Me and the Spotted Wonder
Endurance Granny (me) cannot wave the banner of thousands of competition miles. I likely never will because as a financial choice that would be ludicrous. I can however jump up and down on my conditioning trampolene, because I'm pretty good at it. There I do have thousands of miles, and I'm only beginning to get in touch with the idea that I draw my joy for the most part from the planning and plotting of preparation for a ride. Even more so, getting an untried horse ready for the first ride. That is the process that gets my motor running. It is fun to take a horse that thinks its going to die trotting up a quarter mile grade, and six or eight weeks later having the same horse trotting for ten miles, fifteen miles at a stretch and coming in for the break with lots of horse left in the tank. Last time I was out at the park for our triple loop I came upon a large slow group. Journey was cantering along, and we slowed to a walk to pass respectfully. As we took off again I heard a snarky remark about her gear. They thought it was funny I guess. I had made one lap of the trail while they were saddling up, and made three laps total while they were finishing one. I'll take my funny little Appy in her crocheted fly bonnet, and her funky boots, and me in my floppy brimmed helmet over their kind of ride any day! Yes, the women looked "pretty" all dressed in their breeches, aboard fat horses, plodding along at 2.8 mph. We however, were kind of sweaty, and my face I'm sure was red from my own huffing and puffing. But our kind of ride, makes me happy. Even if we do look a little strange...and bonus points-- we can outrun the biting flies, yes we can sister!
The process of starting a new horse to the sport is a challenge, but it is full of many small gratifying pinnacles that make the whole process worth it. Before you begin make life easier for yourself by having a few pre-endurance/ distance skills under the horse's girth.
* It is alright for the horse to be "green" to endurance, but not green in general basic training terms. For the best result start the horse as a slow sane trail horse first. You will build long slow distance in the process. The horse will become accustomed to natural trail obstacles, riding on a loose rein at the walk, trot, and canter alone and in a group. Wait until all the gears are working before embarking on an actual conditioning program.
*Make sure you are comfortable doing all those things, walk, trot, canter, whoa, and that you understand how to safely disengage a horse should you need that skill during an emergency situation. Lateral movement and a back up can save you stepping off a cliff edge, or back you out of a bad situation. Get the gears working.
* Practice despooking exercises to build a solid sane horse from the ground. It is amazing how a little of this work each week can build your horse's trust, and your confidence as a leader. Another bonus to leadership, is the partnership you get with your horse. Give me the horse that sticks its nose in the halter ready to work over the horse that turns its butt to me and walks away. Ground work and respect building exercises all help in this regard.
* Next stop is to practice camping. Decide on how you will contain your horse. Hi tie, corral, electric pen, tied to the trailer with a clip, work it out before the dynamics of a field full of horses at an endurance ride. Get it working at home before you take it to ride camp. It is safer, and it makes your time at ride camp much more low-stress.
* Work out your saddle and tack fitting issues as much as possible before your first competition. It really is crummy to not finish a ride you've entered. My personal bug-a-boo seems to be getting lost. But tack rubs can mess up your day in a hurry too. So sort through all those things on your long trail rides so you have it working well when you start conditioning your horse in earnest.
*Other things to practice are handling the horse as a veterinarian would. Eyes, mouth, skin, legs, tail, basically touching that horse all over. Make sure you can pick up and hold all four hooves without a fight. The horse needs to accept this without jerking, nipping, kicking, pulling or pushing. Most things we get frustrated about with our horses can be resolved if we just take the time to work at it. Often not a lot of time, an hour or two dedicated to the thing will sometimes fix it for good. Trailer loading, hobbling, having water sponged or poured over, standing quietly while tied, riding in a group, riding out solo away from the group. All these things are fun challenges that first year prior to entering the fray of competition. If you find you are over your head in one of these areas, seek out a reputable trainer to work with you on fixing it. Remember that trainer won't be going to a ride with you, so you need to hands on be able to work through what might arise.
Sounds like an awful lot of stuff doesn't it? But these are all just basic horse training for the most part. Once your horse is good at all of these things he's going to be worth his weight in gold. Sweat equity builds a great partnership with your horse. It's worth it. You also find out in this process what kind of work ethic your horse has and if the horse is even suited to going long distances. Find out early, save yourself the frustration of finding out year one that your horse doesn't have what it takes. It costs money to discover this at an endurance ride. It is free out on the trail.
CAUTION: You may not want to ride with an experienced endurance rider. WHAT?! Let me repeat. YOU MAY NOT WANT TO RIDE WITH AN EXPERIENCED ENDURANCE RIDER. WHAT???
Here's why. That experienced rider has been through this starting out process. Their horse is accustomed to trotting at a faster and possibly much more extended pace, with more intensity than your horse is ready to give. The experienced endurance rider is a vast deep well of knowledge and problem solving, but unless that rider is willing and able to ride "your" ride, it may not bode well for "your" horse. Been there. Done that. Work it out on your own, gradually build your horse to that pace, and then join up with riders who match your pace, or only slightly out pace you if you are working at building a stronger, faster horse. Do that gradually, after you've built the horse's base training and mileage. I will have experienced riders casting large boulders my direction for this bit of information. However, think of it this way, your conditioning process should be gradual, and you should pace the horse in competition relative to the pace you've set in your conditioning runs. Now if you have an experienced buddy who is willing to pace the ride at beginner level, and at times assist you to pick up the pace to bring your horse up to another level, that is all good. But my personal experience in this area is that folks though very well intentioned, used to riding front to mid pack, are going to be training front to mid pack pace, and that is too much for the horse just starting out. You might get by with it, and you might not. How risk adverse are you? Riding your own ride is a hard concept to grasp until you fall flat on your face.
So you've done your preparation and you are now ready to go. Nope! Not quite. Let's read about Trail Etiquette. You will see some of that not going on at an actual ride, but mostly it is a respectful group doing their best to have a safe and fun day. It's your job to do the same.
Conditioning Programs for the endurance horse:
The Barb Wire
Introduction to Endurance Riding
The link below is one of the most well-written, sound advice articles I've found on the topic in a while: The author is a seasoned and competent endurance rider. Check her out!