No, don’t worry, you haven’t slept through the sanctioning of a new AERC-sanctioned distance.
Ultimate Goals, or UGs, are a concept stolen from my friend Kathy Viele, an accomplished combined training (“eventing”) and dressage rider, and a veteran fox hunter.
Some time ago, she penned her sentiments about her Ultimate Goals for her riding and her relationship with her horses. I loved it so much, I begged her to let me use it for a sidebar for an Endurance News article I’d written. Her equestrian pursuits are in a different discipline, so her terminology may be a bit foreign to purist endurance riders, but her concepts are spot on for many conscientious horsepeople.
Here’s what Kathy had to say:
Lots of people get stressed by competition, concerned about judging and test riding and politics and expensive equipment, get frustrated with progress (or perceived lack thereof) or scores. And often they quit having fun riding and spend more time frustrated than enjoying themselves and their horse. It many cases, the rider has lost sight of, or more often has never established, their Ultimate Goal (aka UGTM).
My ultimate goal is to have a happy, athletic horse who is a pleasure to ride and do things with. A horse who enjoys our time together, as do I. I feel I owe my horses good care and an ongoing effort to improve my riding and horsemanship. I owe them consideration (of likes and dislikes and personality and quirks) and sympathy and good care. I do not owe them Olympic-caliber riding, so I don’t go down the road of feeling guilty that I’m not a Great Rider—I am on an ongoing quest to improve and I am getting better. I try not to get caught up in a single score or a single competition. When I compete, I like it when things go well and we can show off our training and where we are, but my UG is not winning a particular class or a particular competition or even a year-end award. If those things happen, they are nice, but they aren’t my UG. And if things go poorly I try to learn from them and keep in mind my UG.
If you let the class or the competition or the award grow too much in importance and eclipse your UG, things get out of balance and horses get pushed and riders get unhappy. If you keep in mind your UG you can keep things in perspective for the good of yourself and your horse. If you want to, go to competitions as a way of spending time with your horse and your horsey friends, as a way to get feedback on where your training is and of the inroads you’ve made or the challenges you still face. You can set smaller goals along the way but they should always hold a backseat to your UG and be revised in keeping with your UG whenever necessary. My UG is to have and enjoy the benefits of a well-trained horse, so I can go and do things with the horse, and not let the training and test-riding be an end in itself. If riding in a competition becomes the goal, instead of enjoying the training and the horse itself, some of the pleasure is lost. Let the focus be the relationship with the horse and what that relationship lets you do and accomplish together, and don’t let the accomplishments themselves become more important than the bond/relationship you build with the horse.
When riders are new to distance riding, some come in with a set goal and huge aspirations – perhaps they have their heart set on riding the “beast of the east,” the Old Dominion 100 in the Cavalry Division (with no outside assistance or crew). Or perhaps they have their sights set on the Tevis Cup.
Most riders, however, seem to come to the sport with a different Ultimate Goal. One less-defined. It seems many new riders start out simply wanting to see if they can do this, if their horse can do this, and oftentimes, just getting around their first Limited Distance ride seems more than a little daunting.
They sometimes aspire to making Decade Team with their partner, but boy, they sure don’t want to hurt them by pushing them to do 50s if they’re not capable, and wow, ten years – that seems like a long way off.
Some riders complete that first LD or two, and they think “okay, that distance is enough of a triumph!” At the end of the ride, they are spent, their knees shake a bit when they dismount, and their horse has finished handily but clearly challenged. They think they have achieved their Ultimate Goal.
I encourage you to take a deep breath, sit back and contemplate. Not so fast on that “I’m comfortable here and I’m sticking with it” thing.
If you ask around to a bunch of veteran 100-mile riders, I’d venture to guess that most of them felt the very same way after their first ride or two. (Oh sure, there are freaks in every crowd, whose very first ride was a 100, or who did their first 50-mile ride, jogged 12 miles of it up a mountain and were crushed to see the finish line because they just wanted to keep going, but those folks are just that, freaks!)
For most of us, the move up to 50s and then to 100s is more of an evolution than a revolution.
Take it from a chick who had to lift one leg and then the other out of the truck after hauling home from her first 25-mile novice Competitive Trail Ride. (At that moment, it never occurred to me that I’d become a 100-miler rider. That seemed preposterous.)
However, there is a reason to contemplate the deep-down yearning in your soul, even as you climb the steep learning curve and successfully finish your first LD or two. That is because there are two divergent paths that one can take at this critical time.
One path is to enjoy the LD distance, to stick with it, to ride LD rides and perhaps add more speed, more miles, more competition days at a multi-day ride, and stretch the rubber band of your equestrian pursuits and your mount within that division of the sport. To carefully plan your conditioning and your rest and ride your best ride at that distance, perhaps being the First to Finish, Top Ten, or ultimately, Best Condition. It is an admirable goal, the LD division and one that many riders opt to dedicate themselves to doing.
But, but, but …
If, in your heart of hearts, you think you would like to compete in 50-mile rides, or perhaps (gulp) 100-mile rides, you are at a crossroads of sorts.
If you ask around amongst old school, veteran, successful 50- and 100-mile riders who have built, success upon success, multiple endurance horses, they will tell you your LD approach should be carefully considered.
Think of building an endurance horse as training the animal to successfully repeat a 12-18 mile challenge, with a period of rest and recharge, and back to the trail. Rinse, repeat.
Most horses can be conditioned to perform a 12-18 mile challenge without being trained to develop their sense of self-preservation. They can go along, pass the mid-ride vetting handily, skip water, barely nibble at the hold, and then repeat the process. They may be all As at the finish without every being metabolically challenged to recharge their batteries. Oftentimes, they can do this loop/vet check/repeat even faster, racing the distance without learning to eat and drink and rest when given the opportunity.
