Icelandic Horse Connection

Equine Endurance Articles

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Essential Information


A ride will be either an 80km or a 100 miler.  The 80km rides are broken up into three legs in a clover leaf pattern of which you can choose to ride either one, two or all three legs.  Normally the first leg is 30km, the second 30km and the third 20km, so you can choose to ride either 30km, 60km or the full 80km.  Exact distances may vary for each ride, but will usually not vary with more than 2-3 kilometers.

The course is marked with coloured arrows, which will point in the direction to go - the first leg is blue, the second is yellow and third is red.  Easy to remember if you think blue is when you're cold and alert, yellow is when you're getting warmer and tired and must start paying attention and red is when you're very tired and must be extra vigilant.

A clover leaf is when you start and finish the leg at one point and all ERASA (Endurance Ride Association of South Africa) approved rides in South Africa are ridden on this basis.  This means that you start and ride a pre-planned loop and come back to base camp.  Each leg is a different loop, hence the term "clover leaf".  When you get back to base camp, you have to cool your horse down and present to the vet within a set time - this will be discussed under "At the Ride" later on.

The 100 milers will be covered in later articles as this series is aimed at the beginner.

Heart Rates, Hydration, Respiration, Gut Sounds and Quality of Urine

Every horse has a different resting heart rate and, unlike humans, will not change the fitter he becomes.  That is why you need to get to know your horse's resting heart rate.  It can vary between 28 bpm (beats per minute) to around 43 bpm, but the lower the resting bpm, the better.  When exerting himself, the horse's heart rate will increase according to the kind of exercise he's doing.  We'll cover ideal heart rates when we discuss aerobic and anaerobic exercise under "Conditioning" in the next article.

There are three different places to check the pulse - with the fingers under the jaw bone where the artery crosses the bone, behind the fetlock or on the left, behind the elbow in the girth area - this is the most reliable way of checking the pulse.  The last one can be taken either with the fingers or with a stethoscope, but the stethoscope is much easier.  When using a stethoscope, you'll hear two sounds, lub dub, and you should count only the loudest sound, or the lub.  When feeling with your fingers, only a single beat will be felt.  When checking the pulse, count the beats for 15 seconds (remember the watch that shows the seconds?) and multiply by four to get the beats per minute.  This is where the heart rate monitor comes in handy as it does all the counting and multiplying for you.

Hydration.  Very simply, hydration relates to the amount of body moisture your horse has.  The less hydrated he is, the greater the chance of trouble.  When doing any kind of exercise, the horse will lose a certain amount of moisture through sweating and urinating, so watch for the water intake before, during and after the ride.

To check for hydration, you can pinch the skin on the neck, sort of in the middle away from the whither, and notice how quickly or not the skin "un-tents".  The quicker the better, but if it takes five seconds or longer, you horse is in trouble.  Another way of checking is on the gums - press your finger on the gum for a few seconds, let go and check how quickly the gum becomes pink again - less than three seconds is good - and the presence of saliva in the mouth indicates a good moisture content.  The over-all colour of the gum is a good indication as well - the colour should be the same as the pink under your finger nails.  When it becomes darker or even bluish around the gum margins, trouble is brewing and your horse needs a vet.

Respiration is the number of breaths your horse takes in one minute.  The normal resting rate is between 8 and 16 per minute, a 3 to 1 ratio to the pulse.  When the respiration becomes higher than the pulse, your horse has become inverted and is panting.  As long as his temperature has not increased (higher than 40 deg C) and the pulse rate is normal, this is not a major concern.  Panting means that the horse is trying to cool himself down.  Watch for the quality of the breaths though - if he's stretching his neck and gulping air, he's in oxygen trouble.

Gut sounds must be present.  This indicates a healthy gut as the food is being moved along the tract.  Get to know your horse's gut sounds, both the quality and the frequency.  You can either hear it by placing the stethoscope anywhere along his flanks or by simply placing your ear on his side just in front of his hip bone.  The absence of gut sounds indicates that colic may be on the way as stagnant food means it's fermenting in the gut, which is the forerunner to colic.

The quality of your horse's urine is of great importance.  Learn what normal urine looks and smells like - don't worry what other people might think of you as you closely study your horse as he urinates.  The colour should be pale yellow and frothy.  When it becomes dark yellow and the quantity has decreased, dehydration has set in.  Your horse is in big trouble if you see a reddish tinge to the urine - call a vet immediately.

At the Ride

Arrival at a ride should be no later than the Friday evening before the ride.  This gives you a chance to settle in, enter, do the vet check, be present at the course discussion and generally mingle and get to know the people.

When you arrive at the ride, settle your horse in and go enter for the ride.  At entry, you will receive a vet card, which should be kept in a safe place at all times, either on your person or by somebody at base camp.  You will also receive a cloth number which you must display at all times when on the course.

Take your horse to be vetted.  The vet will ask for your vet card on which he will note the pulse rate, hydration and gait and any other comments he may have.

Attend the course discussion.  The official will discuss the route and will point out any areas where caution must be used.  He will also announce any changes in pulse rates or any other changes to the normal rules.  The departure times will be drawn - note your departure time - groups of about 10 riders depart 5 minutes apart from about 5:30 in the morning depending on the season - the longer distances depart first.

In the morning, make sure you feed you and your horse at least 2 hours before you're due to depart.  If you're grooming for yourself, make sure your buckets with water, sponges and scraper is ready and waiting for you.  Don't forget some hay / teff and maybe a handful of food (more about this later).  If you have somebody helping you, make sure they know what time you intend coming in and try and stick to that time as much as possible.  Tack up at least half an hour before departure.  Don't forget your sunscreen and rider number.  Warm up in an area away from departing horses but close enough to the announcer's tent to hear your number called.

When you come back to base camp, your "in" time will be noted and a card will be printed with hold and vet times together with the ride speed on it.  The hold time is 20 minutes in which you have to cool your horse down by sponging and scraping like mad.  Make sure the water isn't too cold and start with the inside of the back legs and neck first - this is where the big arteries run.  Be cautious when sponging the big muscles with cold water - it's best to leave the water in the sun to warm up a little.  If you use cold water on the big muscles you run the danger of cramping those muscles and you'll be pulled by the vet.  Check that the pulse rate is coming down - this is where practicing at home comes in handy.  After 20 minutes, present to the vet where the pulse, hydration and gait will be checked and noted on your vet card.  If any abnormalities are found, you will be put on either a time hold after which your horse will be checked again, or if the abnormality is severe enough, pulled by the vet which means you are disqualified and won't get a completion certificate.

If you're doing more than one leg, your "out" time will be noted on the printed card.  This is also 20 minutes after your vet check.  If you're finished, the vet will keep your vet card but will hand your printed card back to you with the pulse rate noted on it - nice to keep as a record.

When you're finished, relax and compare notes with other riders.  You may leave at this point, but it's generally considered rude not to stay for the certificate ceremony.  Besides, your horse may be too tired to travel all that way home and will appreciate a bit of rest.

If all this sounds a bit overwhelming, why not go along to a ride, spend the day and check out the routine.  You can even become a "groom" for somebody who'll show you the ropes.  Grooming before actually riding is a great way to learn.  This might sound like you'll be doing all the hard work, but you'll only be busy for short periods of time in between loafing - think of the rider doing all those miles!

In the next article, details on how to start conditioning and some tricks of the trade.  Also, the "ideal" horse for endurance will be discussed.

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