[Photo by Spectrum Photography. GMHA, 2015]

I believe that I shall always miss David Letterman’s Top Ten lists.

After teaching so many clinics, meeting new riders or prospective riders or riders who have an inkling that they might love our sport “if only … ” — I can almost finish the questions before they are asked.

(And for the record, “green bean” is a term that the Pacific Northwest riders came up with to identify folks new to the sport … this post is not about vegetables.)

Here’s the Top Ten list — and some answers!

10.) This Sport is OVERWHELMING! Where Do I Begin?

This sport does indeed have a steep learning curve. No question. And the trickiest part of that is the first year of competing is probably your most important, so for your horse’s sake, you should probably do some homework before you leap in. (Now, let’s be clear, there are lots of experienced riders on mature horses who just show up at their first competition as a blank slate and do just fine, but the riders I meet contemplating giving the sport a whirl are rarely so confident.)

The good news is that there are tons of resources these days to help you. The bad news is that there are tons of resources these days to help you, and that can be overwhelming.

  • There is grand stuff at the AERC Education Page at AERC.org — including a whole tab about “Getting Started.”
  • Aarene Storm’s book Endurance 101 is a terrific look at getting started, full of fundamental information and lessons learned from the “bad idea fairy.”
  • We created an online course called Endurance Essentials, which you can access at horselearningonline.com — it’s about a 5 hour course (a series of five modules) with basic information and plenty of in-depth information about all the aspects of preparing for a safe and fun and successful first competition. My joke is that if there’d been an internet when we started, and a course like this, I would have invited over a couple of like-minded thinking-about-doing-it friends on a rainy (or snowy) Sunday afternoon with a bunch of Chinese take-out, microwave popcorn and/or red wine and plunged right in.

Lots of folks opt for the option of simply asking away on Facebook … The good news there is that you will get free advice; the not-so-good news is that some of the advice is worth precisely what you pay for it.

To give you a sense of it, there are over 11K members on the AERC Facebook page. There are just under 5K members. If you break down the actual experience level of many providing advice, many folks have never even been to a ride. (Which is not to say that they don’t have BRILLIANT wisdom, but if I am interested in looking at what it takes to become a supermodel, and yes, yes I am, I’d rather get some pointers from Cindy Crawford, and not someone who once read Vogue magazine and has a helluva runway walk she practices in her basement.)

The content above has been vetted and approved and is endorsed by plenty of the folks who have been there, done that.

There should also be a warning on Facebook. Sort of like the warnings they used to have on sideview mirror on cars. (“Objects are closer than they appear.”) It should say — “Advice given here and the tone with which it is given does not reflect the nature of the people in our sport in real life.” Wading in on social media sometimes leaves me unable to recognize people I know in real life. Certainly endurance riders are a frank bunch, but yowsa, get us in front of a keyboard and a lot of us lose all civility.

Trust me, there’s a very few of us like that in real life, at a ride. And all of us can point those few out and say “Stay away from that one.” We offer that as a public service, just like you would tell your best friend to stay away from your Crazy Uncle George. (But that’s hard to do on Facebook.)

So get to a ride, volunteer, just walk around. Tell people you think their dog/truck/horse/saddle/helmet is beautiful. We’ll tell you everything you want to know and then some, including to stay away from our own version of Crazy Uncle George.

That is unless you meet Crazy Uncle George first. Trust me, it won’t take you long to figure it out.

9.) Can My Horse Do This? (I don’t want to KILL him!)

A common question is “But I have a ________, not an Arabian, can I still do the sport?”

The answer is yes, yes, yes.

Now, there’s a caveat here. That equine has to be metabolically and physically sound, and has to be capable of moving along down the trail, eventually, at about 5 mph in order to finish at maximum time.

But if you name a breed or horse (or mule!) they are all out there competing, some faster than others, but yes, your _________ breed of horse can do it!

Systematic conditioning and training and a suitable partner (for you!) — that’s how you’ll get where you’re going.

8.) Which Saddle/Bridle/Pad/Helmet/Stirrups Should I use?

Whatever works.

No, really, that’s the answer.

Experienced riders can tell you what worked and didn’t work for them, and if you look around at a competition, you’ll see some stuff that the vast majority or a lot of us use, and don’t use, with good reason, but that does not mean it will work for you and your horse.

See above. Whatever works. Endurance riders pretty quickly figure out what works.

My advice on this one is “borrow don’t buy.” And if you buy, buy used.

Some new folks are determined to help the economy by buying all SORTS of new stuff; you don’t really have to do that. (But hey, our tack vendors love you buying types!)

7.) Can My Horse Do This Sport Barefoot?

Wait here a moment while I put on my Teflon suit.

There are SOME horses who can do SOME rides entirely barefoot. In the Northeast region there are a couple of New Jersey rides in almost 100% sand footing. For that ride, I would venture to say that MOST horses could do THAT ride entirely barefoot.

There are SOME rides that would not be fair to ask ANY horse to do entirely barefoot.

So foot protection? That’s entirely up to you. And there are a boatload of options that may suit you, your abilities and tolerance for a learning curve and do-it-yourself skills, and your horse.

To me, how the horse is trimmed and balanced is vastly more important than the icing on the cake — the hoof protection you choose.

