Endurance Riding: A Humane Use of the Equine Athlete

Similar to the increase in number of marathons and ultramarathons for human athletes, equine endurance competitions in distances of 50-100 miles have become increasingly popular over the past couple of decades. The growing interest in endurance riding has encouraged participants with different levels of prior horse experience to become involved with the sport. However, if equine athletes are asked to perform over distances for which they have not been appropriately trained or if equine athletes are competed aggressively, lameness and/or fluid and electrolyte depletion leading to exhaustion might develop. When adverse ambient conditions are coupled with competition by novice riders, it becomes apparent how equine endurance athletes, in comparison to their human counterparts, could be at greater risk for development of problems during long distance competition. Unfortunately, there is a paucity of published data on completion rates for endurance rides. This type of information, including changes over time, could be useful to equine practitioners to support that endurance riding is a humane use of the horse. Thus, we collected information from the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) to assess completion rates and to document reasons for withdrawal from competition.

Materials and Methods

Completion rates for 50 and 100 mile endurance rides, as well as the total number of sanctioned rides, were collected from the AERC's Annual Yearbook of Endurance Riding for 1989 through 1995. Further, results were obtained from the AERC's Head Veterinarian's Post-Ride Report forms for all 1996 AERC sanctioned rides. This form details the number of horses which fail to complete the competition ("pulls") and further categorizes the reasons for failure into lameness, metabolic disorders, or other problems. The latter category may include lameness and metabolic disturbances, as well as a number of other problems (lost shoe, lacerations, saddle sores, rider injury, or fatigue, etc.) for which the rider elected to remove the horse from competition, rather than be "pulled" from competition by ride veterinarians.

Results

In 1989, 50 mile rides had 8,158 starters and 87% finished; 100 mile rides had 1,294 starters and 71% finished. In 1995, the 50 and 100 mile rides had 8,402 and 1,425 starters and 85% and 67% finished, respectively. For the 1996 season, AERC's Head Veterinarian's Post-Ride Reports revealed that lameness, metabolic disturbances, and other problems were the reasons for failure to finish for 53%, 18%, and 29% of horses, respectively. Of the reported metabolic disturbances, 44% required medical treatment whereas 6% of the lameness required further treatment. Although details about the type of lameness or metabolic disturbances were not requested on the form, several veterinarians voluntarily provided this type of additional information. Unfortunately, in many other instances, reports were incomplete.

Discussion

Endurance riding is a challenging athletic endeavor. As a consequence, a substantial number of horses fail to complete the rides. However, AERC data showed little change in completion rates between the years of 1989 and 1995. It is important to emphasize that horses competing in these rides are strictly monitored at the veterinary checkpoints during the rides. As a result, increased veterinary attention during the ride would unlikely have a significant impact on completion rates. From the authors' collective experience at a number of rides, more stringent entry requirements for the 50, and especially the 100, mile rides would likely improve completion rates.

During the 1996 season, failure to complete was due to development of lameness, metabolic disturbances, and other problems in 53%, 18%, and 29% of instances, respectively. This is an important piece of information as it provides direction for future research on endurance horses. Unfortunately, the post-ride reports did not specify the distance of the ride or the stage of the ride at which these problems occurred. Further, these reports failed to provide information about the nature of the lameness, metabolic disturbance, or other problems. Finally, regional inconsistency in categorization of "pulls" made it impossible to determine if development of metabolic problems is a greater risk in southern regions with higher heat and humidity. In order to evaluate these problems better, a more efficient system of recording and improved participation by ride managers and head veterinarians will be necessary.

In conclusion, the AERC is to be commended for the strict veterinary supervision which has been required for years at checkpoints before, during, and after the rides. However, there is always room for improvement, and our findings indicate that more stringent entry requirements, especially for the longer rides, could be of considerable benefit to this equine sport. Such changes would go hand in hand with improving rider education, especially for novice riders. Finally, improvement of the AERC's Head Veterinarian's Post-Ride Reports for horses which fail to complete would provide invaluable information and provide direction for future study of endurance horse problems.

Take Home Message

Out of nearly 10,000 annual starts, completion rates for 50 and 100 mile endurance rides are about 80% and 70%, respectively. Development of lameness is the main reason horses fail to finish (53%), with metabolic (18%) and other (29%) problems responsible for failure in the remainder of "pulled" horses. Since endurance horses receive close veterinary attention before and during the ride, improvement in completion rates more likely would be achieved with more stringent entry requirements and with rider education than with increased veterinary supervision.

The authors are Harold C. Schott, DVM, PhD; Nicholas J. Cassotis, BS; and Susan W. Eberhart, LVT .

About the Author

American Association of Equine Practitioners

AAEP Mission: To improve the health and welfare of the horse, to further the professional development of its members, and to provide resources and leadership for the benefit of the equine industry. More information: www.aaep.org.

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