The Ideal Endurance HorseWhy are Arabs and Arab crosses more suited to endurance and not thoroughbreds or warmbloods? It all has to do with genetics. But it doesn't mean you can't do endurance with any other horse, it simply means that you'll have to manage your horse and ride strategy more carefully. The Arab bones, heart, lungs, muscles, skin and mental attitude have adapted to endurance over the ages. We'll discuss the components in as much as it pertains to endurance, not to the specific breed. I'll be discussing these points from a "purchasing an endurance horse" point of view, but it doesn't mean you have to rush out and replace your horse - use it as a checklist.
Overall Conformation: The adage "function follows form" holds true especially in endurance. The horse should be compact and sound. He should be well put together with everything balanced out. Beauty should be on the bottom of the list, as good looks have never won a race! The back must be strong to be able to carry the saddle and the rider. The withers should be prominent to stop the saddle from slipping forward but not so high that it's chafed by the saddle. A crupper can be used to keep the saddle in place should you need it.
The length of the neck shouldn't be too long or too short. The length of the stride directly correlates to the length of the neck. The front legs can only extend to the tip of the nose when the neck is extended. If the neck is too long, all the weight is tipped to the front which puts more strain on the front legs. A short neck will mean a shortened stride - more strides to cover the same distance will be needed. Neither extreme is desirable, so the length should fall somewhere in-between.
Ideally, the slope of the shoulder - where the shoulder blade and arm bone connects - should be about 105 degrees, which will enable a long smooth gait. The more horizontal the arm bone, the shorter and more jarring the gait, resulting in more impact on the legs and on you.
The pastern should be neither too long - putting strain on the fetlocks and superficial flexor tendon - nor too short - resulting in a choppy stride and which puts strain on the deep flexor tendon.
Cannon Bone. Measure the circumference of the cannon directly under the knee. The ideal should be 8 inches or 20,3 centimetres. The thicker the bone, the better, as it means the bone density is good indicating the horse is well suited to endurance work. Increased exercise will increase the bone density, so measure again after about 6 months to see the change. The cannon bone should be short, as a long cannon bone puts strain on the superficial flexor tendons and suspensory ligaments.
Heart. Measure the depth of the heart girth (from the withers, around under the barrel back to the withers on the other side) - don't confuse this with a broad chest. A deep heart girth indicates adequate space for a large heart and the extra spring of the ribs provides expansion room for the lungs.
Muscles. Bulky muscles inhibit dispersal of heat as it takes blood longer to work its way through the muscles to the skin. Long flat muscles are ideal as it aids in shedding heat. Muscle fibres fall into one of three categories: Fast-twitch fibres - produce intensive speed for short periods of time and make up the bulky muscles. Fast-twitch, high-oxidative fibres can be developed to do either fast or slow work. By conditioning your endurance horse, he'll develop a high proportion of these fibres which produce the longer strides because they stretch further. This type of fibre has the ability to recover in-between strides, as long as the effort is not excessive. Slow-twitch fibres do the ho-hum work like keeping the horse balanced and on his feet and the more a horse has of these fibres, the better suited he is to long distance work. A study done by two Australians, Drs Davis Snow and Reuben Rose, found that Arabs have the highest proportion of these fibres. As the horse moves, muscles act like a slingshot, snapping the foot off the ground. The longer muscles give the horse a mechanical advantage.
Nostrils. The nostrils should be wide to allow a greater intake of oxygen.
Feet. Chat to your farrier and ask him to help you with checking out the hooves. The hoof horn should be healthy and free of cracks - check that the white line isn't separating. When evaluating the hoof wall, decide if the problems you see are a result of poor shoeing or genetics. If the shoes are too small or the heels are underrun, this will cause the wall to weaken. This can be fixed with proper shoeing over a long period of time, but take it slowly.
Check to see if the hoof is symmetrical - are both the inside and outside the same length? Check the coronary bands for levelness - a pushed up coronary band means the hoof has been taking extra strain at that point. The frog should be centred and should be large with good, strong bars. Ridges or grooves on the hoof wall are an indication of dietary change, seasonal or weather changes, medication, or even a bout of fever. Dishing normally indicates a too long toe, which puts stress on the laminae, causing it to tear. The hoof shouldn't have any flares on the one side with the sympathetic steep opposite side - this indicates that the hoof is receiving greater impact on the steeper side, causing the hoof to compensate on the opposite side.
The hoof should be a good size relative to the size of the horse. The sole shouldn't be flat, but be cupped so as not to bruise with every stone. There is nothing wrong with a flat sole, but extra care and attention will be needed in the management of that foot. Overall, the hoof shouldn't be too narrow, as it doesn't absorb concussion as well as a wider hoof. If you're looking at purchasing a prospect, bear in mind that it is the feet that will be taking all the initial pounding, and starting with a liability is counter-productive to your enjoyment of the sport.
You should aim for a short toe and high heels, but if your horse hasn't been trimmed in this way, please use caution when changing the angles - it should be done over an extended period of time to avoid lameness.
Age. Although the rules state the minimum age as 4, please remember the sequence of plate closure in a growing horse. An Arab matures late, meaning that he only reaches full maturity at around age 7 or 8! So you need to be careful in the management of your endurance horse. A study done by Dollinger and Burger (European researchers) based on 2396 horses over 124 rides, showed that horses 13 years of age consistently winning (25%) and also having the highest rate of completions (62.5%). So don't be in too much of a hurry to get your baby to do well and don't retire the old campaigners too early either. As a fun exercise, research the general "retirement" age of other disciplines and compare it to endurance - you'll be surprised at the outcome!
Colour. No scientific proof exists, but it's generally thought that the lighter coloured horses do better at endurance - the dark coloured horses absorb ultra violet light more than the lighter coloured horses.
Mental Attitude and Disposition. Your ideal long distance companion should be alert but not spirited as this can sap energy over the long run; intelligent and curious about his surrounds - but not spooky; be confident and bold; be eager to go down the trail. You should have a trusting relationship with him. And most of all, you should LIKE each other. It takes years and years to develop your endurance horse, so delighting in each other's company is vital to a long and happy relationship.
He should be a good eater and drinker, looking after himself along the way. Because you'll be travelling long distances, he should travel well and not be finicky - a finicky horse often doesn't look after himself, losing body condition for merely travelling a few kilometres.
The next article will cover the conditioning programme for the next 3 months incorporating aerobic and anaerobic exercise, feeding the endurance horse, and tack and other equipment.