There is something magical that happens to a horse, the old-timers will tell you, between the 30 and 45 mile mark of their first 50-mile ride.
I have joked amongst friends that they “kinda see Jesus out there, and that’s okay.”
Even if they can skate by as metabolic dynamos for that first 30 miles, by golly, they start to get a little tired. They start to get rather hungry. Darnit, they’re thirsty. Geez, their fun meter is on a decline to that zero peg. Just how long are you going to ride them today?
Our job as horsemen is to ensure they only see Jesus (from a distance) without actually meeting Him on that first 50 mile ride.
Our role is to say, “Okay, Dobbin, let’s stop here for a nibble, let’s pace this loop as though we were going to repeat this pattern from now until next week Tuesday.”
A rider building a 50- or 100-mile horse is building conscientiously, not with a focus on the conditioning required to go fast for a loop and repeat it once, but with a keen and strategic plan to train the horse to carry on down the trail at a reasonable pace, eating when given the opportunity, drinking early and often, and resting when the rider suggests that he is more aware of the end game than the flight animal he is mounted upon.
(For the record, the same concept is used to create the foundation for a 100-mile horse. Using 50-mile rides to develop the skills and routine to succeed at the 100-mile distance.)
This is not to say, by any stretch, that a thoughtful LD rider may not be doing very much the same thing; many or most do.
It is to say that utilizing a LD ride to build a 50- or 100-mile horse is a systematic approach to training them within the framework of that distance.
Sometimes when I am mentoring a rider new to the sport, they have decided upon a strategy of “racing a season or two of LDs” before moving up to 50s or 100 mile rides.
They are often a bit crushed when I suggest to them that their plan is anathema to their Ultimate Goal.
Racing Limited Distance rides often results in a horse that is trained to travel a loop at a pace that is faster than what is prudent for a first season 50-mile horse to sustain for the entire distance. It quite frequently results in a horse that can be difficult to pace, and may not be willing to rest, relax, eat and drink when provided an opportunity. And given that horses are animals whose very nature relies on their adaptation to a routine, it can produce a horse that has a frustratingly well-worn odometer and speedometer, certain that the fun and frivolity run out at 25-30 miles at a rather healthy clip.
My friend Mary Coleman, an endurance character if ever one has existed, often draws a slanted line on her horse’s hindquarter just below his ride number.
When asked what the line means, she explains to people that that is the slot for the quarters. [If you are under 30 years of age, ask an elder what I’m talking about here.]
Racing a horse for a couple of seasons of LDs, or for some horses even just sticking with the distance for that long, will result in a horse who has “run out of quarters” when you opt to move up in distance.
You will hear these riders sometimes lament. “I tried moving him up to a 50-mile ride once. He hated it. I had to use a crop to get him out of camp. I quit at 37 miles. He’s just not meant to be a 50-mile horse.”
Or, perhaps, he was not trained to be a 50-mile horse.
A rider brand new to our sport once asked on the Green Bean Facebook page just how many LD rides they should complete before moving up to their first 50. The answers were wildly varied – everything from “three seasons at the back of the pack” to some crusty veterans suggesting they should ride no LDs at all, and start with a 50-mile ride, and every answer in between.
My advice was paraphrased to something similar to the above.
If your Ultimate Goal is to see how far you and your horse can go in a day in AERC-sanctioned rides, use LDs only to confirm that your conditioning and training at home has produced a horse that will steadily travel down the trail, soundly, in company at a pace that is reasonable, who eats and drinks and rests when given the opportunity, and is safe and well-trained for camping and being vetted at the holds.
If your first LD confirms that your horse has all of the above well in hand, and is mature enough (by AERC rules that means 5 years old) and both of you finish that event “all As” so to speak, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t enter your first 50-mile ride.
I can hear the screaming from some of you … (I had a window open.)
“BUT WHAT ABOUT LONG SLOW DISTANCE!?! HORSES NEED YEARS TO BUILD STRONG BONES AND TENDONS AND LIGAMENTS!”
(That’s you screaming, not me.)
This plan can be a PART of your Long, Slow Distance.
It should be.
Starting a horse in a LD ride or two, finishing in the middle of the pack, not racing, but riding with the goal to finish well, with a horse that is going along well within his physical capabilities. Providing adequate rest between athletic challenges. That is LSD.
Moving that same horse (with a caveat to ensuring that he is, in fact, mature, which for me, personally, means a late 5 year old or early 6 year old) up to a first 50 ridden at that same steady pace? That is LSD too.
Does this mean that I am against folks riding LDs exclusively? Heck no, have a blast. I was recovering from a knee fracture this year and rode my husband’s veteran 100-mile horse in a couple of LDs because I wasn’t physically up for going further. By golly, it was a treat! We hummed right along so my ibuprofen could outlast my pain – wahoo! I see that day down the road that I’ll be joining the crowd who is “done by 1” and enjoying a cold beverage and crewing for their friends in the 50s and the 100.
But if you have an inkling, a tickle, a sparkle in your eye about moving up in distance, or some veteran at a ride sees you finish handily and says “Hey, when are you going to move up to a 50?” think long and hard about staying too long at the LD distance. That veteran is not dissing LD rides or poo-pooing your accomplishment — they are speaking from a place of experience about the advantages of moving up in distance sooner rather than later.
I did my first 100-mile ride because Mary Coleman told me that Ned “looked like a 100-mile horse.” She looked more dubious about my abilities. I saw a challenge and a compliment in that, not a statement about 50-mile riders.
And please sit down with a cranky old timer before you make those plans to “race a couple of seasons in LDs and then move up to 50s and 100s.”
You may spend a long time un-doing your detour from your Ultimate Goal.