Endurance Riding 101

Last Updated on February 26, 2022 by Allison Price

This series is from Lari Shea (owner of California’s Ricochet Ridge Ranch), endurance champion and trail guru. This issue: An eight-step guide for endurance riding competitively.

Lari Shea, a seasoned endurance rider, says that most people enter endurance events to not win but to ride beautiful trails. “There is also camaraderie, like riding with friends, camping in beautiful places, and the camaraderie of other spirits.”

Lari Shea

Why ride endurance?

[READ: What’s Endurance Riding?]

“For the pure joy of it!” Lari Shea is an avid endurance rider and winner who has completed over 6,500 miles in both 50- and 100-mile endurance rides.

Shea says it’s a very personal sport. It’s all about the challenge you and your horse face. It’s all about the enjoyment of it!

Endurance riders believe that “to win is to finish.” This belief is the foundation of the American Endurance Ride Conference.

Shea points out that every rider receives the same award. “Endurance riders understand that someone who is out there for 10-12 hours is equally worthy of the award as someone who is out there for 5-6 hours.

Shea says, “Most people enter events to ride beautiful trails and well-marked trails. They don’t want to win.” Shea says, “Most people enter events not to win but to ride beautiful, well-marked trails.” Follow Shea’s eight step guide to getting started if you are an avid trail rider and want to try endurance riding.
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1. Learn More Endurance rides sanctioned and approved by the AERC must be closely monitored to ensure the safety and health of horses.

Credit: Lari Shea. Shea notes that the American Endurance Ride Conference riders and veterinarians are extremely helpful and encouraging. John Fenger, an AERC competitor, is seen here riding Pryvate Party and pointing out a turn to his left during a Mendo Magic Endurance Ride.

The shortest AERC-approved ride is 25 miles. It is also called “Limited Distance” (or “Luxury Distance,” to Shea and other endurance riders. A 25-mile ride takes six hours.

A 50-mile ride takes 12 hours, while a 100-mile ride takes 24 hours.

Volunteer at an event to learn more about endurance riding.

“This will allow you to see what happens at an AERC event, and how veterinary care is performed.”
Shea states that checks are made.

AERC sanctioned events can be found all over the country. Go to
The AERC website ( www.aerc.org).

2. Find the right horse

Although Arabians and part Arabians are the most popular breeds for 100-mile rides in the Arabian or part-Arabi countries, it doesn’t matter if your horse is bred differently. It doesn’t matter if your horse is well-conditioned, efficient, or sound.

Shea says, “You’ll find nearly every breed of horse from warmbloods and Icelandics to mules.” “Gaited horses such as Tennessee Walkers have done well. National championships were won by Morgans and Quarter Horses.

“Many half-drafts and grade horses compete at all levels. A Friesian gelding often completes 25-to 35-mile Limited Distance AERC races here in California. A half-Friesian top 10 and wins Best Condition at 100 miles.

For the most part, it doesn’t really matter how big you are. Shea explains, “For many years, I competed with great results in 50-milers aboard a 12.2-hand-high Welsh/Arabian cross mare named Sham.” At first, people thought I brought a pony to camp with me. Nope. Sham was my personal winning endurance horse.”

Horses often become better with age, which is the beauty of endurance riding. Many riders have ridden the same horse for ten to twenty years.
Shea points out that she was at a 50-mile endurance race where four of the topfive horses were in 20s and the ride was won the 21-year-old horse.
“Many horses can still be as strong as ever in their teens, and some can even go on.”
To be able to maintain endurance long into their 20s. These athletes are often fit and live well into their 30s.

3. Find the Right Approach

You can test your horse’s fitness by riding him for at least an hour in a walk-and-trot, with some cantering, on varied terrain. Next, check your horse’s pulse. If your horse has enough water, it should be able to recover to 60 beats per hour (bpm) in 15 minutes. You can also cool him with water splashed or running.

Lari Shea

Before you start a ride or conditioning your horse, make sure that the tack is properly fitted. It can make a big difference in training or on long rides.

Endurance riders can ride in English, Australian, treeless, paneled or Australian saddles. No matter what type of saddle you choose, make sure it is high-quality and provides plenty of contact with your horse’s back.

Before you ride, make sure your equipment is well-maintained and properly broken in.

4. Condition your Horse

It can take up to three years for a horse who hasn’t been ridden infrequently to reach his peak condition. You don’t need to wait so long to start your first endurance ride.

Riders who complete the ride in the top 10 percent are eligible to receive the prestigious Best Conditions award. Shea explains that this award is for the horse with the highest veterinary score and the most time and rider/tack weight. Shea, riding Rascal, her endurance horse, crosses the finish line at Chamberlain Creek’s 50-Mile Ride.

Nancy Barth

Shea says that it takes six months to prepare soft tissue and the heart. It takes one year to prepare tendons and ligaments and it takes two to three years for bone to be remodelled. Nearly any horse over 4 years of age (I prefer horses 5 and older) and who is regularly ridden should be able complete a 25-mile ride at an AERC race.

Assess your horse’s fitness level and your own.

Shea says, “You and your horse should feel at home on a two to three-hour trail ride. It alternates between trotting and walking with maybe a few canters.” You will also need to climb and descend some hills.

Your horse’s environment can impact his health. He’ll be healthier if he has the opportunity to ride around in an area with varied terrain all day, rather than being kept in a small corral or stall.

Conditioning programs must include “long slow Distance” (LSD) work. This is a trot that alternates with walks.

Your goal is to gradually expose your horse to higher levels of physical demands, but in small but steady increments.
Shea says, “Riding for an hour to two a few times during the week and a longer ride on weekends should be enough.”

