Uphill, downhill, through brush, over rocks and deep sand, across streams--this equine athlete carries his rider to a destination. The trail horse travels along a sometimes none-too-defined path, replicating the centuries-old use of the horse as basic transportation.
Today's trail horses provide pleasure and sport rather than a means of transport. Getting from here to there rarely involves a specific errand, but the trail horse still provides you with a reliable ride.
When you ride on the trail, your purpose is to complete a journey. You usually start and end at a certain point, forming a loop. Most riders hit the trail for fun. From the back of a good horse, you'll relish the simple pleasures of the countryside. Just about any horse, pony, or mule can handle the minimal demands of carrying you across flat terrain.
The challenge escalates as your journey becomes longer and the landscape steeper. If you expect to ride for several hours or days, over various elevations and footings, you'll look harder at your horse's athletic abilities and condition.
To seek more adventure, you'll add the spice of competition. You can test yourself against other horses and riders in three popular pursuits: competitive trail riding, ride and tie, and endurance riding.
Rules of the North American Trail Riding Conference govern competitive trail riding. Here, a horsemanship judge and a veterinarian score the entrants on manners, soundness, and condition. The horse must be fit enough to complete the ride within time constraints, and trained to perform over obstacles. Riders go for distance, not speed, and classes are judged over the same trail in the same length of time.
In ride and tie, two riders share a single horse in a fast-paced endurance race for equine and human athletes. All entrants sprint from a starting point, with the horse and rider quickly outdistancing the partner on foot. The rider halts along the trail, ties the horse, and sets off running. The other racer meets up with the horse and mounts to pass the first rider, for another switch down the trail. Veterinarians monitor horses' welfare during the competition.
Mike Tomlinson, DVM, of Yucaipa, Calif., has competed in ride and tie races up to 36 miles.
"The ride and tie horse goes faster than the endurance horse for shorter distances," said Tomlinson. "It is more strenuous, on the shorter distance."
Endurance rides are marathons that test horse and rider for distances ranging from 50 to 100 miles in
a day. Rides are sanctioned by the American Endurance Riding Conference.
The horses stop at veterinary check points to rest and recover. The ride veterinarian judges whether each animal is fit to continue, based on the horse's metabolic and mechanical recovery. The horse must pass a final inspection when he finishes the ride.
Comparing endurance to ride and tie, Tomlinson said, "You push the horse to go to the limit of his fitness on both rides. Endurance is a more even pace, but the health issues on both rides are similar. I see the same problems with either ride."
Endurance riding is the one international discipline dominated by Americans. In
November 1997, the world's best endurance riders will compete in the World Cup, sponsored by the Qatar Equestrian Federation. The Pan American Championship, in Bend, Oregon, in September is currently the only American qualifier for the final of the World Cup.
Selection for Competition
Competing in the more strenuous rides demands an equine athlete. Veterinarians scrutinize animals' fitness before, during, and after the ride. They examine how the horse's musculoskeletal and metabolic systems perform over the trail. Only sound, healthy horses are allowed to compete, and failing any exam results in forced withdrawal from the ride.
An endurance horse must have a sturdy build, with a deep chest and well-sprung ribs. To carry his rider over long miles, he needs substantial legs. Nancy Loving, DVM, of Boulder, Colo., said, "The size of the bone and joint are more important than the actual angles. We look for the formula of eight inches of bone per 1,000 pounds of horse, measured at the top of the cannon bone. The bigger the bone, the bigger the joints, the more the horse can sustain the impact." She added that a finer-boned horse doesn't hold up as well as the horse of larger bone.
These horses display the same traits as other sport horses: short cannon bones, long forearms, and pasterns of medium length and slope.
"The winning horse doesn't look out of the ordinary," said Tomlinson. "Extremes, I don't see winning, such as extremely sloped or flat shoulders, overly long or short pasterns, or an extremely large or small size. If one thing would be key, it would be that the horse doesn't have any true defects. He just looks healthy."
Kerry Ridgway, DVM, of Sonoma, Calif., recommended a horse of angular and wiry build.
"The muscular appearance should be similar to the muscles of a human runner, long and tapered, versus the horse with short, bunchy, heavy muscles," said Ridgway. "Long, tapered muscles are evidence of a good percentage of 'Slow Twitch - Type I' muscle fibers." He added that outstanding competitors have about 25% muscles of this type, along with a sizable percentage of Fast Twitch muscle fibers for explosive action.
