Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Kiwarrak Cup NSW - October 2009

This was my very first attempt to do an 80km ride. Needless to say I was petrified. Luckily for me, Jim (the horse I was riding) was a veteran of endurance and knew what he was doing. I'd done a couple of smaller rides on Jim in the lead up to the event and he was feeling pretty good. Even so, I was still really nervous.

Jim had "EasyBoot Gloves" on his front hooves, and went barefoot on his back hooves. We set out just before dawn, but even without heat from the sun the air was still thick with humidity. It only got worse when the sun came up. By eight o'clock it felt like I was riding through a sauna. The track seemed nice enough, but add stifling heat and suffocating humidity and you've got yourself one difficult ride. Disaster struck at the end of the first leg when my riding partner, Colin, felt his horse go lame. An injury sustained over a week ago had flared up without warning and the horse was sore in his left hind leg. Sure enough the vets picked it up during the vet check and Colin was vetted out. Jim and I had better luck, passing the vet check with flying colours, which left me to do the second leg alone.

The temperature was soaring towards 30 degrees Celsius and sweat was pouring off both me and the horse. I took every opportunity to offer Jim water and let him pick at the grass in the shade to help him cool down. I met some lovely new people out on track who thought it was rather amusing to see a horse wearing "sneakers." I had a good laugh with them about it and we finished together in a time of 8hrs. Jim passed the final vet check with an overall score of "A" and heart rates of 35, 38 and 42. I was hot, sweaty and completely knackered... but I'd gotten my first 80km Buckle!

My first ever 80km ride buckle

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Basics for beginners

I asked a few of my non-endurance horsey friends on Facebook what they would like to know about endurance. Most of the questions were on how to get started. I cover some of this stuff in my previous blog post Endurance Riding for Dummies but I'll go into more detail about training and preparation in this post.

Question 1: How do beginners start out conditioning?

This is an extract from the AERA website on training a horse for it's first 40km ride.

"Long slow distance work is the basis of preparing a novice horse for a training ride. You should plan on riding the horse three to five times per week and allow twelve weeks to get an inexperienced horse fit for its first 40 kilometre training ride. Always remember that rest is critical to the conditioning of an endurance horse as it allows the horse to recover from the stress of training. The training sessions should each be about 1 hour in length with a longer session of two hours or more included once per week.

For Weeks 1 and 2 the horse should be "legged up" at the walk only over flat terrain. Although this is relatively boring for the rider it is crucial to build strength in the legs and condition the horse for its future training. During this period it is a good idea to teach your horse to walk-out as fast as possible so that the conditioning effect is maximised and it will also help you to cover more ground later at rides. For the average horse this will mean covering about 5 to 6 kilometres in a one hour training session and 10 to 12 kilometres in a two hour training session.

For Weeks 3 and 4 you can begin to introduce some trotting (up to 10 minutes per one hour session) interspersed with the walking. When you commence trotting it should initially be for only short distances but gradually increased. During this period you should work on trotting the horse on opposite leads so that it remains even gaited and builds its muscular strength equally on both sides. It is also recommended that you work the horse at different speeds in the trot to develop the horses ability to go along at various speeds and try to cultivate the horse with a calm but confident manner.

For Weeks 5 and 6 increase the trotting to 20 minutes per one-hour session and introduce some hill work. Endurance rides will generally involve some substantial hill work and if you do not have access to bills on which to train it would be wise to float your horse to an area where this is possible. Initially you should walk the horse up the hills and as his fitness improves begin to trot up some of the easier hills. Downhill work this early on should be done at the walk because trotting downhill is hard on a horses legs and you are still looking to strengthen and condition.

From now on each fortnight you should increase the amount of trotting gradually (say an increase of 10 minutes per one hour session) and try to incorporate hill work where possible. At this point YOU could also begin to introduce some easy cantering in the same way that you did with the trotting. By the end of week 8 you should be approximately walking half the time and trotting half the time. For the average horse this will mean covering 9 to 10 kilometres per hour. At this point it would be good to do a 20 km intro ride if there was one available.

