How To Take Care of YourselfThere are several good habits to cultivate while you're getting yourself and your horse fit. First good habit: ride with the waist bag and make a point of packing the water bottle - with water in! - and drink from it during the ride, even if you're only going 5 kilometres. This serves two purposes: one is that you get in the habit of drinking while you're riding, and two, your horse will become used to the sound of zips and velcro coming from his back. Caution must be used when you first open the zip or velcro, as some horses are a bit testy about strange sounds. Practice this on the ground first before trying it mounted. Also, pack a snack bar and eat it while riding - be careful of the sound the wrapper makes as well! Rides normally provide sachets of water or cold drinks at the water points on the course, but don't rely on this as you may luck out if lots of riders got there before you!
If you're riding with a cell phone, wrap it in a plastic bag, as with all the movement the water bottle may start to leak. Also, don't pack a banana, they get squashed easily - BIG mess!
Second good habit: look after yourself when at a ride. Too many riders forget to feed and water themselves, focussing totally on the horse. The rider then wonders why he's hit the wall half way during the ride! As with maintaining good nutrition for the horse, so you should maintain good nutrition for yourself. This will enable you to make good decisions with a clear head as you're the brains of the team, and the horse doesn't need you to be tired when he needs all the help he can get - remember, he's also tired and would appreciate it if you could make the decisions for both of you.
Find a product that's formulated for marathon runners or cyclists. I've found a powder that's mixed with water which slow releases into the system all the necessary electrolytes together with other bits and pieces which I've no idea what they are, but it seems to work wonders. It's a bit pricey, but I use it only when at a ride, so a canister of about R300 has lasted more than a year. Whichever product you decide on, make sure it'll assist with recovery after the ride as well, not just boost your energy during the ride. Some people swear by Red Bulls or similar, but if you're caffeine sensitive, the effects might last longer than you'd like.
The day before a ride, stay away from sweets, chocolates, pastries and such, and load up on pasta and cereals. Also, try to avoid meat and fatty foods. During a ride, avoid gassy, high sugar drinks and chocolate, as that will give you an energy spike followed by an energy low.
Another thing that will assist during and after the ride, is keeping in shape. Try not to carry too much body weight and follow a fitness regime. It doesn't have to be jogging for a 100 miles or spending time at the gym, but stay fairly fit and you'll be amazed how much it helps with fatigue.
Other Good Habits to CultivateWhen you've finished riding, sponge your horse down as if you're at a ride and take his pulse rate - timing yourself as you go - you should be finished and the pulse rate down to below 60bpm within 20 minutes. Also, your horse must get into the habit of eating as soon as he's cool (we'll discuss this point later in more detail). Being able to drink at any stage during the ride and out of any container will be to your advantage. Enlist the help of a friend or your SO to meet you at a pre-arranged spot with a bucket of water and allow your horse to drink. Remember that the water shouldn't be too cold as he might colic. Allow him to drink at water puddles or streams along the way as well.
Teach your horse to trot out briskly on a halter and lead when commanded to do so. Some vet checks don't allow somebody to "chase" the horse to make him trot. I've got my horse so that as soon as I "trot" - even on the spot - he trots. The horse must trot straight on a loose lead about half a meter away from you. You shouldn't interfere with the line of sight a vet will need to judge the gait of the horse. Practice with your horse on either your left or right side.
Practice boxing before deciding to go to a ride. As you and your horse become seasoned travellers, you'll notice your horse loading easier and easier. I've even seen horses RUN into the box because they know they're going to a ride! When practising this, teach your horse not to become impatient to unload, because you may get to a ride, have to leave the car somewhere to find out where your designated camping spot is, and then only unload. An impatient horse is a danger to himself and to you.
Draw up a packing list. Believe me, you're bound to forget something important, like your log books or even your saddle - I've seen it happen! At the end of the article is a list that I've copied from others and have added to over time.
Learn to "tail" up hills - even moderate hills. When at the bottom of the hill, get off your horse, hold on to his tail and get him to move off. You'll be amazed how much it helps in the long run, as the horse only has his own weight to carry up the hill and will be fresher for the flat bits. This will also give you some mild exercise.
Teach your horse to think for himself. Allow him to choose the best route when riding in rocky or uneven terrain. You'll appreciate this when you're getting tired or want to look around when riding in a game reserve. You can always pick a seasoned endurance horse out in a crowd - he's the one that will stay on a twisting footpath without the rider steering.
Learn to carry a sponge with you. Obtain a fair sized sponge, tie a piece of string tightly around it and tie it to your saddle. The sponge should reach the ground from your saddle. Teach your horse to be OK with a sponge coming off his back - be careful when starting to train this one! The sponge is used to dip into the water at a water stop and to sponge the horse down on his neck, head and legs - squeeze the sponge, don't get it full of sweat, which will contaminate the drinking water! If you can't stay mounted while doing this, make sure your horse stands still when you have to remount - very annoying when your horse jigs around or moves off and you can't mount!
Ride in as many different areas and terrain as possible. Not always easy, as it may mean boxing out to a different spot, but it'll give you and your horse a change of scenery as well as boxing practice. Try to include places where you'll encounter different animals such as ostriches - GREAT fun when at a ride and your horse has never seen one! There are several game farms which allow you to bring your own horse, so shop around.
Some Tips and TricksWhen you're at a ride and approaching a water point, canter the last few hundred meters. For some odd reason, this tends to get horses to drink when they reach the water where they wouldn't normally have.
When returning to base camp, walk the last kilometre or so. This will aid in bringing down the pulse and respiration rate quicker. Nothing stops you from presenting to the vet as soon as the pulse rate is within target - several veterans present immediately as soon as they come in, giving them a longer rest period before going out again.
Even if your horse is hot, allow him to eat hay or teff. Eating calms a horse and his pulse and respiration will drop faster. Wait until he's cool before giving him anything else.
Even if his pulse isn't at the required rate, but within about four or five beats of the target (normally 60 bpm) and assuming the pulse has been coming down smartly, move off towards the vet, because by the time you get there, he'd have dropped to below target. This will give you a longer rest period before going out again (if you're doing more than one leg).
If you're giving electrolytes, practice this at home, as some horses won't eat or drink anything with a different taste and smell. Only give the recommended dose and only one dose the night before the ride, one dose at breakfast, and depending on the distance you're riding, one dose at each vet check. Don't over-dose, as the body will simply eliminate what it doesn't need, thereby wasting your money.