AERC's Rider Handbook (Chapter 11)

Although some riders take great pride in their ability to perform “solo,” most prefer to have the help of a crew. The crew can consist of one or more people, usually family members or friends. The crew assists the rider in many ways over the course of the event. The crew may take over the care of the horse at the holds, leaving the rider free to see to his own personal needs. However it is highly recommended that the rider always accompany the horse through the vet check so the rider can discuss with the veterinarian how the horse is doing. The crew’s job can be quite casual if the rider’s goal is a nonchalant scenic tour of the countryside. On the other hand, for a very competitive rider, the crew can easily make all the difference in the outcome.

For the novice crew, the easiest way to learn the trade is to find out who the most successful riders are, watch what their crews do, and ask a lot of questions. Word gets around quickly about who has the best crews. Offer to help one of these a few times. Most would love to have an extra hand.

The difficulty of the crewing job can be vastly complicated if the ride is a 100 miler where all the checks are scattered over a mountain range and up virtually impassable, rutted out, dry creek beds that pass, more or less, for roads. It’s even more challenging if there is no water, if none of the “roads” have names, if there are no gas stations for the next 100 miles, and if the ride management forgot to do the vet check maps. Like endurance riders, crews must cultivate an unorthodox sense of humor to survive. With any luck the novice crew will have as a first mission a 50 miler where all the checks are in camp.

Pre-Ride Care

The crew’s day begins with the pre-ride feeding for the horse. Different riders have different philosophies on how to feed a horse before a ride. Moreover, the feeding plan may be different for different length rides, different horses, etc. so make sure you understand from the rider what the feeding plan is. Naturally the horse should have all the water and hay through the night that he wants. Most riders want the horses electrolyted the day before the ride and the morning before the start. This may be administered in the feed or with a dosing syringe. Again check with the rider so you know the plan and can follow it as the morning of the ride the rider may be distracted.

What you will need during the day will depend to some extent on the weather. If it is cold and wet, the horse will need blankets and a rainproof cover. The rider will probably want a full change of clothes (especially dry socks), an extra jacket, and towels. If the weather is hot and dry, you will need water by the barrel. You will need a stethoscope, a thermometer, sponges, buckets, electrolytes (and some means of administering them), hay, a halter and lead rope, clean saddle pads, spare tack (in case anything breaks), and lots of drinks and food for the rider. It’s also good to have Easyboots® and an extra set of horseshoes. It’s a good idea to have the tools required to put them on in case there is not a ride farrier available and you cannot find somebody who can shoe a horse among the support personnel or other crews. Incidentals such as aspirin or ibuprofen, petroleum jelly (for tack rubs or skin burns), duct tape (for all kinds of instant repairs), and tissues will also come in handy. If the ride is a 100 miler, glow sticks, a few flashlights and extra batteries might be necessary. If you are going to have to do a lot of driving during the day to get to the vet checks or to meet your rider at points in between, make sure you’ve got a full tank and that your vehicle is in good working order. The ultimate humiliation for a crew is to run out of gas somewhere in the middle of the wilderness. (Some would argue that the ultimate humiliation is for the crew to still be asleep when the rider comes into the first checkpoint after a early morning start.)

Most vet checks are run as a gate into a hold. This means that your required hold time does not begin until after your horse has recovered to a pre-specified pulse count, or passed the “gate.” Usually this count is somewhere between 68 and 60 bpm. After the horse has had his pulse checked and his time marked on a card, he will proceed to the vets who will do a Cardiac Recovery Index (CRI) as they continue to evaluate his metabolic and mechanical fitness more fully. The rider and crew are then free to do whatever they like until the hold period is over. The duration of the hold time varies greatly, depending on how many miles have been covered up to that point, the length of the ride, and the weather conditions. Most commonly, the hold time runs between 15 minutes and one hour.

