Photo by Out of Steam Photography

By Shannon Findley, DVM

A lot goes into maintaining an endurance horse’s health and safety, which can feel overwhelming to someone looking to get into the sport. To help we’ve put together this introduction to endurance, with considerations for keeping your horse happy and healthy on the trail.

The Right Horse

Arabian and Arabian crosses dominate the sport of endurance, especially at longer distances. However, most any breed can complete a limited distance ride (LD, 25 – 35 miles). If you and your horse are healthy and sound, you can likely do an endurance ride with the proper training. Some horses are naturally going to be more competitive than others, but that doesn’t mean you and your horse can’t have a great time on a ride. Very heavily muscled horses might have special considerations, and you should talk to your veterinarian about your horse’s individual suitability.

The endurance ride environment is fun but can be emotionally challenging for a horse that hasn’t experienced the hustle and bustle of ride camp, vet checks, many horses on the trail at once, and being passed by horses on the trail. Most American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) events have 10-12-mile introductory rides aimed at helping new horses and riders get to know the sport and gain fitness. This is a great place to start!

Remember the 20% rule. Researchers have found that, ideally, a rider and their tack should weigh no more than 20% of the horse’s weight. For instance, a 1,000-pound horse should not carry more than 200 pounds of rider and tack. This rule is even more important in endurance because of the amount of time riders spend in the saddle and the terrain being covered.

The Equipment

We see just about any combination of tack out on the endurance course. If it fits you and your horse comfortably, you can use it for endurance — especially in LDs. Don’t let the intimidation of needing new gear stop you from competing, though you might want to invest in a comfy saddle seat cushion if your saddle is not meant for long distances. The same applies to you: Wear what feels comfortable.

At longer distances, using the lightest tack possible is advantageous for being competitive. Many pieces of tack are also designed for comfort and high performance. Once you get into the sport, you can see what riders are using and what you might like to invest in.

An immediate tack consideration, however, is saddle fit. If you have a minor saddle fit issue now, after 25 miles it will be a major one. Be sure your saddle and girth fit you and your horse well. Saddle pads designed to correct poor saddle fit generally do not hold up their end of the bargain on long distances.

When choosing a cinch, look for one designed for airflow and heat dissipation. Neoprene cinches are problematic pieces of tack we commonly see at vet checks because they retain so much heat. Similarly, full neoprene tendon support boots meant for arena work trap heat and hold moisture, so they are not appropriate for endurance.

You will most likely want at least a small saddle bag to carry water, a hoof boot, and other essentials.

Health Considerations for the Horse

Maintaining horse hydration, nutrition, and soundness on the trail are generally the top considerations of the endurance rider.

Hydration: It is important a horse learns to take the time and effort to drink on a ride. Dehydration because of failure to drink enough is a major source of metabolic issues for endurance horses. Riders need to teach their horses to drink out of natural water sources and foreign troughs and practice this regularly. Feeding your horse a soupy mash is a pivotal way to get water, electrolytes, and nutrition into him during an endurance ride. Electrolyte replacement can be important depending on climate and how much your horse sweats. For the most part, new endurance riders should focus on keeping their horses drinking and eating on the trail.

Nutrition on the trail: Endurance horses should be well-fed the night before a ride and continue to eat throughout the day while on the trail to prevent a negative energy balance, protect gastric and hindgut health, and maintain electrolytes. Often, pleasure horses have been discouraged from eating on trail rides. However, a successful endurance horse will eat fresh grass along the trail at appropriate and safe times and will learn to eat during rest stops. Practice allowing this before competition days. Endurance riders often provide their mounts with gastric health supplements proven to reduce the rate of gastric ulcer recurrence. Consult your veterinarian or equine nutritionist for nutrition recommendations.

Soundness: Endurance is obviously a rigorous sport with repetitive stress on joints and feet. As with all athletes, prevention is far more effective than trying to treat a problem. Schedule a general soundness exam with your veterinarian before increasing your endurance training to get a baseline and identify potential issues to address. Support your horse’s joint health by using a high-quality joint supplement before a problem develops. Many endurance riders use injectable Adequan or Legend and/or feed-through hyaluronic acid supplements, especially when competing at higher speeds or distances.

Foot care is an important topic, with many opinions on the best strategy. The general debate often comes down to hoof boots vs. shoes. However, one thing nearly everyone will agree on is most horses should not be entirely barefoot on the endurance course. If your horse generally does well barefoot, then providing foot protection in the form of hoof boots is a great option. You’ll find many brands and types of boots on the market — choose what works best for your horse. Try the hoof boots out before a ride to ensure they fit and do not create rubs. Have an extra boot in your saddle bag in the event you lose a boot or shoe along the way.

Final Thoughts

As with all sports, endurance comes with a long and fun learning curve. Accomplished riders will tell you they’re still learning every time they’re out on the course. The sport is friendly, accessible to people of any age, and a wonderful way to spend a day with your horse.

I hope to see you out there!