Caring for the Disciplines, Part 3: Trail and Endurance

Caring for the Disciplines, Part 3: Trail and Endurance

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Whether a weekend warrior or endurance or competitive trail rider, attention to conditioning, hydration, and minimizing wear and tear will help keep your horse on the trail for years to come

Trail riding is a deceptively simple discipline. Unlike other equestrian sports, which might require a particular breed and long hours with a specialized trainer to master, just about any horse and rider can head down the trail. The fact that most anyone can do it is one of the things that makes trail riding so attractive. And if it becomes a passion, you and your horse can participate in the more rigorous sports of endurance and/or competitive trail riding.

Because trail riding--especially the weekend variety--appears so easy, it's also easy to ignore the fitness levels a trail horse requires to remain healthy. Just as you would never face a horse with a big jump or a herd of cows if he hasn't been conditioned for those activities, you wouldn't head off on an all-day trail ride without proper preparation.

Inconsistent footing, steep inclines and declines, water hazards, and distractions such as motorcycles and bicycles are all challenges a trail horse might face. But if you give him the tools he needs to deal with anything trail riding throws at him, you can both return safe and sound.

Playing by the Rules

In endurance rides, the winning horse is the first to cross the finish line and deemed in good health after passing a series of veterinary checks. Competitive trail competitions differ in that they test a horse's ability to cover a set distance in a set period of time. Ride veterinarians determine results by comparing pre-ride parameters to post-ride parameters.

Both endurance and competitive trail riders monitor their mounts' health very closely, not only because they care about their horses but also because of the sports' rules. In rides sanctioned by the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC), control judges, who must be veterinarians, conduct physical exams and measure each horse's metabolic and mechanical parameters before, during, and after the ride. The North American Trail Ride Conference (NATRC) requires veterinarians to check each horse's metabolics and soundness during the day's ride and score them.

"The control judge's job is to monitor the health of the horse, try to catch problems before they escalate into sickness or injury, and help the riders have a successful day while making good choices on behalf of their horses," says Susan Garlinghouse, DVM, a certified head control judge and member of the AERC veterinary committee from Montclair, Calif.

Control judges measure metabolic and other health parameters such as pulse, capillary refill time, and gut sounds, says Garlinghouse. "We know that a horse that is unable to recover to a heart rate of 60 beats (per minute) or so within a reasonable period of time is probably fatigued beyond his capabilities for that particular day," she explains.

The control judge's exam is designed to complement what riders know about their horses. That knowledge, which begins at home with assessing and developing ¬fitness and keeping horses up-to-date on maintenance such as deworming, vaccinations, dental care, and hoof care, is the best defense against health problems on the trail.

"If I feel the horse is acting a little bit 'not right,' I know how to do a basic skin pinch to check hydration (the skin should snap back to normal immediately), push on gums for capillary refill (it should take two seconds or less to return to pink after releasing your finger), and, of course, check for an elevated heart rate that is not coming down upon rest," says Jonni Jewell, of Decatur, Texas, who has logged 4,000 miles in NATRC rides and 1,400 miles in AERC events. "Abnormal breathing or panting and excessive sweating are also things I would watch for on a long ride."

Watch a video detailing how to take your horse's vital signs.

Hydration and Nutrition

Proper hydration is one of the most important factors in keeping a trail horse healthy. Most good endurance and trail horses know to drink often during a ride, and their owners give them plenty of opportunity to do so. For example, before hauling to a ride Karen Chaton of Gardnerville, Nev., an award-winning endurance competitor who has ridden more than 30,000 miles, feeds her horses additional salt and fiber (e.g., beet pulp, grain hulls) to encourage them to drink.

Jewell is especially careful with her Arabian Marquisesmischief, who won the 2009 President's Cup after having colic surgery in 2008 (colic surgery survivors are more likely to colic again, due to adhesions). "Dehydration can lead to colic," she says, "and a colic miles away from a vet clinic at a trailhead can be a bad situation."

Not all horses drink in every situation, and trail riders learn ways to persuade them to drink more. On winter rides, for example, a horse might not want to drink cold water from snow runoff.

In these instances, "look for a spot in the stream where it is slow moving and may be in the sun," Jewell suggests. "Or look for puddles rather than the cold running stream water."

Compounding a horse's chances for dehydration or inappetence is, simply, the stress of long-distance travel. Chaton says riders should watch their horses for any signs of hauling stress (e.g., excessive sweating, pawing, refusal to eat and drink, or other abnormal behavior) and be sure they start off the ride well-hydrated. Jewell notes that feeding for good gut motility (e.g., offering a high-fiber feedstuff that promotes digesta moving through the intestines) a few days before a ride can help.

Each horse is different, and perhaps the best thing riders can do is to know their horses' "normal." Jewell knows her horse produces eight to 10 piles of manure a night, and any less is cause for concern. She also knows how much water he usually drinks, and she monitors the water level in his tub.

Get Him Fit

Garlinghouse, Chaton, and Jewell emphasize the importance of having a horse fit for what you will ask him to do.