As soon as the ride starts, you should begin getting everything ready for the first vet check. You should position all your equipment as closely as possible to the vetting area, but out of the way of the traffic flow. Sometimes it’s a bit tricky to get a good spot, and the early bird has the best chance. Don’t wait until it’s almost time for the horses to be arriving before getting set up. If the day is going to be hot, a shady spot is imperative. Get oriented to which direction the sun is going, and decide where it’s going to be when the horses come in. Get everything you think you could possibly need and organize it in one place. You don’t want to waste your vet check running back and forth to get forgotten items. Set up at least three buckets of water, two for drinking and one for sponging. Have more water handy if the weather is hot, because you’re going to be using a lot. Set out a fat flake of hay and slurp if your horse likes it. Line up your electrolytes, a halter and lead, and the drinks and food you think your rider is most likely to want. Put the stethoscope around your neck or you will probably misplace it, and get a fix on how the vet check is laid out. Where are the in timers, the pulse takers, the vets, and the out timers? Sometimes it takes a while to comprehend the overall picture, as things are not always clearly demarcated.

If other horses begin to come in and you don’t expect your rider for a while, watch what they are doing. You can learn from others, both from what works and what does not work.

Care of the Horse During the Vet Check

As soon as your horse comes in, be sure the time card is marked with his “arrival time.” Take a pulse. If it’s down, go directly to the P&R, and then to the veterinarian. Loosen cinch or remove tack according to vet check requirements. If the day is hot, lots of water, even iced water, is the best way to get a pulse down quickly. Iced water should only be use on the neck along the jugular vein and should not be put on the large muscles of the horse. However, if the day is chilly, be on guard about using any water, especially cold water from a mountain creek or hose. Also, some horses are very prone to cramping if they get much water on the muscles of the croup and back. If you know your horse is like this, it’s best to blanket these areas and only wet the neck and legs. If the horse takes as much as ten minutes or more to get down and there are not any unusual factors such as really hot weather or deep going, it’s a good bet that he’s going too fast for his present ability. Your rider needs to know how long the recovery time is and adjust his goals accordingly. A recovery time of around five minutes or less is an indication that the horse is being ridden sensibly. Note that hot humid conditions can lengthen recovery times.

Any equine that takes more than 15 minutes to recover may well be headed for trouble, and by AERC rules any equine that takes over 30 minutes to recover is disqualified as “not fit to continue.”

It is not a good idea to let the horse eat anything or to give electrolytes until after he gets vetted, as this often causes the pulse to hang. Sometimes it’s best to walk him around slowly rather than letting him stand, especially if the pulse is still quite high.

Vets normally aren’t concerned about the respiration count; it’s the quality of the breathing rather than the rate that is important. A panting horse is preferable to one taking long gasping breaths. Panting could indicate, however, that the horse is over- heating, so a temperature may be taken. Temperatures below 103 degrees are usually considered safe enough for the horse to pass the vetting. A few rides still require a specific respiration count to be met before getting a “gate time.” If you have a horse that pants you are always well advised to call the ride management ahead of time and find out how they intend to handle it (See Chapter Twelve).

Although some rides who have enough helpers in the PR area will give “courtesy checks,” the usual practice at endurance rides is to have your “in time” written on your vet card as soon as you call. If the pulse timer counts you over the required maximum, then you may get a penalty of some sort. For example, you may not be allowed to ask for a check for another five /ten minutes. So be sure you are down before you call. If you are sure and you know the timer has miscounted, don’t hesitate to ask for a recheck. Most people will accommodate you on this. If they won’t do so, you must accept their decision and try again later.

When you call for time, be as close as possible to whoever is going to check you. If you are right on 64 and have to walk more than a few steps, you may be up to 68 when you get there. Walk slowly and quietly to where you must go, and try to stay away from any commotion. Don’t let the horse drop his head to eat, as this could also put him over. Attention to these details can get you a minute or more advantage over someone who isn’t so careful, and sometimes this can ultimately be very significant.

After passing the pulse taker, the next step is to present the horse to the vet. Pay careful attention to his remarks, and if he asks you any questions, be completely honest in your answers. If at all possible the rider should always be present when you present the horse to the vet. Some riders prefer to do the actual trotting of the horse themselves while others prefer that the crew do this. If you will be trotting the horse, you should have practiced beforehand so you can show the horse well. Make sure the lead line is loose so the horse can move freely with the head unconstrained. If for some reason the rider is not with you, always pass on any comments to your rider. When you get your vet card back, look it over. Usually there are spaces for all the various metabolic and mechanical factors to be graded. If you notice any low marks, you might want to ask the veterinarian how concerned he is about these conditions. What constitutes a “C” to one vet night be a “B” or a “D” to another, so it’s best to ask if you have any doubts.