The fit endurance horse looks streamlined. Rider and trainer Sharon Saare, a saddlemaker from Berthoud, Colo., prefers a horse of narrow build. She compared a wide body to a narrow one: "The wide horse retains more body heat and gets tired faster. He has more muscle mass to create body waste. It's like taking a roast out of the oven--it stays hot. You slice it, and it cools off. The narrow horse is like sliced roast."
The slim, fit athlete needs a strong constitution to handle the stresses of speed and distance. Tomlinson noted, "To do 50 miles, the horse has to have some weight on him. You have to rely on some body fat to get through a 100-mile race. You work a balance between the leanest, meanest machine and a horse with the reserve and the capacity to go."
Ridgway advised choosing the horse with a large, athletic heart. Heart size relates to cardiac output. He explained: "The amount of blood that can be pumped in a single stroke determines the amount of oxygen and nutrients that can be delivered at the cellular level. A heart that can contain and put out an extra 200 ml of blood per stroke pumps an extra liter every five beats. This means it can beat about 20% more
slowly--do 20% less work--and still maintain the level of performance."
Horses of Arabian breeding have dominated these competitions, as they have been bred for ground-covering traits. Purebreds and Arabian crosses are handy in challenging terrain.
"They're extremely efficient and don't build up a lot of toxic by-products," said Loving. "They're rugged, they have big hearts, and a lot of will."
Saare mentioned another breed, the Akhal Teke, as outstanding in the sport. "What I like about this breed is that they have a lot of those old European characteristics--narrow, flat shoulders, and withers higher than the croup."
Sound feet are crucial on the trail. Saare looks for a pyramid-shaped foot, with the base of the foot larger than the coronary band.
"A big-sized, strong foot is paramount," said Loving. "It has to be tough to withstand traveling over tough, rocky ground, with a good cup to the bottom of the foot." She cautioned that a horse without good feet isn't suited for the continual concussion of endurance riding: "Put him back in the barn!"
The horse must have an obedient temperament, so the rider can rate his speed. The competitive trail horse is calm and well-mannered, to carry his rider safely over the obstacles on the trail. In endurance and ride and tie, riders look for boldness and independence. The horse needs confidence to set off on an unfamiliar trail.
Ridgway added, "It sometimes helps if the horse is dominant, since other horses tend to defer to them in a competitive situation or let them set the pace. It is far preferable to have others ride 'your ride' rather than you ending up riding 'their ride.' "
Rider Becky Hart has won the individual Endurance World Championship three-times on her Arabian R.O. Grand Sultan. She said, "What makes him a good endurance horse is that mechanically he's put together very well. He's got short cannons, deep heart girth--all the things you look for in a good endurance horse. Along with the conformation, he's got the heart and desire. He does it because he loves it."
Built to Move
On the trail, horses perform repeated forward movement. Horses in competition work at all three gaits, mostly at the trot. The winning horse must move correctly at the basic gait of an extended trot. He has long strides that float over the ground.
Ridgway looks for a horse with good ground clearance. "I see no reason for the horse to step more than six inches off the ground at the highest point of the stride. However, a daisy clipper can be too low. Look for a stride from three or four up to six inches at the highest arc."
Straight legs help the horse travel straight, without winging or paddling.
"You shouldn't see any wobbles to the hocks," said Ridgway. "The hocks should look like they rotate in a circle, like a flywheel."
"You need a horse that's very efficient in his stride," advised Loving. "He doesn't move with high action. He shouldn't stumble." She pointed out how the horse's body should form thirds of forequarter, middle, and hindquarter. The structure should include a long shoulder and an equilateral triangle formed by the points of buttock, stifle, and hip.
The trail horse should track well and not tend to interfere. Saare tests horses on the extended trot slightly downhill. She explained, "The horse will make his fastest time going downhill at the trot. If he overreaches and cuts himself, he's more likely to do it going downhill."
