horse, particularly if they come from a dressage or eventing or showing background. They are petrified about their horse getting loose, or caught up in a rope, or if they’ll be able to ride a challenging distance the day after roughing it in a tent. The idea of hauling four hours to get to a ride is a lot to consider.
In some cases, they are convinced that we use a shotgun start (literally) at the rides, where the herd disappears in a swirl of dust, and that we gallop wildly down the trail, whooping and shoving others off the trail to get ahead. Thank you, Hidalgo, for completely skewing the average movie watcher’s vision of our sport. Many are surprised when I tell them that you can, in fact, “get around” (close to maximum time) with a horse by half walking and half trotting, assuming the horse has a walk and trot that move them down the trail at a decent MPH.
They think you need this tack, or those shoes/boots, or a heart rate monitor, or special feed, or hours and hours and hours of ceaseless conditioning.
Take it from me, ladies, I am no risk taker, no daredevil, no equestrian femme fatale. And here I am.
In many ways, I think the risk averse are the most likely to find success, and by that I mean long-term success, competing for years and years, with the horse they own right now. I think they are the ones likely to move up from intro rides or limited distance rides to 50s and eventually 100s.
Being risk averse means you are likely a planner.
It means that you will research your best options for securing your horse when you camp. And when you’ve made the choice, it means you will practice camping, whether it involves a Hi-Tie or an electric paddock or a picket line, or simply tying to your trailer overnight. And you will do it somewhere safe, in a riding ring, or in your own barnyard. You will figure out what charger to use, how to set it up, how long to tie your horse, with which rope and knot, and how to ensure that he can reach his hay and water without catching an eyelid on an exposed hook. The risk-averse learn how to camp safely and have success at their first ride by simply waking up to a horse who is calm and well hydrated with a belly full of hay, ready to start the ride.
If you are risk averse, you will lay out a conditioning schedule that is conservative, smart, realistic and lands you in a place where you are ready for your first competition. Terrified that you will injure Old Dobbin, you’ll watch him like a hawk for signs of trouble — a sore back, or a swollen leg, or shoeing issues, or something more subtle, like a dull attitude. You will learn how to use a stethoscope and will learn very quickly what is normal for your horse — their resting heart rate, how quickly they recover, how their gut sounds on any given day. You will schedule rest as carefully as you schedule work. You’ll add a little distance or difficulty or speed each week, but never more than one. On competition day, you will start well after the crowd leaves camp, wishing to ride your own ride, pace conservatively and “get around.”
You are in good company in endurance riding.
We fuddy-duddy types have a tendency to focus on training our horses, not just conditioning them. Training them to get on the trailer, training them to stand quietly to be tacked and mounted and vetted, training them to pass and be passed on trail without misbehaving, training them to travel down the trail at the pace WE have chosen (conservatively, of course) rather than the pace of those ahead. [As someone said to me who rode one of our horses once– “It’s so very nice that I don’t have to stop him by running him into a tree!” True story.]
We check our tack three times, we make sure our feeding schedule is right on, we ensure our horses are feeling well and free from a cough or a snotty nose before we haul it to a ride. We make sure our helmet fits and that our billets have good stitching. We selected a horse that was not “too much” horse for us.
If we have a question, we ask, even if it seems like a silly little worry, because we would rather appear foolish than hurt our horse.
Cautious people look to other cautious people to show them the way. They look around and see others flying by the seat of their pants and think, whoa, not for me, seeking out others with the same goals and the same pragmatic approach. And they are surprised to find so many birds of a feather within our sport.
Certainly, endurance riding can be viewed as an extreme sport. We ride further and sometimes faster than most people would be comfortable riding. We work hard because we are focused, to have our horses and ourselves fit and ready and capable of handling the distance. Riding 25+ miles is not something that everyone aspires to do.
The term “make haste slowly” is one I use routinely. Premature speed kills, and our sport is not about speed for the vast majority of those competing. To finish is to win, and while getting around within maximum time may at first seem a challenge (and for some riders is always a challenge), the term “speed” is a relative one.
Eventually, even the most prudent riders (self included) find that it’s the right day, with the right horse, in the right conditions to step it up a little bit in the speed department. By heavens, we even Top Ten on occasion and wahoo, do we enjoy it!
However, if something seems a little ‘off’ about Dobbin, or the stars are not in alignment, or it is terrain, footing or weather for which our horse is not fully prepared, we are the first to back off, slow it down, or even call it a day, so we can save Dobbin for another ride, another season, another year in the future.
In the end, there’s a fable about a tortoise and a hare.
And I’m pretty sure we all know who won that one.