Not one of our better known disciplines in the UK there’s a lot of misconceptions about what’s involved and what goes on. Read our handy beginner’s guide to understand all there is know about the sport of endurance riding.
What is endurance riding?
Endurance is riding in beautiful, unknown countryside, often in areas not usually open to the public. The tracks vary hugely from steep mountain climbs in Wales to flat sandy tracks in East Anglia. The beauty of the sport is you can be as competitive as you want to be. Certainly at the lower levels and pleasure ride classes the only aim is to complete the distance. However, at the top end of the sport, the distances become longer and the speeds more competitive. Distances range from 16km to 160km in a day, and there are some multi-day events too. The accomplishment of conquering major distances with your horse, whether that be alone or in the company of other riders, and the sense of adventure tackling these new landscapes, certainly contribute to the rapid growth of the sport globally.
Probably one of the biggest misconceptions about the sport is that only Arabs are suitable. In actuality, the breed of the horse is not important, with more emphasis being put on aptitude and well-balanced correct conformation. Certainly Arabian types do dominate at the more competitive end of the spectrum however a colourful mix from robust little ponies to heavy warmbloods can be found in the sport. The National Supreme Champion a few years ago was an Irish Sport Horse, racing unbeaten over an entire season!
Nationally there are three levels of competition; pleasure, graded and competitive.
Pleasure rides are very much like the fun and sponsored rides that are available around the country. These distances range from about 10km to 30km in a day (that’s no more than 20miles). There is no maximum time in which to complete pleasure rides, so you can be as leisurely as you like. You are however not allowed to exceed an average speed of 15kmph (this would be sustaining an active trot and canter for the majority of the route with little walking).
Graded rides are a bit more technical, requiring your horse to pass a vetting at the start and finish of the ride. The horse’s pulse is a significant factor in the final result of graded competitions and that combined with speed ultimately classifies the ‘grade’ for that ride. Grades are 1-4 or a Completion. Grade 1 being the best would see your horse completing the ride at a competitive pace and finishing with a low heart rate. Riders have a full thirty minutes at the end of the ride to present their horse to vet. It’s part of the challenge of endurance to time this correctly, allowing for your horse to have the lowest heart rate possible without waiting too long to risk your horse getting stiff and failing the trot up.
Over the longer distances there are vet checks during the ride too, with multiple loops making up the total distance. The vet checks involve your horse’s heart rate being taken, a skin pinch test for dehydration and a full check over for any lumps and bumps, including his legs, back and girth areas, and then the trot up to check for soundness. The vet checks are stringent to ensure horse welfare is not compromised at any time, so ensuring your horse is sound and well before you attend an endurance event is paramount. There are minimum and maximum average speeds for graded events, dependent on the combination of horse and rider’s qualification, and these are obviously faster than for the equivalent pleasure ride classes.
Competitive classes are quite different again. The distances start from 80km (that’s 50miles) and range to 160km in a day, or over multi days. There is no maximum speed, and rides start en-mass with the winner being the first rider across the finish line and to pass all the vet checks. The horse’s heart rate no longer affects the final result, with the only requirement being that it is under 64 beats per minute. There are a few more checks for the competitive classes, including mucous membrane, capillary refill, back and muscle tone and gut sounds. If any of these parameters are deemed inadequate the horse will be eliminated from the competition, with a metabolic failure.
FEI endurance follows the same format as the competitive classes but speeds are often much greater. Young rider and Junior Championships (riders 14-21yrs) are run over 120km and Senior Championships are 160km.
For pleasure rides, there is absolutely no requirement for any specific clothing, tack or equipment. What is important is that both rider and horse are comfortable. Correctly fitting tack and perhaps breathable clothing for the rider is all that is necessary. Fashion conscious riders will note horses being ridden in brightly colour tack, usually made of biothane. This is for ease of cleaning and because it doesn’t get spoiled by lots of water being put on the horse, or in the endurance term ‘sloshing’.
The best way to start is to go to an endurance ride as a spectator, or just get stuck in and enter a pleasure ride with Endurance GB. At entry level, anyone can enjoy endurance riding and riders are often surprised by just how fit their horses already are. As a general recommendation if horses are exercised three times a week they will be adequately fit enough to complete pleasure rides and novice graded endurance rides.