Certain deviations should eliminate a prospective endurance horse. Ridgway listed these faults: calf-kneed, bench kneed, sickle-hocked, spavin changes or other arthritic problems, toed-in, suspensory ligament pain or damage, and bowed tendon. He cautioned against the toed-out horse: "Interference problems associated with an excessive toe out posture (especially if the horse is base narrow) are the most common faults seen in endurance horses. This is, perhaps, the case because it is such a common Arabian fault in a sport dominated by Arabians. It is a problem of such magnitude that one would do well to reject any candidate with evidence of significant interference or marked toe out conformation."
The horse must be comfortable carrying saddle and rider, and the shape of withers and shoulder affects saddle fit. Withers that blend into the thorax hold the saddle in place.
Saare prefers a shoulder that blends into the horse's side, so the scapula slides easily under the saddle. "I want a flat, slab shoulder. The flatter and easier that transition is, the less interference the horse will have in the shoulder."
An uphill conformation--withers slightly higher than the croup--reduces the weight carried on the forehand and front legs. This structure also enhances the strength of the horse's back. A strong back resists soreness from the pressure of the rider or saddle.
"If the horse is higher in front than his loin, and his back is relatively straight, that usually leads to a good, strong loin," said Saare. "I see the worst weakness from the horse higher in the croup."
A fairly level topline shows strength, although the horse's back has an innate curve. Ridgway said, "You need a natural curving process so the spine maintains its integrity. The curve varies at the arc, 15 to 20 degrees. I find that the typical Arabian has a 20 to 25 degree in the arc."
The sloping croup also helps the endurance horse handle hills. With this conformation, the horse usually has his hind legs set underneath himself. He can "scoot" under himself going downhill.
"You want that slope to the croup so he can push with the rear end," said Loving. "It's essential that he develop a strong topline and abdominals."
Demands of the Trail
Long, hard rides stress the horse. "The limiting factor on how well a horse remains athletically sound would be the feet," said Loving. She ranked tendons, suspensory ligaments, and the fetlock joint as second to feet. "Horses can bow a tendon, often with the sustained extended trot or downhill work. They can end up with high suspensory problems from the speed work. Fetlocks often develop arthritis from the pounding and concussion over time." She noted that hock problems aren't as prevalent as the lower leg problems in the front.
With repeated movement, horses do wear out their joints faster. Tomlinson described the condition as wear and tear. "It's joint inflammation; secondary degenerative joint disease. The joint doesn't move as smooth and fluid as earlier in life." He has found that pharmaceuticals like polysulfated glycosaminoglycan can help older, moderately arthritic horses to compete longer with no side effects.
Loving sees such damage as inevitable. "These horses are like football players. The trick is keeping them sound for 15 years--it can be done with good genetics, training, and strategy."
Riders can cause soundness problems. A too-narrow saddle causes shoulder lameness, which can show up as front foot lameness. A sore loin results in hind leg lameness, as the horse tries to protect his back.
The rider's equitation can cause a horse's stiff muscles and compensatory lameness. Allowing the horse to trot in a strung-out posture results in the horse bracing his body.
Some riders push their horses to complete a 100-mile race in nine hours, averaging speeds as high as 15 miles per hour in segments. "Speed is what hurts our horses," said Loving.
To complete a ride in good condition, the endurance horse must maximize energy to move forward, while avoiding dehydration. He combats fatigue by dissipating heat and "cooling his jets."
Ridgway noted that the thin-skinned horse has an advantage, as the blood vessels are closer to the surface of the skin. "A smaller animal with a large heart girth of say, 68 inches or more, also has a better potential for heat dispersal because of the relationship of body surface area to mass."
Tomlinson said, "We look for the smallest overall body, with the largest legs and largest heart and lungs. Sweating takes a lot of energy to remove heat. The smaller the mass, the more surface area to body mass ratio. It's easier to dissipate heat."
He added that constantly stressing the horse with frequent competitions burns up the animal's reserve. "When the body is tired, the neuromuscular system goes. The horse is more prone to injuries because he's sloppy in his movements."
He advised riders to back off, noting that he sees people trying to maintain the horse at its peak of condition. "You will break down the horse if you compete day-in and day-out."
What carries horses beyond their physical abilities is heart. Tomlinson said, "One mindset does beat out all the others--it is 'I will win.' You can't go 50 or 100 miles at speed and not hurt somewhere. That's what separates the horse that quits from one who says, 'I've got to beat that guy in front of me.' You have to merge that mindset with a body that can withstand it."
About the Author
Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.