Endurance riding is a thrilling challenge for horses and riders who want to ride on beautiful trails while testing their stamina. This inclusive sport welcomes competitors of all ages and abilities.
Endurance is a Federation Equestrian International (FEI) sanctioned sport. The American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) creates the rules for and governs North American competitions. The AERC organizes two types of endurance events:
- Limited Distance (LD) events are 25 or 35 miles in length and riders must complete a 25-mile LD ride in six hours.
- Endurance events are 50 miles or more. A 50-mile ride has a 12-hour time limit, and a 100-mile ride has a 24-hour time limit.
Endurance riding challenges equestrians' horsemanship skills. Riders may choose any gait during the race, but they must not overtire their horses. Conditioning for LD events typically takes healthy, sound horses two months, while conditioning for endurance events may take up to four months.
Riders of any age and riding ability can compete in endurance events. Many competitions have Junior divisions for children under 18.
Riders may wear any comfortable, well-fitting apparel. Breeches and tall boots are popular options because these prevent the stirrup leathers from rubbing the riders' legs. Lightweight, breathable shirts, moisture-wicking socks and gloves complete the outfits. Optional safety vests protect riders' chests from falls. AERC recommends all riders wear helmets while competing and requires juniors to do so.
Any horse, pony or mule breed may compete in endurance events, as long as the equine is at least five years old. Many competitors choose Arabians because of the breed's natural proclivity for the sport, but riders can condition any healthy, sound horse to compete in distance events.
Endurance riding tack must be well-fitting for both horse and rider to avoid discomfort and rubbing over long distances. Improperly fitted tack may cause soundness issues, disqualifying horses from competition at veterinarian checkpoints.
Saddles and Pads
Endurance saddles are made in a variety of styles and may have trees or be treeless. Treeless saddles are lighter in weight than treed saddles, but these can only support light or middleweight riders. Endurance saddles include many rings for attaching saddle bags to the pommel and cantle. Stirrups typically have four-inch platforms to support the riders' entire lower bodies.
Endurance saddle pads are lightweight and moisture-wicking. These are available in a variety of shapes to match the saddle. Natural fleece is a popular option, but some riders prefer synthetic moisture-wicking saddle pads.
Bridles and Breast Collars
Many endurance riders prefer biothane bridles and breast collars because this material is lightweight, does not rub, and is easy to clean. Some riders choose a halter/bridle combination headstall during competition. Reins are one-piece style without a center buckle.
Some riders use cruppers to prevent the saddle from sliding forward while going downhill. These are especially effective on low-withered horses. Protective boots prevent scratches on the horses' legs while providing ligament support. These must be clean, dry, and well fitting. Some riders choose to carry a second pair of boots with them so they can switch to a dry pair halfway through the ride. Easy boots replace a lost shoe on the trail. These boots slip over the horses' hooves and must fit perfectly to prevent soundness issues.
Endurance riding welcomes new competitors at all levels. AERC has several resources available to help new competitors learn about the sport.
AERC and regional endurance clubs put on several seminars each year across the United States and Canada. Attending these gives new endurance riders the chance to learn about the sport while networking with experienced competitors.
National and Regional Meetings
AERC holds its annual meeting each winter. Many endurance riders congregate at this meeting, making this an excellent networking opportunity. The meeting includes a trade show so riders can see the latest endurance equipment. Regional clubs also hold regular meetings. This is where riders can network on a smaller level.
For riders not yet ready to compete, training rides are a great opportunity to test their horses' endurance while exploring the sport. This is a good way to gauge if the horse-and-rider team is ready to move into competition. AERC and regional clubs have several training rides each year.
Volunteering at an AERC endurance ride is a great opportunity to network with experienced riders and volunteers. AERC describes endurance as a "hurry up and wait" sport, so volunteers have a chance to visit at veterinarian checkpoint stations in between horses, and volunteers can visit with riders during the horses' hold times. This is a chance to find a mentor who helps new endurance riders navigate competitions.
AERC holds over 700 sanctioned LD and endurance rides across the United States and Canada each year. This gives competitors many opportunities to compete in rides that match their skill levels.
Competition management issues ride cards to riders. The cards track each rider's start and finish times, as well as veterinarian check results. Riders must have their ride cards with them at all times. One popular option for carrying ride cards is to insert the cards into a plastic holder that attaches to the horses' breast collars. In addition, riders must:
- Attend the rider's meeting before the competition begins. This is where management will share important information.
- Visit the on-site vet to have their horses checked. Veterinarians perform pre-ride checks of all horses. This ensures horses are fit to compete.
- Check in with the "Out-Timer" volunteer 15 minutes before their scheduled ride time to let ride management know they will ride.
Starting the Ride
At the designated ride time, horse and rider teams leave the starting point and head down the trail to the first veterinarian check station. Riders are responsible for their horses' welfare during the ride. Each team may choose any gait that is comfortable.
LD and endurance rides have different criteria for placing at the end of the ride. In LD competitions, the horse whose heart rate reaches 60 beats per minute first is the winner, rather than the first horse across the finish line. In longer endurance races, the first horse to cross the finish line is the winner.
Every endurance ride has a pre-ride veterinarian check as well as several checks along the route. The veterinarians at each checkpoint must determine the horses are "fit to continue" before riders can continue on the route. Horses' welfare is most important in endurance competitions.
Begin the veterinarian check by locating the "Arrival Timer" person, who will write the team's arrival time on the rider card. Riders then remove horses' tack and begin monitoring pulse rates. Pulse rates must drop to 60 beats per minute in LD events, and 64 beats per minute in endurance events. Conditioned horses usually reach this within 10 minutes. If horses' pulse rates remain above the acceptable level after 30 minutes, the veterinarian will not allow those horses to continue.
Pulse and Respiration
Once the horses' pulse rate drops to acceptable levels, riders take their horses to the Pulse and Respiration area, where the veterinarian confirms the pulse rates and writes the information on the riders' cards. The veterinarian then checks the horses' hydration levels by visually inspecting the mucous membranes, timing the capillary refill and performing a skin pinch test.
The next step of the veterinarian check is for soundness. Riders must hand trot their horses in straight lines for 150 feet. The veterinarian looks for any signs the horse is "off." The veterinarian then does a visual inspection of the horses, noting any tack sores, leg swelling or unwillingness to move. Once horses pass the veterinarian inspection and the riders' hold times are complete, the riders locate the "Out Timer" person, who notes the time on the riders' cards. The riders can then continue on the trail.
At the end of the ride, the veterinarians determine which horse wins the "Best Condition" award.
AERC promotes endurance riding, but also develops and protects historic trails. This makes endurance riding the ideal sport for trail riders with a competitive streak who want to explore North America by horseback.