Two weeks before the training ride the horse should be given about a 30 km trial run which would take about two and a half to three hours to complete. This will allow you to check how the horse copes without the excitement of the ride. If all has gone to plan and you have had no problems or received no setbacks as a result of lameness etc. then your horse will be ready to attempt his first training ride."
Now, while this is a guideline on how to get a horse fit for a 40km Training Ride, it's probably a good idea to aim for a 20km Social Ride first as suggested. This will give you a good indication of how your horse is coping physically. If your horse hasn't recovered well after doing a 20km Social Ride then you should probably reconsider doing a 40km Training Ride.

Question 2: How do I find out what rides are on in my area?

A calendar of endurance events is available on each State's website. They should specify what distances are available, but if in doubt contact the ride organiser for more information.

NSW website   QLD website   VIC website   SA website   WA website   TAS website

Question 3: What gear do I need to do endurance?

Saddles & Bridles : You don't need a special saddle or bridle to do endurance. You can ride in whatever you and your horse are most comfortable with - you can even ride bareback in a halter if you like! There are people doing endurance in dressage saddles, all purpose saddles, stock saddles, treeless saddles, swinging fender saddles, military saddles... just about any saddle you can think of. It really comes down to personal preference. The most important thing to consider when choosing a saddle for endurance is comfort, because you're going to be riding in it for a very long time. It's also a good idea to make sure your saddle fits correctly before you start training, but I'm guessing you already knew that! Bridles and bits come in all shapes and sizes, from snaffles to hackamores and even bitless. The only rule is that the gear you use gives you full control your horse, so don't ride in a halter unless you're one hundred percent confident you can control your horse in it. Tip: avoid riding in a saddle with large knee rolls as your legs will be too far back going downhill.

Safety Gear : All riders must wear helmets that meet the AS/NZ 3838 standard. No bicycle helmets allowed. If you decide to wear sneakers or flat-soled shoes, you must have safety cages fitted to your stirrup irons so your feet can't get stuck.

Optional Extras : A padded breastplate will prevent your saddle from slipping back when going uphill - if you're doing a ride with hills in it then I'd strongly recommend using one. A crupper fits under your horse's tail and prevents the saddle sliding too far forward - I personally haven't used one, but some people like them.

These are just the basics to get you started. Like with any discipline, there are the bare essentials and there are the frills! There's no point rushing out to buy a tonne of new gear because chances are you probably won't need it yet. Start by using what you've got, and if you really like endurance you can buy more gear as you go. You'll get a much better idea of what gear you need simply by riding.

Well, there you have it. Hopefully I've answered some of your questions about endurance and inspired you to give it a go. It's really not that scary, I promise. So what are you waiting for? Get out there!

Endurance is suitable for people of all ages!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Endurance for dummies :P

I don't know about the rest of you, but I knew nothing about endurance before I got into it. For me it was this abstract discipline. Nobody in my area did endurance, so I didn't even have someone I could ask.

Fortunately there are lots of helpful articles on getting started in endurance and I devoured these in no time. If you visit the AERA website there is some fantastic information under the "Starting Out" section. They cover everything from feeding & training to strapping & ride etiquette. There are also magazines available on the Dixon Smith website that will help you get started - I highly recommend the "Endurance - Beginners to Advanced" series. There is certainly a lot of information available on the subject, but if you're feeling overwhelmed at the thought of all that reading, I'll try to summarise what you need to know before doing your first 20km social ride.

Your first question is probably "Can I do endurance on the horse I have now?" The answer is usually "Yes," but it needs to be stressed that there is a big difference between having a go at endurance and being competitive. Think of it this way - you can have a go at showjumping on a Quarter Horse, but you probably won't make it to the next Olympics. Eventually you'll reach a point where you need a horse that is purpose-bred for the discipline, but if all you want to do is dip your toes in to see if you like it then your current neddy should be fine. The average riding horse could probably handle a 20km social ride, so there's no need to rush out and buy Horse Deals just yet!

Your second question is probably "What sort of training do I need to do?" The answer is "LSD - Long Slow Distance." LSD is basically what it sounds like. Spending a Long time in the saddle, taking it real Slow, and riding for a reasonable Distance. Two to three hours of walking with a little bit of trot is a good place to start, assuming your horse is already being ridden quite regularly. If you have a young horse or a horse just coming back from a spell, then you'll probably want to build up their fitness in the arena first before starting LSD work. The trick is to never increase distance and speed at the same time. If you're planning to ride further then don't ride faster, and vice versa. There is a very in depth explanation of how to get a horse fit for endurance under the "Starting Out" section of the AERA website (see link above).

