Conditioning the Competitive Trail Horse

Those of us who have trail ridden and packed into the mountains are very apt to proffer this advice to the beginner or novice who wants to do likewise: Don't take the mountains lightly, because they can be unforgiving. Know what you are doing and be well prepared before you go. That same advice should be given to beginning and novice competitive trail riders: Don't take the competition lightly, because it can be unforgiving. Learn what to do and be well prepared before competing.

That being said, competitive trail riding and endurance riding can be exciting and challenging equine endeavors. These events stimulate the successful human partner in the team to know and understand the equine partner in a way that is rarely attained in other forms of equine sports.

Many riders will start at the competitive trail riding level and, if they find it to their liking, will graduate to endurance riding. Most endurance rides are 50 to 100 miles in length, but there also are 150-mile rides covered in one, two, or three days, and there are limited distance endurance rides of 25 to 35 miles. The sanctioning body for endurance riding is the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC), formed in 1972. It now sanctions about 700 rides per year in North America. We will draw on the AERC's approach to conditioning competitive distance horses.

We also will draw on the expertise of the Upper Midwest Endurance and Competitive Rides Association (UMECRA), a distance riding organization that sanctions both competitive trail rides and endurance rides. There are other organizations involved with competitive and endurance riding, but we will concentrate on the two.

Before we do that, however, let's take a look at one tragic incident that underlines the need for proper conditioning and care of horses that compete in competitive and endurance rides.

High-Level Competition

The year is 2002 and the competition is the 100-mile endurance ride at the World Equestrian Games in Spain. The rules of the ride were that the horses were to maintain an average speed of eight miles per hour over the course that traversed rolling farmland. Along the way, each horse and rider team was required to stop for a pre-determined period of time at four veterinary checks (called veterinary gates by the sponsoring Federation Equestre Internationale, or FEI). At the gates, the horse's respiratory rate and heart rate were monitored to determine if the animal was fit enough to continue.

The night before the contest, a heavy rainstorm turned the course into a quagmire. Ride officials decided that something must be done in light of the deteriorated course. To compensate, they lowered the speed to six miles per hour and lengthened the hold time at each of the first two gates from 30 minutes to 40 minutes.

The winner of the ride was Sheikh Amed bin Mohammed al Maktoum of the United Arab Emirates, finishing the 100 miles in nine hours and 19 minutes. Of the 150 competitors who started the ride, 64 completed it. Up to that point, everything about the event is positive. It didn't stay that way.

During the contest, Floyd, a 9-year-old gelding ridden by Nik Isahak Wan Abdulla of Malaysia, died. After the race, another 9-year-old gelding, this one ridden by Anna Maxenchs Serra of Spain, collapsed and died.

Necropsies were performed on both geldings and the findings indicated that the horses died of metabolic failure associated with fatigue.

The FEI placed investigation of the deaths in the hands of its Judicial Committee. The committee studied all aspects of the tragedy, and in April of 2003 issued its findings. The committee concluded that the cause of death was indeed associated with fatigue and exhaustion. It also stated that a "multiplicity of factors" contributed directly or indirectly to the fatalities and that, accordingly, no assessment of conduct was carried out and no individual was sanctioned.

The committee also recommended that the FEI and its endurance committee should review the current rules for endurance competitions and should improve the communication between all parties involved and strengthen the roles of the veterinarians and other officials.

The committee also stated that it wanted to reinforce the concept that, generally, riders must bear the first responsibility for the horse's well-being during competition.

A point is that the ride was conducted with strict rules and regulations in place and there still were two fatalities. Those rules and regulations have been formulated for a reason. In the early days of competitive riding, there were few rules, and problems with fatigue and fatalities cropped up with some regularity. That led to the establishment of organizations like the AERC and UMECRA.

Yet, when all is said and done, responsibility for the horse's well-being must rest with the rider, and that responsibility starts well before competition with a sound, common-sense conditioning and nutritional program.

AERC Conditioning Outlined

We turn our attention to the AERC Rider Handbook, a compendium that covers everything from how to handle yourself and your horse on contest day to how to condition for the event. We will concentrate on conditioning.

"It should be noted," the handbook states, "that it takes years to give the horse the tendon and ligament foundation to go fast over long distances. By contrast, it is easy to condition muscles and heart quickly. But without the structural foundation, a horse will break down."

Cognizant of the fact that competitive trail riding and endurance riding are not for the very young horse, both UMECRA and AERC have set age requirements. For competitive trail rides sanctioned by UMECRA that are 30 miles or less, the horse must be at least four years of age. If the contest is more than 30 miles long, the horse must be at least five years old.

AERC requires that to compete in rides of 50 miles or longer, the horse must be at least five years of age. To compete in limited events of less mileage, a horse must be at least four years of age.

Riders should note that both organizations have established elaborate rules to protect the horse during a competition, with the veterinarian in charge having unquestioned authority. If, along the route, the veterinarian decides that a horse is too exhausted to continue, there is no appeal. The horse is out of the competition.

