Endurance is “the ability to withstand hardship or adversity,” according to Merriam-Webster. Acts of “prolonged stressful effort or activity” are emphasized within the definition. The American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) is the national governing body for endurance riding in the United States, with many members and rides in Canada as well. So, what is endurance riding?
Fast Facts about Endurance Riding
AERC defines rides of 50-miles or more over a set trail or course as endurance rides. The horse and rider team must complete the ride in a set amount of time and pass all veterinary inspections. There is a veterinary inspection before the ride begins, several throughout the course of the ride, after completing a “loop,” and then one at the end of the ride. Horses must pass each veterinary inspection as “fit to continue” to complete the ride.
Endurance rides can be 50, 75, or 100 miles. The 100-mile ride is where endurance riding started, and we’ll get to that in a minute. Limited distance rides are between 25 and 35-miles each. These offer an opportunity for riders to work up to full endurance rides, continue riding a horse that is getting older, or as some like to say, just enjoy the luxury distance.
The AERC motto is “To Finish Is To Win” and that really embodies the values and spirit of endurance. It’s about going out there with your horse, and working together over a trail, dealing with all the challenges the day and trail brings and finishing the ride with a happy, healthy, and sound horse.
History of Endurance Riding
Here’s the thing, endurance riding is an international sport now, but it started right here in the United States. People have been riding horses long distances for hundreds of years, especially when they were our primary means of transportation. But endurance riding as we know it was born in Auburn, California in 1955.
Wendell Robie was an avid horseman and businessman from Auburn. He enjoyed riding in the high country of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The old trails used by gold and silver miners in the area were located. Someone commented that they didn’t think modern horses could travel 100-miles in a day anymore.
Wendell and a few of his friends decided to prove them wrong. In August of 1955, they rode 100-miles from Lake Tahoe to Auburn on the historic trail in 24-hours. Endurance riding as we know it was born and the ride is held annually in July. Wendell’s original ride is now called the Western States Trail Ride, or Tevis Cup.
Competing in an endurance ride is a process. Ride camp usually opens one or two days before the actual ride, and earlier for a 100-mile, multi-day, or national competition. All horses must be on-site the day before the ride for the initial veterinary inspection. Veterinarian judges record baseline health data on the horse’s ride card. The judges record updates at each subsequent veterinary checkpoint. Veterinarians assess body condition scores, metabolic parameters, and soundness, among other criteria.
Ride day starts early. If it’s a 100-mile ride, the riders go out at first light, so perhaps around 5 AM. The 100-mile riders have 24 hours to complete the course, including all veterinary checks. The 50-mile riders have 12 hours to complete the ride, including all veterinary checks. The trail opens at a certain time, let’s use our 100-mile example. If the trail opens at 5 AM, all horses competing must be on the trail by 5:15 AM.
Loops of different distances form the trail. The longer the distance you’re riding, the more loops there are. A veterinary inspection and mandatory hold are at the end of each loop. So, the riders might do a 20-mile loop for the first loop of a 100-mile ride. Then, they will come into the veterinary inspection. The horse’s pulse must reach 64 beats per minute (bpm) before the hold time can start.
Once the pulse meets the criteria, the horse has its veterinary inspection. If it passes the veterinary inspection, it completes the mandatory 45-minute hold, and then it heads back out onto the next loop. Crew members care for horses and riders during the hold. Horses eat and rest. Horses that fail the veterinary inspection are trailered back to ride camp. The treatment veterinarian provides additional care.
This cycle continues until the horses and riders finish the entire course. Going back to our 100-mile example. If the ride started at 5 AM, the horses and riders would have until 5 AM the following day to finish the ride. Trails are marked with glow sticks at night. Once they cross the finish line, they still must pass another veterinary inspection before receiving their completion award.
All horses and riders completing a ride receive an award. There are also top ten awards and the best condition award. The horse judged to be in the best condition is presented an award after completing a final veterinary inspection one hour after finishing the ride. Veterinarians use the same parameters from earlier inspections when judging the best condition.
More Than Just Competition
Endurance riding is about more than just the ride you complete the day of an event. Horses and riders form a strong bond during the hours of conditioning required to compete in the sport. It’s also a family sport. Parents and children ride alongside each other to complete a ride.
Finally, endurance riders are part of an active community of trail enthusiasts that advocate for trails, preserve equestrian access to trails, and help maintain them for everyone to use. There are endurance rides all over the country, and many of them use historic trails. What better way to explore new areas than through the ears of a favorite horse?