Your third question is probably "What can I expect at my first ride?" The answer is "Organised chaos!" The ride base is a very busy place. There are horses whinnying, people hurrying back and forth, and lots and lots of tents! Once you've found a spot to park (a challenge in itself) and settled your horse, you'll be required to register for the ride. There's usually a registration tent or office with all the paperwork you need to fill out - just look for the line of people. You'll need to complete an entry form, sign a waiver, and apply for a "day membership" which covers you for the duration of the event. When paying the entry fee, most places only accept cash so make sure you bring enough with you. You'll be issued with a "pink card" which is where all your information for the ride is recorded. The person at the office will then hand you a bib with your rider number on it. You need to wear this bib when vetting your horse as well as during the ride. This makes it easy for ride officials identify you and prevents confusion when there's a big crowd of people waiting to vet their horse.

Now you've done all that the next step is to vet your horse. First stop is the TPR. A TPR is a volunteer who takes your horse's Temperature Pulse and Respiration. It's usually a good idea to practice doing this stuff at home before going to a ride. Some horses will object to having a thermometer stuck up their bottom, and others may refuse to stand still for a full minute to get their heart rate taken. It isn't fair to the TPR if you turn up with a horse that is completely unfamiliar with the procedures. For those of you who don't know, normal temperature for a horse is between 37.5 and 38.5 degrees Celsius, normal resting heart rate is anywhere from 30-45 beats per minute, and normal respiration is between 10-15 breaths per minutes. Some horses may be slightly higher or lower than these averages, which is fine as long as you know what's normal for your horse. A resting heart rate of 50 beats per minute might be normal for one horse, but might indicate a serious problem in another horse. Try measuring your horse's vitals at home where he's most relaxed to give you an idea of what's "normal" for him. At a ride, the TPR will record your horse's information on your pink card and send you through.

Next stop is the vet. The vet's assessment of your horse will be much more thorough. They'll check hydration levels by doing a capillary refill test, which involves pressing a finger on your horse's gums to see how fast they come back pink (if your horse is headshy you'll need to practice this at home). They'll listen to your horse's gut sounds to make sure everything is functioning normally. They'll feel your horse's back and girth to check for soreness in these areas. And lastly, they'll ask you to trot your horse out so they can assess your horse for lameness. Most trot outs are to the left around a triangle made of witches hats, a bit like the workout for a led class at a hacking show, but some trot outs might just be up and back in a straight line. Either way, it's a good idea to practice trotting your horse before the day of the ride. There's nothing more embarrassing than a horse who just drags himself along in walk and flat out refuses to trot! The vet will record your horse's information on your pink card and tell you if you're okay to start. The ride officials will hang onto your pink card until you complete the ride and do your final vetting.

Okay, so you've gotten through round one of vetting and your horse is good to start. There is usually a pre-ride talk to make sure everyone knows where they're going. I'd advise against skipping it. At pre-ride the officials will explain how fast you're allowed to go (novice riders must NOT go any faster than novice pace), what colour arrows you need to follow, and they'll also tell you what to look out for. For example, if there's a bridge at the start of the ride, they might ask everyone to walk across it for the safety of other horses. Or if there's a particularly bad section of road halfway through the ride, they'll let you know to watch out for it. Most hazards on course are marked with a red "C" for caution, but occasionally the officials will put tape or orange bunting across it to prevent riders from going that way. If you see any of these things, SLOW DOWN. You will probably need to walk around the hazard or pick your way through it, so you really don't want to be cantering. Not all tricky bits will be marked with a "C" though, so you need to use your common sense when deciding how fast to go on track. If the ground is a bit slippery or rocky, then slowing down won't hurt.

Now, some basic ride etiquette for out on track. If you're overtaking a slower horse, yell out "Passing on your right/left!" before going past. This lets the person know you're about to overtake them, and gives them a bit of time to get their horse under control. Or if their horse isn't under control, they might yell out for you to wait a second. Look out for horses with red ribbons in their tails - this means they kick and you should give them plenty of room when overtaking. A blue ribbons means the horse is a stallion - it's always nice to give them plenty of room as well. When you come across a watering spot, wait until the person in front of you has finished before offering your horse a drink. The reason for this is that some horses become unsettled when another horse comes up beside it and they might stop drinking. Of course, there is the odd occasion where people are pushing in and it's absolute chaos. It happens. I usually just find an opening and slot in, provided it's safe to do so. Obviously you wouldn't park a mare next to a stallion, and you wouldn't try squeezing in next to a horse with a red ribbon in it's tail either! Again, use a bit of common sense and let the people around you know what you're planning to do.

