A Gentle Introduction to an Extreme Sport
by Aarene Storms
One horse, one rider, one very long trail: this is the essence of the sport of endurance riding. The riders might be awake as early as 4 am and in the saddle by 5, ready to face 25, 50, 75, or 100 miles of trail in a single day. The trails traverse rolling hills, mountains, deserts, or even city streets. As long as a trail is open to horses, it might be used for an endurance ride. To some the sport sounds crazy… if you think it sounds fun keep reading!
The rules of endurance are simple and flexible. You won’t need a specially-bred horse to participate. The sport is open to any breed or type of equine, including horses, ponies, mules, donkeys and even zebras (the latter is uncommon, in case you’re wondering). There is also no required or restricted tack in the sport and no required or prohibited gear for riders, either. The riders need only suit themselves, their mount, the terrain, and their own budgets. You can wear matching gear from head-to-toe, or show up at the start line wearing nothing but a smile (although I recommend sunscreen and a helmet!).
Riders are not subject to age, health or ability restrictions. Some riders are as young as 5 or 6 years old. Junior riders (age 16 or younger) must ride with a sponsor—a responsible adult over the age of 21. Some riders are in their 70’s and even 80’s. Riders can be cancer survivors or heart transplant recipients. At least one current competitor is a double amputee. Endurance riders do have this is common: they are people who enjoy a challenge that is both mental and physical. Even more, endurance riders are are dedicated to spending the time needed to create a deep bond with a horse on some of the most beautiful trails on the planet.
There are veterinary checkpoints along the route where horses are evaluated and given a chance to eat, drink, and rest before heading back out on the trail. Endurance is unlike many other equestrian competitions because it is possible for every competitor to “win” the ride. The American Endurance Rides Conference (AERC) has a very unusual motto: “To Finish is to Win.” In other words, all horse-and-rider teams to finish the course in the time allowed with approval by the attending veterinarian(s) are awarded a prize and mileage points, including the team that finishes dead last. Some rides give a special award to the “turtle” or last-place finisher.
The endurance community is known for a friendly attitude towards both experienced competitors and new riders. It’s possible to search out mentors and riding partners via the national American Endurance Ride Conference website (www.aerc.org), or you can find helpful riders in the Pacific Northwest region by searching for PNER (Pacific Northwest Endurance Rides) on Facebook. The best way to learn more about the sport—and learn how to train your horse for an all-day challenge—is to volunteer to help out at a ride. Come for a few hours on ride day, or camp out with the horses and riders for the weekend. Ride management will be delighted to teach you useful skills. Maybe you will assist a vet or a timer. Maybe you’ll be assigned to a rider as “crew,” or maybe they’ll send you out on the tanker truck to make sure that hard-working equines have plenty of water on the trail. No matter what tasks you do while volunteering, you will help riders complete the day with healthy, happy horses, and you will be learning skills to make you a better rider, a savvier horse owner, and more successful endurance competitor.
Training your horse to be ready for an all-day ride may sound crazy, but it can build strong emotional bonds between horse and rider. Do you want to spend hours each week in training, and hours on competition day with your friends and your horse out on trails that may leave you hungry, thirsty, tired, cranky, sunburned (or cold)…and almost invariably, grinning from ear-to-ear? There’s nothing as broad as a rider’s smile at the finish of a successful ride. If you want that smile for yourself, join us on the trail.
An advocate for junior riders, equestrian trails, and novice endurance horse and rider teams, Aarene Storms has published numerous articles in Endurance News and is the author of Endurance 101. She has completed more than 2000 AERC miles on several horses, and currently competes on a tall, opinionated Standardbred mare called Fiddle. Her adventures are documented with tongue firmly in cheek at the Haiku Farm blog, haikufarm.blogspot.com.
Published May 2013 Issue