Interpreting metabolic conditions is not as easy as counting a pulse or knowing when a horse is lame, but the rider and crew should make it their business to learn as much as they can about it. Sooner or later you will find yourself in a situation where you will need to make your own judgments. In particular you should know if your horse is behaving uncharacteristically. What could normally be a cause for concern in most horses might not be significant with yours, and vice versa (see Chapter Twelve).

The Cardiac Recovery Index, CRI, or “Ridgway Trot” has proven to be a very useful tool for determining when a horse is becoming overstressed. Its unique value is that it detects problems at their onset, before other indicators register that a danger zone has been crossed.

The CRI is performed as follows. The horse’s pulse is taken and the time is noted (for example, pulse 64; time = 1:03:07). The horse is then trotted in hand approximately 125 feet (about 45 steps) away from a point and then turned around and trotted back. After 60 seconds have passed from the initial pulse taking, the pulse is rechecked. It should be no higher than the first reading (for example, pulse 64). An accurate pulse count is imperative or the test will not be valid. If the pulse has increased the second time it is checked, there is cause for concern. While a four beat per minute increase (64 to 68) is not alarming, as the increase grows so should concern. A 64 to 72 reading, for example, would be fair warning that the horse is in enough distress that continuing the ride would be risky. Generally speaking, if the veterinarian gets a poor CRI reading, he will ask the rider to come back again for a recheck. At that time the CRI would be repeated, and unless it had normalized, the horse would probably be pulled from the ride. The veterinarian would most likely evaluate the horse as a whole before making his decision, but poor metabolic readings or lameness inevitably seem to accompany a poor CRI.

Assuming that your horse has passed the vetting and everything is within normal ranges, you should take the vet card to have it marked for the out time. Be sure that your watch is synchronized with the official ride time, and that when you get your card back the correct time is entered. Even at the best of rides mistakes are sometimes made, so it pays to check. Make a point of putting the card in the same place all the time. It’s very easy to lose it in the rush of getting everything done. Many riders will carry the card in a small pouch that attaches to the saddle or breast plate. Putting the card in a plastic baggie is a great way to keep it dry from rain or water splashed on the horse during crewing.

If you haven’t already done so, you can take the tack off now and give your horse electrolytes (see Chapter Four). As the horse sweats, he loses water and electrolytes (sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and chloride). Losses and imbalances commonly result in cramping, and occasionally in colic and tying up. In the most extreme cases, death can result. Supplementation is designed to offset these problems just as drinking fluids such as Gatorade is designed to help human athletes. While there is some disagreement as to the dosage because of the impossibility of determining accurately the horse’s needs during the ride, recent studies definitely show that the horse is losing water and body salts in large amounts. Naturally the dosage depends on the horse’s constantly changing metabolic state. Theoretically there is a danger of over-concentration of the salts in the horse’s stomach. In such a situation, osmosis would draw precious fluids out of already dehydrated tissues and into the gut, making matters worse.

If the horse is significantly dehydrated and has quit drinking, dosing with electrolytes could certainly be unwise; but when this state has been reached, it is time to withdraw from the ride in any case. Most veterinarians feel that under any other circumstances electrolytes do help. Further, many believe that it is dangerous to compete without them, especially in hot and/or humid weather or on rides with difficult footing such as sand or mud. Even though there is no laboratory on the trail to measure the horse’s exact needs, we know that he is losing water and salts. If the process goes on too long, imbalances could reach dangerous proportions. As long as the horse is still drinking, it is very unlikely to overdose by giving a at least a couple of tablespoons at each check (see Chapter Twelve). Again consult with the rider on how to administer to a particular horse with the electrolyte being used. If uncertain seek advice from the ride veterinarians. Note that more and more riders are going to more frequent, smaller doses and administering electrolytes on trail as well as at the checkpoints, so the crew must know what the rider’s plan is.