Back to conditioning. The AERC suggests that a beginning regimen--providing that the horse is trained to ride and in good health, not being too thin or obese--a starting point in the training program could involve riding two to three miles at about five miles per hour. However, if the horse has been ridden regularly up to this point, they say, one could perhaps double the mileage.

The handbook also offers this advice: "Offer as much variety as you can in your program. Riding over hills is excellent exercise, requiring somewhat different muscular effort than flat terrain. The more places you can go to work, the better. At these early stages, however, take it easy. Young, unfit horses have neither the balance nor the strength to negotiate difficult terrain. Be especially conservative as you tackle downhill grades; they are very destructive to juvenile joints."

The AERC points out that the most accurate single indicator of condition is the horse's pulse rate. It is important to learn to take a horse's pulse rate properly and accurately. To this end, a stethoscope is often the instrument of choice. If you have difficulty in hearing the heartbeat, it would be a good idea to ask for instruction from a veterinarian.

Most horses will have a resting heartbeat of about 44 beats per minute. When traveling over level terrain at a working trot, the heartbeat will increase to anywhere from 90 to 140 beats per minute. At the full gallop, notes the AERC handbook, it can be higher than 200 beats per minute. Many competitive and endurance riders today use heart rate monitors to track their horse's heart rates.

The key to good conditioning is recovery time. The well-conditioned endurance or competitive horse will return to normal or near-normal rates for both heartbeat and respiration in a relatively short period of time--often as little as 10 minutes.

Anyone planning to compete in competitive or endurance rides would do well to obtain the Rider's Handbook. The AERC can be contacted at: AERC, PO Box 6027, Auburn, CA 95604, or

UMECRA Conditioning Outline

Now for a look at what UMECRA suggests for training the competitive trail riding horse. It's a sound, common sense approach that works.

Week One--Start slowly, especially in spring. The first ride of the season might be just walking and slow trotting around a ring or corral. On days two and three, go for a two- or three-mile pleasure ride at a walk on an easy trail. On day four, rest. On days five, six, and seven, take longer rides, four or five miles perhaps, in easy terrain with walking and trotting interspersed. At this stage, you want to be trotting for 20 minutes and walking for 25.

Week Two--Keep the workouts easy and interesting, alternating between arena riding and trail riding. By midweek, you should be able to ride up to one hour at an outing, traveling at a pace--walking and trotting--that will cover between five and six miles. By the end of the week, you might want to seek out terrain that contains hills. Your first encounter with hills should be at the walk only.

Week Three--In the early part of this week, you should have two one-hour rides covering five or six miles each. On the third day, throw in a short ride--about one-half hour in length--with a lot of trotting and some loping. By this time, you should be equally dividing your time walking, trotting, and loping. On the fourth day, rest. On days five, six, and seven, pick up the pace so that by the end of the week you can cover seven miles in one hour.

Week Four--Continue with varied workouts--some slow and easy rides over a long route, others at speed that cover less distance. By the end of week four, you should be able to cover 10 miles in 1 1/2 hours.

Week Five--Time to pick up the pace, getting to the point early in the week where you can cover 12 miles in 1 1/2 hours, and by the end of the week, 15 miles in two hours. In between, rest on day four and travel at slower speed on the other days, but those rides should now be in terrain that's more hilly and rugged, helping the horse develop muscles that will be used in climbing steep hills. It goes without saying that the above isn't the end of the conditioning program. It continues throughout the season, with the type of ride and distance to be covered dictating the training schedule. For more information, contact Diane Kuhn, secretary-treasurer of UMECRA, 1140 70 Ave. SW, Byron, MN 55920, or

There it is, some excellent advice passed along by organizations and individuals within those organizations who have years of experience.

When rider and horse are in excellent physical condition, competitive trail riding and endurance riding can be exhilarating and safe contests. You learn to be in tune with your horse and form an incomparable partnership.

I can provide a personal testament. To this day, the most rewarding honor I have ever won in an equine competition involved having my horse judged the best conditioned of all competitors in a 100-mile endurance ride. Winning the division of that ride paled to insignificance in comparison to having the best-conditioned horse.

The AERC mottos is: "To Finish Is To Win." When you finish and your horse is ready to go on, you are indeed a winner, and so is the horse.



Competitive Trail and Endurance

Competitive trail isn't just another trail ride. As the term implies, it is a competitive event where the horse will be traveling up to seven miles per hour to complete a pre-set distance in a prescribed time. Horses are scored by veterinarians on such factors as pulse and respiration rates, soundness, fatigue, and attitude.

In endurance riding, the winner is the first horse across the finish line in generally a 50- or 100-mile contest. The horses are only allowed to continue the race if they pass all veterinary checks along the way and are declared fit and ready to proceed to the next check point. All horses--including the winner--also must pass those same tests at the end of the ride.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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