Horses

The One Thing I Did That Made Me a Better Trail Rider

I did one thing that made me a better trail rider and horse owner in general. It wasn’t following any particular trainer or method, it wasn’t watching any particular video or reading any particular book, and it wasn’t even taking lessons. It was learning about endurance riding.

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I had never heard of endurance riding until a few years ago, and when I first heard about it, I thought that those people were absolutely insane. Endurance riders are the marathon runners of the horse world. They ride 25, 50 or even 100 miles in ONE DAY. That didn’t even sound fun to me, but when I started looking at the AERC facebook page and reading some endurance blogs like this one, I decided they were actually having a ton of fun and I wanted to try it. I completely immersed myself in all things endurance and learned as much as I could about the sport.

Long story short, I did one intro endurance ride at just 10 miles, and didn’t like it much at all. I figured out that endurance is not the sport for me because it’s too fast. I like to amble along the trail taking in the sights and enjoying being out in nature with my equine partner. Endurance riders go FAST. There isn’t any ambling. Even if you’re not racing, other people at the ride are racing, and your horse will pick up on that energy and want to stay with the herd. It’s not a sport for people who want to amble.

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My mule, Ellie, after our one and only endurance ride.

But one very positive thing came out of my endurance phase. I learned A TON of information about everything from saddle fit to hoof care to electrolytes. Keeping a horse healthy and sound for 100 miles is very different than trotting around an arena at a hunter show for two minutes. There are a lot of lameness and saddle fit issues that may not crop up in a walk/trot class, but they sure as shootin’ will crop up after mile 75 on a trail. A horse that’s going to do that kind of mileage has to have his feed, tack and hoof care regimen dialed in.

My favorite thing about endurance is that there aren’t a lot of rules other than taking care of the horse. The horse’s welfare comes first, at least with most people in the U.S. (worldwide, not so much.) Just about every endurance rider I met or connected with online was constantly tweaking things in their horse’s diet, conditioning schedule, hoof care routine, or tack situation. They were constantly looking for ways to make the horse’s job easier, to make the horse more comfortable.

Those big mile endurance horses are ATHLETES, in every sense of the word. The AERC (governing body for American endurance) knows this and doesn’t have a bunch of silly rules that serve no purpose other than tradition. If bitless works, you can go bitless! Wanna ride bareback? Go for it! Don’t have tall boots? Wear running shoes! No one cares, as long as your horse is happy!

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My mare, Heidi, and I at a NATRC 18 mile ride.

Because of the lack of micromanaging, people come up with some very innovative solutions for all kinds of issues and you can learn a ton from the AERC facebook page. There is a wealth of knowledge on that page, and while of course it has its snarky people and moments, if I have a question about horse care, that’s my first stop.

The most important things I learned while studying endurance related to preventing health problems. I learned about metabolic issues in horses and  dehydration colic. I made changes to my routine when trailering my horses and when riding in the heat. I learned about using electrolytes to encourage horses to drink. This has come in handy, especially now that I have a big, stocky horse that doesn’t cool down as easily as his smaller, leaner friends. I learned how to recognize problems before they start by looking for EDPP (eating, drinking, peeing, pooping). I pay close attention to my horse’s usual habits, and if my horse isn’t doing these things, something is wrong.

Learning those things changed my perspective on trail riding and competing. Instead of thinking of my horse as my pet, I think of him now as more of an athlete than I’m given the privilege of managing. While my horse is quite chunky and not a lean, mean endurance machine, he is still being asked to work in the heat and to put in miles on varying terrain. I don’t think of our rides as a walk in the park anymore; I think of them as one part of an overall conditioning regimen that will produce an equine athlete. I want him to be sound and rideable well into old age, and the best way to ensure that is to take the best possible care of him now.

There is an art to managing horses well, and the learning curve is never ending. Different breeds and different individual horses need to be managed very differently. My knowledge base has expanded exponentially since buying my first horse 10 years ago. Back then I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I had no clue how complex horses and their many issues could be.

I really believe that no matter what discipline you ride, you could benefit from learning about endurance. I don’t want to ride 100 miles in one day, but I do want a sound, happy horse. The endurance community has a lot of wisdom and accumulated knowledge about how to achieve that.

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