In my last post I talked about trail etiquette on an endurance ride. Common sense and courtesy towards other riders is very important. I think that another topic that is also very important is about applying some of that same common sense and courtesy to your horse. Many of us are interested in longevity for our horses. We all want our horses to last a long time.
Over the years I’ve learned a thing or two about minimizing wear and tear on my horses. How to ride in a way that cuts down on the chance of injuries and that helps achieve long term success. Last year I rode more than I ever had before in a ride season – 3,600 miles. Bo did roughly 2,100 of that and Chief did roughly 1,500 of that. Both horses came through the season in pretty good shape and have since completed 150 miles each in the 2012 ride season.
The single most important lesson that I have learned is that my horses stay sound and can do just about anything if I keep them rated and don’t let them trot faster than 10 mph. Most horses can very easily trot faster than 10 mph so this takes effort.
Using a GPS is very helpful when learning how each gait and speed feels. Some horses can be very sneaky and are able to inch up their speed. You may look at the GPS and see you are trotting along at about 8.5 mph, then before you know it your horse has moved up what might feel to be just a hair – yet when you look at the GPS again you are going 13 mph. That is almost guaranteed to happen if you ride in a group or if your horse sees a horse ahead. Or sees a horse behind. I feel that rating a horse consistently is one of the hardest things about this sport. It’s something that requires focus, determination and doesn’t come easy.
Riders who are more competitive will likely trot much faster than the 10 mph limit that I subscribe to. As long as a horse has been conditioned to go that speed they can do it and be successful. I find that it takes my horses two to three years to develop a working trot that allows them to travel even at 10 mph. It doesn’t happen over night. Once I started to keep my horse’s speeds toned down and rated them more consistently I found that I had virtually no lameness issues. Now when I have a lameness with a horse it is generally not a result of how I’ve ridden them.
The next most important thing is to pay attention to the footing and the trail. Spend some time on foot in each type of terrain that you ride in so that you get a feel for how difficult it is for your horse to get through it. I find it is often useful for me to get off and lead down anything very steep as it helps loosen up my knees. Other riders like to tail their horses up anything steep. Either way is a good opportunity to give your horse a break.
Make an effort to walk your horse through the rocky, muddy or deep sand sections and trot where the footing is good. It helps to know the course that you are riding so that you can plan how to ride it. I find when asking other riders what the footing is like, it pays to get two or more opinions. One persons idea of rocky, deep sand or technnical may be completely different than someone else’s.
We knew at Death Valley a couple of weeks ago that we were going over a big mountain on technical singletrack trail that was VERY rocky. Once down the other side we knew we’d be down in the flat valley in sand washes and on excellent footing. By knowing this, I was able to walk over the hard rocky steep stuff and then make up time trotting in the good footing. Many riders did the opposite of that. Paying attention and thinking about this kind of thing can make a big difference to your horse. Think wear and tear on joints, legs, your horse’s whole body and how controlling when and where you move out can bring them through the ride that day as well as through an entire career in the best condition possible.
How you ride your horse through varied terrain on rides affects not only your horse but the others around you. I mentioned how there were riders at the last ride that weren’t attentive enough to know that they were trotting the hardest parts while walking the easiest (on their horse) parts of the trail. This can be really irritating to others especially if you trot past them downhill, or uphill, passing them then when the footing becomes good and levels out you slow to a walk. Now those riders who were walking the steep or rocky sections and want to trot on the good footing have to pass you again. On a ride with a lot of elevation and footing changes it can become a never ending game of tag.
I’m not sure if riders are not thinking these things through, or if they are letting their horses choose. Maybe they are so caught up in a conversation with another rider that the thought of considering the trail footing and elevation changes never crosses their mind?
A competitive horse will want to go all of the time, so it’s really up to the rider to stay focused enough on the trail conditions and how rating the horse consistently can minimize the wear and tear. Our horses can go a long way, literally….if we pay attention to the details. A thinking rider is perhaps the greatest thing you can do for your horse.