The most common method of administering electrolytes is by dissolving the powdered form with water. The mixture is put in a soda bottle, syringe or other convenient container and the horse is dosed with it. Molasses, applesauce, or other sweet-tasting substances can be used instead of water to make it more palatable. In fact recent studies indicate that the electrolytes are absorbed more efficiently and are less irritating to the horse if mixed with a source of sugar. For some horses it works best to mix powdered electrolytes with a small handful of feed. Usually it is more acceptable when dampened with water. Occasionally a horse will resist all efforts to give him electrolytes, and if he is forced to take them, will promptly sulk and refuse to eat or drink anything else for the remainder of the vet check. With this kind of horse it’s best to wait until it is almost time to go back out on the trail before electrolyting.

You can buy commercially prepared paste electrolytes that are more convenient to use, but they are more expensive. If using commercially prepared electrolytes, make sure you are using electrolytes designed for endurance horses and following the manufacturer’s guidelines or the recommendations of a veterinarian experienced with endurance horses. The reason for concern is that there are preparations intended for sick horses that may be intended to correct a state of acidosis, whereas dehydrated endurance horses are in a state of alkalosis.

A good procedure for the remainder of the rest period is to adjourn to the nearest patch of green grass and let the horse graze if available and if the horse is used to grass. If there is a creek or pond nearby, the grass along the banks is ideal. Such grass is especially high in moisture content, besides being a rich source of potassium. Particularly on 100 milers, when the horse goes virtually all day and part of the night with little to eat, grass is the best and safest way to keep the intestine working. If no grass is available, dampened hay is a good second choice (see Chapter Four). Most riders will provide free choice of a good hay of the same type that the horse normally gets.

You should check the pulse at least once after the initial vetting to make sure that it is continuing to come down and at the end of the check period. Ideally, it should return to the 40s before time to go back out, but it’s not unusual for some horses to hang in the high 50s or so, especially towards the end of the ride. Anything over the 60s is a good indication that the horse has done about all he can and should probably be retired from the competition. If in doubt consult with the ride veterinarians. If you vetted out at 64 and you later find that the pulse has gone back up, it’s very likely that you have real trouble brewing. In such a situation you should ask for veterinary help immediately.

The color and flow of a horse’s urine is an important indicator of his condition. Some horses won’t urinate until they get off to themselves a little, and usually they prefer to be in tall grass or underbrush of some sort. The power of suggestion can also work wonders, so if your horse hasn’t gone yet and you’re concerned about it, be on guard for another horse that is urinating and then lead yours to that same spot or you can even set an example for your horse. Watch especially for unusual color. Dark amber may be OK, but tea or coffee color is not. Port wine color is caused by the presence of myoglobin and is a result of tissue breakdown associated with cramping and tying up. Under no circumstances should you leave camp if your horse is in this condition. Ask a veterinarian for advice (see Chapter Twelve).

Be aware that just because your horse is bringing up the rear in an endurance ride, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he is under less stress that the others. There is so much variation in ability and conditioning that it can be harder for one individual to do 5 mph than for another to do 15 mph. Actually horses running off the pace are just as likely to get into trouble as the leaders.

When it’s about five minutes before time to go, tack up and get to the area where the trail leaves the vet area. Your rider can go as soon as he is released by the out timer. Once he is off, you can clean up the mess you probably made and start getting ready for the next check. If you plan to meet your rider at a road crossing somewhere between checks, get together the things you’ll need and allow plenty of time to find the spot. Take a lot of extra water if you have containers, in case you encounter other competitors who might need some. In these cases, it adds to the fun of crewing if you team with others crews to help each other out.

Sometimes crews combine forces to cover several points where the riders cross roads. For example, one crew can meet riders at point A; another can meet them at point B. One of the attractions of endurance riding is that participants and crews generally can be relied upon to help each other out, even when it’s inconvenient or downright dangerous. Loaning tack, shoeing the competitor’s horse, braving the wilderness to retrieve a lost competitor during a storm in the middle of a night, sacrificing a placing to help a junior rider finish — it’s all part of the endurance riders’ brotherhood. Hopefully, in our rapidly evolving sport, this is one feature that will not change.

