If you are new to MOTDRA or to distance riding, or if you are just thinking about trying a ride, we welcome you to our sport. We want everyone to be successful. The other riders, the vets, the ride managers and volunteers root for everyone! So please, come join us. But, don’t think this is just a trail ride with ribbons. It is serious competition and requires you and your horse to be ready for the challenge. It is a sport that can leave you frustrated and unhappy. Or you can come away with a sense of accomplishment and job well done. How well you prepare before the ride will determine how you feel at the end.
Nearly every time I’ve gotten myself into a jam in my personal life or in my life with horses, when I do the analysis, I find that somewhere I’ve done something inappropriate to cause the problem. I wasn’t prepared enough. I didn’t think things through. I cut corners. I thought I knew more than I did.
I see this an awful lot in distance riding. Many people attempt a ride or two, get discouraged and quit. Or they have success early with a couple of rides, think they know the game well, and end up hurting themselves or their horses. Often, they blame the organization, the ride manager, the other riders or the trail, when really, a little more homework on their part would have made all the difference. Sometimes they find out it really isn’t the right sport for them and that’s OK. Other times they might really have enjoyed themselves with better preparation.
First off, make sure the horse you are riding is appropriate for the job. A lot of equestrian pursuits fail because of the square peg in the round hole syndrome. People too often ask a horse to do a job that it really isn’t suited for. Be honest. Is your horse really a candidate for distance riding? This sport requires a horse with well developed slow twitch muscles for going all day; a good heart and lungs for efficient blood and air circulation; excellent feet and legs, and a can-do disposition.
Too many people think that a horse with no “whoa” would make a good endurance mount. That is not true. A distance horse needs “rate,” or the ability to slow down and stop when necessary and not just get caught up in the frenzy. The horse needs to be able to think and to pay more attention to the rider and the trail than to the other horses.
Some people try to ride a horse that just doesn’t have the right build, stamina or heart for the job. Yes, this sport is dominated by Arabians, but they arenÆt the only horses who can do the job. Many breeds can and do compete successfully. But their owners did their homework, did the conditioning and worked hard to get their horses ready.
I wouldn’t ask my 14.2H Arabian gelding to attempt a Grand Prix jump course. It would be setting him up for failure and wouldn’t be a fair request of him. Horses are as individual as people are and each has something it is good at.
By the same token, it would not be fair to ask a beefy, halter bred stock horse to get out there and compete in distance sports. All that muscle is inefficient for long-haul work. A horse must be able to sustain at least 5 mile per hour gait for several hours at a time to complete competitive trail and endurance rides. Many pleasure trail riders go at about 3 miles per hour, with a lot of stopping and chitchatting with friends. If your horse has labored breathing and is lathered and tired after an hour at CTR pace, then either it needs a lot more conditioning, or it isn’t suited for this job. And it’s not fair to ask it to do this sport, just as it wouldn’t be fair to ask many endurance horses to slow down to western pleasure pace for the show ring. Square peg, round hole.
What about appropriate tack? This is a tough sport! Even 15 miles can put some serious galls on a horse if the tack isn’t appropriate and doesn’t fit the horse correctly. There’s a reason why distance riders use special padding, endurance saddles and specially designed bridles, girths and breast collars. It’s not just to spend money, although our spouses may think so! It’s for the horse’s comfort.
You can ride in western, English, or Australian saddles or some amalgam of tack. The important thing is fit and comfort. Heavy western show gear or parade tack isn’t appropriate for several reasons. It is designed to look pretty, but not necessarily to fit superbly. It is heavy, holding in heat and adding extra weight for the horse to carry, and it’s going to get dirty and sweaty on the trail. Who wants to clean it after the ride?
At one of the rides I managed, we had a lovely Peruvian Paso mare get in serious metabolic trouble on a 15 mile ride. Why? She was wearing inappropriate tack for the job. She wore a big, heavy Spanish saddle over a leather-topped saddle pad. Lovely for a parade, but the leather pad and heavy saddle trapped heat on that mare on a hot and humid day. Lucky for the rider and horse we threw a surprise vet check and discovered the mare’s problem before she needed an IV drip. She was seriously overheating. Her owner was a good person who loved his horse, but he didn’t do his homework before the ride.
Part of preparation is attending ride meetings, getting your ride map, and asking questions. Even if it’s a trail you’ve ridden before, it’s still important because the ride manager may have changed things. Or there may be new hazards on the trail you need to know about.
Preparation also means reading, studying, and working with a mentor who knows the sport and will offer appropriate guidance as you fit up your horse and yourself. Learn from others who really know. Seek out knowledgeable people. Distance riders love to talk about their sport and have opinions on everything. Tap that knowledge! As my dad says, you can’t live long enough to make all the mistakes yourself. Good luck and happy riding.
Chris and Star and Zab and Ali