Let me say that again, because we have an epidemic of imbalanced feet with toes-too-long in our sport — it is ALL about the hoof balance if you’re going to ask your horse to go 25 or 50 or 100 miles.

So get a good farrier, look at TONS of photos of well-balanced and not-so-balanced feet. Take a course like the one Daisy Bicking teaches about hoof imbalances and how to trim. And if you have a farrier/trimmer who is following all of those principles, bake them cookies and pay them well.

Priceless.

6.) What Do I Need To Feed My Horse?

For our online training, the header on this topic is Keep It Simple, Silly.

Most endurance horses thrive on a simple diet based primarily on good forage (not exceptionally nutritious, just clean), enough calories in the form of fat or safe feed like beet pulp to keep their body condition in a healthy range as they are working and competing, some sort of ration balancer (based on where they live and the nutrition in their hay) or commercial feed that meets their vitamin/mineral needs, some loose salt to meet their sodium needs, and water. Plenty of fresh water.

Oh, sure, you can make it far more complicated, but we have a rule that we don’t add any supplement to our horses’ feed unless there is a darned good reason and we need to understand the reason, preferably with some blood work or other data to support the need.

But hey, the economy appreciates you buying all of that extra stuff.

(And don’t kid yourself, I have a bucket of this-and-that in my feed room too. Just, you know, because.)

5.) How Will I Know When I’m Ready for My First LD or Intro Ride?

This one has a million factors but let’s try to boil it down into a few simple sentences.

If you have a mature horse (over 5 years old, in my opinion), who has been conditioned and trained so that he can travel 15 miles in about 3 hours (or a bit under) on terrain and in the conditions anticipated for your first competition, and is eating, drinking, peeing and pooping, with no residual soreness and looks bright-eyed and bushy tailed with gas left in the tank afterwards, he’s probably conditioned adequately for his first LD ride (of 25-30 miles) to finish right near the back of the pack.

But that horse also needs to be trained to trailer to and from the ride, camp safely, vet in and vet out in a crowd, trot out, travel down the trail with other horses in a way that ensures everyone’s safety, and to stop and rest and eat and be rated at the speed that you, his much more intelligent partner, asks him to go.

How do you get there? It really is just too much to put in a couple of paragraphs.

Which is why we created Endurance Essentials at horselearningonline.com

4.) Should I Ride With Someone On My First Ride?

I suspect my answer on this one will surprise some folks, but the answer is NO, not unless it’s someone that you condition with and with whom your horse paces well.

New riders often want someone to chaperone them around their first competition, but think about it for a minute …

I have a horse who walks fast, trots slowly and loves to canter along.

Your horse has a slow walk, a huge trot (but not quite as fast as my horse canters) and has a nasty habit of bucking when he canters, so you prefer to skip cantering out of a prudent sense of self-preservation.

How will this ride go?

I can predict. The pair will be going faster or slower at any given moment than what would be safest/most efficient for either horse in the team.

And someone will not like someone else at the end of the ride. 🙂

Here’s my advice. Show up and start riding at the pace you do at home. You’ll end up riding with someone or a bunch of someones, and you’ll have taught your horse that that is okay.

3.) How Fast Should I Go?

Roughly the same pace that you condition.

Lots of new riders are stunned that they conditioned Old Dobbin but arrived at the competition with Secretariat.

Don’t believe your horse. Save some gas for the last part of the ride. If you go 5 mph at home, sure, you can probably go 5.5 mph in a competition. But 10 mph? That’s going to end badly.

If I had a quarter for every time someone said to me “But he felt SO GOOD at the start … ”  That sentence almost never ends with ” … and he felt that GOOD right up until we successfully finished!”

2.) How Do I Condition?

A little at a time.

Start from where you are (assuming you have a mature horse). Add a bit of distance or difficulty or speed each week, but never more than one at a time.

Yes, ring riding counts.

Yes, you can do this with a full time job.

We offer some examples and strategies, along with signs that you’re getting it right, or that you’re over- or under-conditioning at Endurance Essentials.

1.) How Will I Know When We’re Ready For Our First 50?

If you have a mature horse (to me that’s 6 years of age, although AERC will allow you to compete in a 50 on a 5 year old) and you’ve done a LD ride and the horse and you both survived well with no tack, lameness or metabolic concerns, with lots of As on your vet card, and you’re feeling like you did not squeeze all of the tooth out of the toothpaste tube, you are almost certainly ready for your first 50 ridden at a moderate pace.

Also, see this blog: http://enduranceintrospection.com/wp/lds-50s-100s-and-ugs/

So there is a fairly short answer to some very complex questions and hopefully some philosophical and sage old horsemanship wisdom that I gained by making lots and lots of mistakes and by listening to horsepeople far older and more experienced than myself.

There are lots and lots of ways to get from Point A to Point B in this amazing sport. Without mentorship your path may be a bit more meandering, or may suffer a dead end or two.

Welcome! This is the zaniest, most generous and wise group of horsepeople I’ve ever had the privilege to come to know, and if you’re willing to sit back and listen, and ask why, and sort the good information from that offered up by the “bad idea fairy” (thanks, Aarene!) you’re going to have the time of your life!

Happy trails.