Getting Started: Questions & Answers
(reprinted from Equine Canada’s HorseLife Magazine)
Ten questions were posed to Canadian endurance competitors Christy Janzen, Terre O’Brennan and Wendy Benns. Here is some great advice from experienced endurance riders:
1. What is the best way to get started in endurance riding?
Terre O’Brennan: Volunteer at one or more rides. It will enable you to learn the rules and common procedures, and to see how other people do it — the tack they use, what they feed, etc. You’ll see the various ways that people with horses camp, and you may even have the opportunity to learn from other people’s mistakes. The whole thing won’t seem so strange to you when you enter a ride.
Christy Janzen: Read about it — books, magazines, online — and then attend a local ride. Contact a local club to find out where and when the rides are At your first ride, you can watch or offer to do a minor task while you learn about the activity going on during the ride. Then I recommend you volunteer at a ride — you’ll learn tons.
Wendy Benns: The best way to start would be to volunteer at a ride to record for a vet or just to observe closely. Ask tons of questions, read the latest articles about the sport.
2. What horse should a beginner start with?
Terre: The horse you have! Any sound, healthy horse can manage to complete at least a 25-mile ride. Greater distances and competitive speed may require more stringent qualifications, but you can participate quite happily on your current horse.
Christy: Any horse you own that is sound with no lameness issues. With lots of slow conditioning miles, any horse can take you through your first ride (if you ride it cautiously), many rides also have a 10-mile, unsanctioned trail ride to get people initiated into the sport. Take good care of their feet as many riders have problems initially with footsore horses.
Wendy: Any breed is OK to start with as long as it is sound and physically capable. Make sure dental, vaccinations, deworming and farrier work is up to date. You should research the most common problems your specific breed of horse typically encounters in long-distance riding.
3. What advice do you have for starting endurance riders? What advice were you given when you got started that has been the most helpful?
Terre: To be very conservative with everything — speed, distance, feed, purchasing new tack, etc. — until you have had a chance to really get a handle on the sport. There is always time to “do more”; it is much harder to undo past mistakes.
Christy: Be careful! Err on caution. Be sure you are taking a sound horse to the ride. Learn how to trot them out in hand and have an experienced horse person watch you trot them out. Have a plan for the day: how long it should take you based on your horse’s competencies. This will help you not to override them, which is a huge problem with starting riders.
Record all of your training miles, i.e., guess the length of them and the time they took to complete. Practice the distance (or close to it) one time prior to the ride. I did my first endurance rides with an extremely experienced endurance competitor, Roy Cust. He followed what he called the “cavalry training” which was walk four miles, trot four miles or many different variations depending on the horse he was riding.
Wendy: Don’t be afraid to ask. I was so lucky to be paired with Nancy Beacon on my second competitive trail ride and had a chance to chat with her for hours on the trail about endurance and how to prepare for my first 50-mile endurance ride.
4. What is the best way to find a mentor?
Terre: Volunteering at rides! Talk to people you meet while trail riding. Most clubs and endurance associations keep lists of members who are willing to mentor, so join your local club.
Christy: Contact your regional or local club and talk to a director that lives close to you. Ask around and find an endurance rider that lives close by; maybe you can do some training together — that’s when you’ll learn the most.
Wendy: Contact your local organization and ask about a mentoring program.
5. Does it matter if the beginner rides English or Western?
Terre: Not at all; whatever they are more comfortable with. It is important that their saddle fit — at least well enough not to cause their horse pain. But the style of the saddle is entirely personal choice.
Christy: No, people ride with all kinds of tack; as long as it fits the horse, it’s fine. Riders need to be comfortable in what they are wearing.
Wendy: As long as the saddle fits the horse properly and also the rider, it doesn’t matter at the lower levels. Inevitably you will move into an endurance saddle as the mileage increases!
6. Where can a new rider go for more information? What you do recommend?
Terre: There is an unbelievable amount of information on the Internet. The AERC Education Committee is posting many articles and plblishing them in Endurance NEws. There is a Rider Handbook online on the AERC website.