So, you've followed your ride arrows and arrived back at base. You're probably wondering "What do I do now?" The answer is "Report to the timekeeper's tent." The timekeeper will write down what time you arrived, and what time you need to present to the vet. You usually have 30 minutes to unsaddle and strap your horse before you need to vet, so use that time wisely. Strapping is a very individual process and everyone does it differently, but there is one "DON'T" that applies to everyone. Don't wash down your horse's rump if you can avoid it - the muscles may cramp up, causing your horse to appear lame even if he's not. Rub the area down with a towel instead and drape a rug over his rump & flanks to keep these areas warm. As for the "DO'S" there are many. Do offer your horse clean drinking water as well as molasses water. Do offer your horse some hay or a special mash to encourage him to eat. Do wash down your horse's legs with cold water to reduce inflammation. Do take your horse for a walk to pick at grass (and hopefully have a piddle). Do stay close to your horse's buddy to keep them both calm. If you've trained your horse properly and ridden at a sensible pace, this is probably all you'll need to do before heading over for vetting.

The vetting process is pretty much the same as before. The TPR will take your horse's pulse, but if the heart rate is fine they probably won't bother with temperature or respiration before sending you through. The vet will check your horse over again and ask you to do a final trot out before telling you "Congratulations! You got through!" If there is a minor problem, the vet will usually tell you so you can keep an eye on it. If there is a major problem, the vet will usually get the opinion of the head vet before disqualifying you. Major problems may be rapid heart rate, severe dehydration, absence of gut sounds, a serious injury or lameness. Vetting out is something that can and does happen. It doesn't necessarily make you a "bad" horseperson, it just means you need to work on these areas for next time. Sometimes it might mean that your horse just isn't suitable for endurance, and there's nothing wrong with that either. Every horse has strengths & weaknesses and maybe endurance just isn't a strong point in that particular horse. Whatever the reason, don't be discouraged if you vet out. Even the top riders have vetted out at least once! All you can do is learn from the experience and try harder next time.

Whether you got through or not, it's time to start packing up your stuff and get ready for the drive home. I refer to the drive home as "The Final Leg" and it kills me every time. All those muscles seem to stiffen right up after a few hours in the car. If you have any painkillers, now is the time to take them! I've also discovered that Rapigel (aka Isogel) works well on humans as well as horses, but I should warn you it feels like you've been dunked in ice! After you've packed everything up you can stop off at the registration office to collect your pink card and hand in your bib. If you successfully completed you'll probably get a token to recognise your achievement - a certificate, a pen, a keyring, a rosette, or maybe even a little trophy. You should be proud of your accomplishment - not everyone's done an endurance ride! I hope you'll love the sport as much as I do, but even if you don't, at least you gave it a shot!

Me at the end of my very first 40km ride in March 2008

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

It's like Dakar for horses!

"So you're a horse rider. What do you do? Dressage? Showjumping? Wait, I've got it. Cross country! That's it, isn't it?"

"Um, actually I'm an endurance rider."

"I'm sorry, you do what?"

"I'm an endurance rider. I do endurance riding."

"Yes, but what is it?"

Ah, where to begin? What is endurance riding? It's not just long distance riding, although that is one of the defining characteristics. But there's so much more to endurance than riding really really far. That'd be a bit like saying dressage was just prancing round in circles, or showjumping was just leaping over poles, or cross country was just galloping over fences. It's a lot more difficult than that. I found this on the Dakar Rally website which I think sums up endurance riding perfectly.

"More than just a simple question of racing and speed, the Dakar requires rough terrain navigational skills and consistency. In the rally-raid discipline, endurance is the watchword, with the slightest flaw proving costly. This mix of physical toughness and technical performance has attracted, for almost thirty years, champions from different horizons, all keen to measure themselves against each other and tame this event like no other."