"I once treated an unfit wannabe endurance horse that had been literally galloped for 20 miles without rest or water because the owner thought that's how conditioning for endurance is done," says Garlinghouse. "Obviously, it isn't. It's pretty common for novice horses to show up at rides already looking thin, tired, and overconditioned, while many of the really great endurance horses just look like solid little mountain ponies that never stop stuffing their face at every opportunity."

Chaton begins getting a new horse fit by taking him for a conditioning ride and trotting him 10 minutes at a time. She gradually increases works to where the horse can trot nonstop for 40 minutes, all while she monitors his heart rate recovery time.

Going on short rides of five to six miles a couple of times a week can help a horse build fitness for longer rides, says Garlinghouse. But it might take six months of what endurance riders call "long, slow distance" fitness training to prepare a horse and rider for a 25- or 50-mile ride.

"Start out with just some walking and jogging, and increase the workload a little as you progress," she says. "You can build up distance, speed, or difficulty of terrain (by adding such efforts as hill work) by about 10% each week, but don't combine them. For example, don't increase both distance and speed at the same time or you'll overload the total system and risk injury."

While six months of work might condition a horse's heart and lungs, Garlinghouse cautions that it takes years for bones, tendons, and ligaments to fully develop for these strenuous activities. Thus, attempting a distance or terrain with a horse that isn't ready for it can lead to trouble. Fortunately, the NATRC has various levels of competition. Jewell says a horse ridden on the trail regularly can probably handle a novice ride of about 30 to 40 miles over two days at a pace of 4 to 4.5 miles per hour.

"But to start competing on a regular basis will take more conditioning," she explains, "and when one wants to move up to the open division, which is 50 to 60 miles over a two-day ride at a 5- to 5.5-mile-per-hour pace, it will take a more regular conditioning program."

Trail horses ridden sporadically might be susceptible to the muscle disorder exertional rhabdomyolysis (tying-up) when exercised. "We more often see it in a horse that hasn't been warmed up adequately," says Garlinghouse. "It's certainly possible to see it in horses being conditioned at home that aren't being exercised consistently, and more so in horses on a high-concentrate diet that aren't working off all those calories on a regular basis. We also see tying-up much later in an endurance ride as part of 'exhausted horse syndrome,' in which dehydration, electrolyte and energy depletion, and often hyperthermia (elevated body temperature) are contributing factors."

Wanted: Mature Horses

Like any athlete, a trail horse performs better once he's fully mature. No horse can compete in an AERC limited distance event of 25-30 miles until he is 4, says Garlinghouse, and he must be 5 to compete at 50 miles or more. "Horses 9 to 14 years old are considered in their prime, and many continue to compete very successfully into their late teens and 20s," she says.

Aging, miles accumulated, and rough terrain, however, can lead to arthritis. Garlinghouse says most endurance horses eventually deal with some sort of arthritic condition.

"As the sport has a zero-tolerance rule regarding the use of performance-enhancing drugs, including anti-inflammatories such as Bute (phenylbutazone) and Banamine (flunixin meglumine)," she says, "minimizing the effects of arthritis has more to do with prevention than treatment."

Garlinghouse recommends looking for trail prospects that move efficiently and smoothly without excess concussion.

Chaton notes that riders themselves can minimize wear and tear on their horses. For example, she tries not to trot her horses faster than 10 miles per hour. She examines a ride's terrain to get an idea of what her horse will encounter. During the ride Chaton trots her horse in areas with good footing and walks him in rocky, muddy, and sandy conditions. She dismounts and leads him down steep inclines.

Trail horses risk hoof injury due to the terrain they encounter, and owners should be vigilant about promoting hoof health. This starts with a good farrier, Chaton says. Whether to leave the horse barefoot, shod, or use boots depends on individual preference and horse need, but if you do use a boot, Chaton recommends testing it before a ride to be sure it doesn't rub or chafe.

Back problems can occur with trail horses because of the long hours a rider spends in the saddle. Finding the right saddle can help minimize back soreness; however, one of the joys of trail riding is that you don't need fancy, specialized, expensive equipment. "All you need is tack that is functional, comfortable to both horse and rider, and fits both of you like a glove," says Garlinghouse.

Take-Home Message

Knowing your trail horse and what's normal for him will help you keep him healthy. Learn to monitor pulse, capillary refill time, and gut sounds, and keep him well-hydrated. A trail horse needs to be fit for the length and difficulty of trail you attempt. Letting a horse mature and conditioning him properly before he hits the trails regularly can help protect bones, ligaments, and tendons. Recognizing that terrain and miles can lead to arthritis, minimize wear and tear on your trail horse so you can keep him sound and on the trail for many more years.

About the Author

Tracy Gantz

Tracy Gantz is a freelance writer based in Southern California. She is the Southern California correspondent for The Blood-Horse and a regular contributor to Paint Horse Journal, Paint Racing News, and Appaloosa Journal.

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