Christy: See #1. I highly recommend the sport — my life still revolves around competing. Both my children have competed with me with my husband crewing and it’s a bfabulous family event. The sport teaches children patience, planning, courage and good sportsmanship.
Wendy: Check out your distance riding association website and bulletin board. It is loaded with information and contacts to help you out.
7. What advice do you have for riders who would like to aim higher, perhaps at national or international levels?
Terre: Do your homework, and never stop trying to learn. Study exercise physiology, keep current with research. Keep detailed records, including the body weight of your horse as his workload increases, check the legs daily, and get the very best farrier you can, regardless of cost.
Christy: Ask lots of questions and leave a competition thinking about your lessons learned and how to improve for the next time. The biggest item is having a horse that never has any irregularities in gait and finishes rides with A’s in quality of movement and soundness. Ask the competition veterinarians if they think you and your horse can compete at international levels.
Wendy: A great way to see what the higher levels of the sport are like is to pit crew at competitions. You will get an eye-opener of what is expected of the horse and rider and how to care for an elite-level horse before, during and after a major competition. Extra help at these rides is always welcome!
8. Have you ever had a horse that has been a great teacher for you? If so, what were the “lessons learned” from this horse?
Terre: All of ’em! They are still teaching me. That there is absolutely no limit to a horse’s “heart” — so we need to be the brains! They are willing to give us way more than we should be willing to accept.
Christy: My first endurance Arabian mare, Jayla, was so much more competent than I was, so I couldn’t go wrong. She was bred for the sport and it was extremely easy for her. My biggest lesson was when we lost her to an aneurism and then it was extremely hard to replace her. That’s when I started to realize how lucky we’d been to have her; she was very brave and bold.
Wendy: My mare, Flirt With Ecstacy, has taken me all over the world in endurance rides. She is the type of horse that is very competitive and will not slow down on her own. This is the type of horse that could easily get into trouble with the wrong rider, one who doesn’t watch for subtle clues on how the horse is handling the stress of the competition, weather, altitide, etc. She has taught me how to be a patient, responsible rider and how important conditioning, pacing and strategy is in this sport.
9. What do you know now that you wished you knew then, when starting out?
Terre: Dressage. I wish I knew more now, let alone then! Improved riding skills are the best thing anyone can do for their horse.
Christy: To be content with whatever the ride day brings. I just love being at an endurance ride with lots of friends and having a great time. I don’t believe in luck, I believe in good planning. Planning will help make the ride easier for your horse. A technical point would be the value of using CRIs (cardiac recovery indexes) to understand how your horse is managing the ride or training.
Wendy: Everybody wants to help — all you need to do is ask. The smartest place to pass other riders is by pulsing in faster than them at a vet check, not on trail.
10. How do you know when you and your horse are ready to move up?
Terre: It is easier (and safer) to move up in distance than in speed. If the horse is handling a given distance well — by which I mean continuing to eat and drink, staying sound, and recovering well after — moving up in distance is usually safe. The worst that can happen is a pull and, hey, everybody pulls sooner or later.
Moving up in speed is riskier, and more complicated. It should be done in gradual increments, monitoring the horse’s parameters at each stage. One of the safest ways to increase speed is to ride the first loops at your current speed, but to ride the last loop (or the last half of the last loop) faster, and then carefully monitor the horse’s recovery. If it has been too hard for him, at least he doesn’t have to go out again . . . if not, you can start to speed up slightly on the second-to-last loop as well as the last loop.
Christy: I am a great believer in “everything should be easy for your horse.” If they finish a ride with all As, great recoveries, and compliments from the vets then, yes, you could try a longer distance. I recommend trying a longer distance on an experienced endurance horse so that when the rider hits their fatigue wall the horse is fine and then the rider will be able to rally and finish.
However, many people never change distances based on the limited time they have for training or their own physical health. This is quite an individualized sport so riders just do what works for them and their horse.
Equine Canada is based in Ottowa, Ontario. Their website address is www.equinecanada.ca.