There are some people out there who think endurance riding is just glorified trail riding. I can tell you now it's nothing like trail riding. You might be riding along a trail, but you're not plodding along at a leisurely pace, you're motoring along at an average of 14kms/hr (which is a lot faster than it sounds)! It's not five minutes of cantering and then stop for a break, it's go go go! Canter the flats, trot up the hills, walk down the hills. You and your horse need to be quite fit to do endurance, otherwise you'll end up keeling over halfway through the ride.

Even if you and your horse are fit, that doesn't mean you can sit back and relax. Each ride presents it own set of challenges and they're all difficult in their own way. I've heard people talk about how such and such ride is supposed to be an "easy" ride. There is no such thing. An easy 80km ride is nothing but a cruel myth, I'd just like to make that clear. If you go into it thinking it'll be a breeze you're in for a rude awakening. Endurance rides come in three catergories - hard, very hard, and almost impossible. The people who tell you a particular ride is "easy" are usually the ones who've been doing "almost impossible" rides for the last ten years.

So, what are the challenges a rider might face on a typical endurance ride? Hot/Humid weather - heat exhaustion and dehydration in both horse and rider is a very real risk. Cold/Wet weather - keeping both horse and rider warm is essential. Steep terrain - those big climbs can be a killer if you're not prepared for it. Undulating terrain - those constant ups and downs can be hard on a horse's legs and back. Hard ground - concussion can cause your horse to vet out lame. Slippery ground - risk of tendon injuries or strains. Most rides will have at least one of these challenges. I'm yet to ride on a nice, sandy track with even footing, no hills and perfect weather conditions!

It's more than just a long distance race, it requires skill & consistency and the slightest mistake can prove costly. It's a true test of both horse and rider, pushing them to the limits of their performance in challenging conditions. So when people ask me what endurance riding is, I tell them it's like Dakar for horses.

Like this, but on a horse...

How it all started...

"Come on, just give it a go. It'll be fun!" Those were the words that started it all.

You're probably wondering what could possibly motivate a person to take up endurance riding? Gruelling hours in the saddle, extreme weather conditions, early morning starts - you'd have to be insane! Well, as one fellow endurance rider put it "You don't have to be insane to do endurance, but it sure helps."

My early attempts at endurance should have put me off. I never made it to what should have been my first 20km ride. I took a wrong turn down a dirt driveway and by the time I realised we were lost there was nowhere to turn around. Trying to turn around on the grass verge resulted in the car getting hopelessly bogged. In the end my friend and I unloaded the horses, saddled up and rode for help. Did I mention it was raining? Well, it was. By the time a helpful 4WD owner winched us out and saw us safely back to the road, the ride had already started. So, with damp clothes and spirits, we loaded the horses back up and drove home.

My second attempt was slightly better, but unsuccessful nonetheless. We actually made it to the ride base - which was a good start - but my horse vetted out due to an over-reaching injury. Her back hooves cut into her front hooves and she ended up going lame right at the end of the 20kms. My friend's horse vetted through with no problems so it wasn't a total loss, but I couldn't help feeling disappointed. There was no completion certificate or goodie bag for me. However, this only made me more determined.

I realised my dressage/showjumping horse was probably not ideal for endurance. She was getting older and was beginning to have soundness issues. It was time for her to retire, but I didn't have another horse to ride. And so the hunt for a new horse began. I wasn't ready to commit myself to endurance and leave the world of dressage & showjumping behind, so I ended up buying a sweet little Anglo Arabian mare. She was athletic enough to do endurance and trainable enough to do dressage & showjumping - my perfect horse! We did our first 40km ride at Colo in March 2008 in just under 4 hours. I was thrilled! I was also in more pain than I'd ever experienced in  my entire life.

That was the moment I caught the bug. My first 40km ride had me hooked. It wasn't just about the cute little horse head trophy I got to take home that day; it was so much more than that. It was the feeling of my horse beneath me as we cantered along that ridge. It was cresting that big hill and looking out over the picturesque valley below. It was riding with a cheerful lady I'd never met before and feeling like I'd made a new friend. It was the stupid grin I couldn't wipe off my face, even though I was bone tired and sore all over. There's no other sport quite like it. It'll test you in ways you've never been tested, but it'll also make you a better rider & horseperson. I can't put into words how good it feels to get the final nod from the vet to say "Well done, you're through." You'll just have to experience it for yourself.

So come on, just give it a go. It'll be fun!

My very first successful completion - note the stupid grin!