Passing Finish Criteria

As soon as the horse crosses the finish line, the crew should get the tack off and do the usual routine for getting the pulse down. Although you have up to an hour to reach criteria, it’s wise to proceed as soon as possible to get your completion exam. Keep in mind that after any ride, but especially after a 100 miler, you are dealing with a tired animal. Fatigued, dehydrated muscles are prone to cramping and chilling. As soon as the pulse is down, it’s wise to proceed immediately to get your completion exam, as the longer the horse stands around, the more likely he is to become stiff and sore. This final vet check will be like any other. The horse will do a CRI, must be metabolically and mechanically sound, and “fit to continue.”

Best Condition

If you have finished top ten, you will also be eligible for the Best Condition award, and you will have to present your horse again one hour after finishing. You may also be required to present the horse for a CRI at exactly 10 or 15 minutes after crossing the finish line, even if the horse is not down to the completion parameters, as the veterinarians may use this reading to help determine the fitness of the horse. Pay attention at the rider meeting to the instructions for Best Condition judging or ask the head veterinarian.

How you deal with your horse during this period can be quite individualized. For example, if your horse has a tendency to cramp, you will want to walk him, massage him, put warm covers on his back and croup, and do whatever else you can to keep him loose. If your horse’s pulse hangs until he urinates, and he won’t go until he’s left alone, you will want to put him in a secluded spot and go away. If your horse overheats easily and the day is hot, you are going to be looking for a lot of water. In short, you must cater to your horse’s particular needs, and try to make him as comfortable and happy as possible. Frequently the horse that wins Best Condition looks amazingly fresh and strong. If you are back at camp waiting for your rider who is still on the trail during the Best Condition judging it is worthwhile to watch the Best Condition presentations to see how riders present their horses and to talk to the riders and crew as these are usually your most experienced and best competitors.

If you don’t have any special problems or concerns, the best thing to do is to let the horse wander and graze, just as you did during the checks. Take a few minutes to wash off the trail grime and brush out his mane and tail. Keep water at his disposal and give him a final dose of electrolytes (unless this upsets him, in which case you should postpone it). Provide dampened hay if there is no grass — dry feed can cause a dehydrated horse to choke. From time to time have him trot to warm him back up a little. Since Best Condition judging involves trotting your horse in a straight line and circling in both directions, be sure you have schooled him at home in preparation for these tests. Many experienced riders like to train their horses so that the rider is always running on the inside of the circle as this can present the horse most favorably.

Post-Ride Considerations

After the final vetting, if the pulse has returned to 60 or less, it’s time to give the horse some hay and secure him for the night. Many riders like to use ice boots, leg soaks in cold waters, or poultice sweats after a ride. Again you need to know what your rider’s practice is. You should also recheck the pulse at least one more time to make sure all is well. Before going to bed, give the horse his grain. Many people like to make a sloppy bran mash or beet pulp mixed with carrots, apples, and other treats, and the horses seem to love it. Even regular grain mixes can have water added and this also seems to meet with a favorable reaction. Naturally, plenty of water should be constantly available. A dry blanket will help keep the horse comfortable if the weather is chilly or wet.

If the horse’s pulse begins to rise again after his post-ride exam, it will be necessary to monitor his condition very carefully. Occasionally horses finish reasonably well only to develop problems later. The first warning sign is a rising pulse, and a vet should be consulted. Early detection and treatment can keep a minor problem from becoming serious.

The morning after the ride, you should trot the horse out. Give him at least ten or 15 minutes of exercise before loading him up for the trip home. Look for any unusual filling or swelling, and in general try to get a fix on how he feels. Notice, for example, whether he ate his breakfast and how his stool looks. You expect an endurance horse to be tired after a ride, but if he looks exhausted you know he’s been asked to do too much.

Trailering Home

If you have a long trip home, its best to stop every four or five hours and give the horse an opportunity to get out of the trailer and walk around a little. Offer water and give him a few minutes to graze at these stops. If the weather is hot, be sure that the trailer is well ventilated. If you stop at a restaurant to eat, open all the windows and half-doors to maximize air flow. By all means park in the shade. If the weather is cold, be sure the horse has a blanket.

As you can see, there is much more to crewing than carrying a bucket of water. The crew is an integral part of the team, and once you’ve mastered the trade you will have a job for as long as you like — possibly longer. And what is your return for this undying devotion? You’ll get the satisfaction of knowing that the horse may like you better than he likes his rider.

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