Hours before complete chaos shut down the world, an amazing little Arabian mare and her equally incredible owner guided me through my first FEI 1* endurance ride. Almost two years ago, I remember setting two goals before signing on to the endurance experience. Goal #1: spend at least a year learning from the discipline. Goal #2: Complete a 1* endurance competition. Having achieved both of my goals just in the nick of time, I would like to reflect on my eye-opening experience. Hopefully this gives you some entertainment and things to ponder while participating in social distancing or quarantine or self-isolation or whatever it is you are doing to stay safe these days.
Now, imagine (very good exercise to reduce boredom) riding for 6, 8, 12, or 24 hours through sand dunes, swamps, hills, prairies, and mountains. Imagine the wildlife along the way like butterflies, turtles, wild piglets, squirrels, blue herrings, deer, snakes, and bald eagles. How about the beautiful sunrises over quiet lakes and babbling creeks or sunsets on flower fields and old apple orchards? All of this seen from the back of your horse. The two of you on an adventure in a test of mental and physical endurance. Can you imagine? I can. I have had the opportunity to see and experience most of these sights and sounds and feelings thanks to a discipline of riding I knew nothing about just a few years ago.
During one of my college classes, the discipline of endurance was artfully introduced to me. At that time, much like today, my current discipline of eventing was facing horrific accidents often resulting in death of both the horse and the rider. I decided that this trend may have something to do with a lack of knowledge on the correct conditioning of horses. Thus, I turned to endurance and one of the top endurance riders to show me the ropes.
One of the first things that made me excited about endurance riding was how ridiculously easy it was to keep the tack clean. Gone were the expensive, sensitive, dull colored leather bridles I had been subject to in the dressage and the eventing world; in their place were fun colored biothane bridles with built in halters. Gone were the overpriced and poorly made saddles. Instead endurance boasts rugged, comfortable, wool-flocked saddles sold at reasonable prices. Gone was the early morning bathing and braiding and stressing over the slightest hair out of place. Endurance immediately made it clear that it did not reward the prettiest pony, but instead rewarded the healthiest, fittest, most mentally well-prepared horse.
In order to develop the healthiest, fittest, most mentally well-prepared horse I had to learn the difference between training and conditioning. I also had to learn how to balance the two. Training refers to the mind and conditioning refers to the body. Young endurance horses might do more training rides consisting of dressage or exploring the woods. Older horses may go on more conditioning rides which may be 2-3-hour lopes through the forest. Still, I saw a balance between the different development types that helped expose the young horse to all the scary things that move and do not move while incorporating physical development. This balance also kept older horses interested and happy with their job while maintaining high levels of fitness.
Balance is critical, not only for the horse’s mind and body, but for the riders. Endurance rewards a rider that at very least stays out of the horse’s way. At very best, helps the horse. Trees, wildlife, imperfect (occasionally dangerous) footing and the sort are common hazards along the trail. I had to learn to help the horse by getting my eyes up and looking forward. I had to be looking forward so I could be a “thinking” rider. I could no longer zone out while making circle number 353 in the arena. I had to help my horse by looking to my future, assessing the situation, and responding with solutions. Hours of sitting the canter strengthened my core, my legs, and my seat. To be honest, it just taught me how to properly sit the canter (only took a few hundred miles). Rides in the wilderness also made me very motivated to get my heels down and my leg on in the case of random creatures or a rogue wind spooking my stead. Despite having a long way to go, my mental and physical riding abilities have many thanks to give to the innate nature of endurance.
I think the nature of endurance has a lot to give to all other disciplines of equestrian sport. The motto of endurance is “To Finish is to Win.” It basically challenges the rider to complete a competition without a metabolic or soundness issue from either horse or rider (horse is, of course, more emphasized). The endurance slogan is thus the ultimate slogan for a good horseman. It challenges riders to be intone to the total mental and physical health of their horse by threatening disqualification if either falters during the test of endurance.
Superior horsemanship is something that I would love to see emphasized in more disciplines. Young riders and even seasoned riders “throw their horse under the bus” in order to win ribbons. Most disciplines have little to no education on metabolic health or physical conditioning incorporated at the lower levels. No other discipline requires at least one if not several vet exams at the lower levels. Very few riders understand the application of electrolytes or roughage or proper cooling techniques. Even fewer riders have ever had correct conditioning explained to them.
I am no exception to this lack of knowledge. I started in the hunter jumper world then moved to the eventing and dressage world. I have dabbled in just about every discipline in-between. Still, I had never been exposed to such a plethora of horsemanship techniques until I had the privilege of working with endurance horses. To say I owe the sport of endurance a huge “thank you” would be an understatement. Pursuing these goals and ultimately achieving them, has taken me on some extraordinary adventures and taught me more than any other discipline.
I still do not know if a lack of knowledge on the conditioning of horses has increased the accidents in eventing. I do know that a lack of knowledge in general is a factor. I also know that a tendency to push for faster and higher is to blame. I wish every rider in every discipline could get to see endurance riding at its finest. I wish they could get to see the amazing level of horsemanship. Mostly, I wish that every rider would take a page from endurance riding and just enjoy the journey with their horse. Rushing bears no beauty in any discipline. The beauty of all sport comes with doing it well and always trying to do it better. Ultimately, to finish with a happy healthy horse; is to win.
I hope these words find you well in the world of chaos and have provided a moment of entertainment. May we all look forward to competing in our respective disciplines and maybe trying out a little endurance when the world opens its doors again.