You can test your horse’s fitness by riding him for at least an hour in a walk-and-trot, with some cantering, on varied terrain. Next, check your horse’s pulse. If your horse has enough water, it should be able to recover to 60 beats per hour (bpm) in 15 minutes. You can also cool him with water splashed or running.

5. Take a ride

A 25-mile ride is a good place to start if you are ready to enter your first race. You will typically arrive at the campsite one day before the event. For you to ride, your horse must be presented to the veterinarians.
Don’t be afraid to tell people that you are new to the sport.

Shea notes that the AERC riders and veterinarians are extremely helpful and encouraging. “We even offer a mentoring program. (Contact the AERC to find a mentor near you.)

Tell the ride manager if this is your first endurance ride.

Shea notes that everyone is given a map and invited to the Ride Meeting. Shea notes that there is also a meeting for newbies the night before the ride. This provides a detailed explanation of everything. If you don’t have one, the ride manager can arrange for someone to ride along with you during the event. A rider who isn’t looking to go fast will be able to partner up with you. Your veteran endurance horse will be your companion and comfort.

The competition should not be viewed as a race against other horses or riders. Consider it an opportunity for improvement and enjoyment. It is a chance to discover more about yourself, your horse and your weaknesses.
You want to finish. So pace yourself and learn as you go. The sport has one rule: Ride your bike.

6. Get ready for Vet Checks

The horses’ health and condition are assessed by veterinary checks that are performed before, during, and after each ride. Vet checks are used to prevent horses from becoming distressed.

Shea says, “The vets will help you take care your horse throughout the ride.” They aren’t trying to be picky, they’re there to help your horse’s wellbeing.”

Each vet check time is recorded. However, there is a mandatory hold time of 15, 20, 30 or 60 minutes (this varies depending on the vet check) before you leave the area.

The time you are waiting to be checked in at the vet is not the start of the hold time. It starts when your horse’s pulse drops below the required rate. This varies depending on the ride. 60 bpm is normal, but 64 bpm or lower is required.

Shea explains, “Say that you go to the vet at 9:03 a.m. and your horse’s pulse rate drops three minutes later.” Shea says, “Then the hold would begin at 9:03 a.m.”

The veterinarian will monitor your horse’s movement (soundness), dehydration (including capillary refill time), gut sounds and attitude during the check. Your horse’s health will be checked by the vet to determine if there are any injuries from tack or trail.

A healthy horse will experience a rapid drop in pulse rate, often within minutes. You can expect your horse’s pulse rate to drop within 10 minutes if he is healthy.

Shea says, “If your horse’s recovery time is longer than 10 minutes you’re allowing it to go faster than it should.”

AERC rules stipulate that horses that take more than 30 minutes to heal are disqualified from riding. You’ll then re-tack, mount and continue the ride.

Riders often make use of vet checks to their advantage. Shea says, “If you ride smart, you can actually pass’ other horses at the vet check.” You can leave earlier if your horse’s pulse rate drops faster than the others in the vet check.

It’s also possible to do the opposite. Shea says, “Don’t push your horse to the limit if he’s not as fit as another horse. It’ll take longer for the vet to check your horse’s pulse.

The horses’ health is assessed during, after, and before the ride. Any horse found not fit to continue is removed. A rider rides her horse to the vet to inspect locomotion and soundness.

Lari Shea

7. Follow Finish-Line Protocol

It is vital that your horse is in good health. He must pass not only the pre-ride vet check but also the post-ride vet exam.

Shea says, “On a Limited Distance ride your horse’s ride doesn’t stop until he pulses down.” You cross the finish line and check your horse’s pulse. You call out “time!” when it reaches the specified criteria.

Your horse’s pulse will be checked by a ride official who will announce the time. If more than one horse crosses the finish line simultaneously, the winner will be the horse with the lowest pulse, provided that the horse passes the post-ride vet inspection.

Your finishing time for endurance rides of 50 miles or longer is when you reach the finish line. Your ride time is determined from the beginning of the ride, minus any vet-check hold periods.

Shea explains, “For example, if you start at 7:00 am and end at 3:00 pm, your ending time is 3:00 pm.” Your ride time will be 6.5 hours if you have 1.5 hours to hold your horse at vet checks. Your horse must still pass the post-ride veterinarian check.

Your horse must pass the post-ride vet exam and be considered “fit for continuing,” even if you have completed the ride.

Shea notes that knowing that horses must pass the same vet checks at the end of the ride and during the ride can help to prevent people from “over riding” during the last phase.

A horse that tests lame will “flunk,” the vet at the end of the ride. This applies even if the horse has a great attitude, low pulse rate and has no tack sores. Riders who complete the ride within the time allotted will be the most satisfied.
The coveted Best Conditions award is open to the top 10 finalists.

This is the most prestigious award. This award is given to the horse that has the highest veterinary score combined with the most time and rider/tackweight carried.” Shea says, “This is the most prestigious award.” Shea is honored that 31 of her horses have been awarded Best Condition.

Shea notes that if two riders finish together and their horses have the identical vet score, the horse with the highest weight would win Best Condition.

The metabolic and locomotive factors are considered the best conditions. You will trot your horse in the hand and circle him in each direction. Most endurance rides end with an awards banquet or barbecue.

8. Follow the After-Ride Protocol

To double ensure your horse’s safety, you should not leave the riding camp until your horse has been checked by a veterinarian at least two hours after your ride.

An endurance rider who is experienced in riding can also be a great help. You can learn from them how to restore your horse’s energy.
To check for heat, swelling, filling or other unusualities after the ride, you can run your hands across your horse’s legs and body. Pay close attention to how your horse behaves, what he eats, and how much water you are giving him. Pay attention to his urine and manure.

The day following your ride, you’ll likely trailer home. You can exercise your horse for 10-15 minutes before loading him into the trailer. Trot him out to observe his movements.

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