19 May 2015

Endurance riding diversifies

   Sometime during the mid 70’s, (perhaps 1975), I witnessed my first endurance ride. Even then, in its infancy, endurance was a sport of Arabians.
At that time in my life, I was a fan of Arabians. All other breeds (and there were fewer, back then) were below Arabians, in my view. Not that I disliked other breeds, it was just…I was devoted to the Arabian breed.

   Finally free from parental prison, I went solely to wallow in horses. I had no car and no way to get to it, other than a hugely expensive taxi, but I was a horse crazy Yankee in a not so horsey state called North Carolina, and I had been horseless for too long. So I attended what may have been the Old Dominion Ride.

   Of course, being horseless, carless and a stranger to all, I didn’t have much in the way of ‘fun’ but I did learn a few things. One was: one doesn’t snag an aged mare out of her pasture, throw a silver encrusted western saddle on her and ride 20 miles without repercussions. The owner, an idiot through and through, had no idea what ‘conditioning’, ‘training’ or even ‘sympathy’ meant. He thought, it’s a horse; I’m going to compete on her, despite the fact that she’s spent most of her life being pasture jewelry.
   The mare staggered in after a hot, humid 20 mile forced march and collapsed. She may have died. She certainly looked as if she were dying, and most damning of all, the owner wasn’t concerned. He was angry. Stupid horse. That’s how it was back then, with many folks-horses were merely animated machines.

   Twenty years later, I was living in Texas, was older, wiser, and now a professional equine massage therapist. The vast majority of my clients were endurance Arabians. I attended several rides, this time working on horses for money.  

  The difference was astounding. Endurance horses now were  athletes, as highly trained and fed as any human Olympian. Diets were finely tuned to each horse. Electrolytes were added to the water.  The riders rode in endurance saddles that may have weighed ten pounds. The sport was highly regulated, with veterinarians in attendance checking every aspect of the horse (screw the rider!) and pulling a horse in a newyorkminute based solely on his or her subjective opinion. If a horse was pulled, the rider seldom bitched. In fact, the rider often was the one to make the difficult decision, should I pull him or should I ride on. Most of the time, they erred on the side of caution and pulled…and no one derided her for her decision. Public opinion, that of his or her peers, had more influence on the rider/owner than the desire to ‘win’. The phrase was, (and still is, rightly so) “to finish is to win”.
     Endurance had become a sport, not a competition. It had also morphed into more: a team effort. It mattered very much now, what condition was the horse, how willing was he to ‘go the distance’. It is no longer ‘winning is everything’. The highest accolade at an endurance ride is NOT ‘who came in first’, although that is important. No, the highest achievement, the highest compliment one can pay to an endurance rider is: Best Condition. If your horse crosses the finish line looking a bit tired but willing to go another 100, that is the highest of compliments on the rider/trainer/owner.

   But one thing hadn’t changed: the vast majority of horses were Arabians. Up until the 90’s (and mind you, this is just my observations), it was an odd duck indeed for the horse to not be Arabian. One ride I worked at, Bandera, had over a hundred entries and only a handful of horses weren’t Arabian. In fact, two were mules.
   (Mules that, at the 35 mile mark of a planned 50 mile ride, both decided to stop. Not a step further would they go. Indeed, the “ambulance’…a horse trailer dedicated to rescuing a horse that broke down on the trail…had to be dispatched to get them both. They willingly loaded, in fact they ‘JUMPED” on the trailer.  They were ridden by a mother and daughter team, and  boy, you should have heard THEM bitch when they finally got back to ridecamp. That’s how I learned that the mules had stopped solely out of mulishness. Nothing was wrong other than they decided they were done.)

   Six or seven years ago, I did another endurance ride, this time as a scribe for my horse vet. I began to see a change. There were a few more breeds competing. Appaloosas, especially, were beginning to compete.

First vet check

   This past weekend, I scribed again for the same veterinarian. I saw a BIG change in the population. It isn’t just Arabians anymore, although they still are the dominant breed to ride if you want to win, or even compete at a high level. But there were several appaloosas, mustangs, outright ‘grades’(a term designating an unregistered, parentage uncertain horse  that is almost extinct in this day of registries), pasos, Tennessee walkers, ponies, and, most encouragingly, Thoroughbreds.
Trail rider
   Thoroughbreds! Now the TB has always been a breed that has been used not just for racing, but hunting, eventing, and jumping. But seldom has one been ridden in endurance. To see several doing endurance just tickled me. My vet and I, like all horsemen, would ask the riders their horse’s breeding. In this race’s case, all of the TB’s we saw..at least four! were off the track. One was not only a beautiful dark bay, but had a perfect chevron on his forehead.

   They were doing endurance. Endurance! No one-not even the riders-expected them to turn in the fastest times, but the fact that folks are using them in yet another sport is wonderful. Thoroughbred racing is a dying sport. 

    Horse breeds that are unable to adapt to changing cultures and sports don’t survive. When was the last time you saw a purebred Saddlebred, (not one crossed with an Arab)? (in my opinion, the only reason anyone still has Saddlebreds is to cross them with Arabs, resulting in a """National Show Horse""". This ''breed' combines the worst characteristics of both breeds). 
    Saddlebreds hardly exist anymore. During the 50's, they were the darlings of the show world. That was when a 'gaited horse" (even if the gait was artificially induced and enhanced with chains, blisterings, and shoes five inches high) was all the rage. But you seldom find a Saddlebred anymore. They have too many problems: wobbles, spinal issues, low fertility and stallions with a reputation for being vicious. The things the breeders/show breeders did to the poor beasts' tail and the way they were shod in order to get that 'big lick' should be a crime. They were bred solely for the show ring.
 Click on the following link to see what I mean: http://www.writingofriding.com/in-the-media/artificial-horse-abuse/
Saddlebred tails have to be BROKEN in order to get them to  "flag", and must then be kept in a 'set' for the rest of the horse's life.

Saddlebred's feet. This website, by the way, is excellent and this is my way of trying to cite it.

Could a Saddlebred, naturally shod, do endurance? I doubt it. Only because there's been almost a century of breeding them for one specific trait, and an artificially enhanced trait at that. 

Thoroughbreds are still athletes, with the urge to GO bred into them, and I am happy to see them. 

   Another breed substantially under represented in endurance is the quarter horse. They dominate trail riding, but not endurance.  I saw only one horse at this ride that was a ¼ quarter horse. QH’s were bred to go very fast, to be able to turn on a dime, to hustle cattle, NOT go 100 miles in a 24 hour period. They just don’t have the physiological makeup for it. I’m not slamming QH’s…when it comes to herding cows, or barrel racing, or rodeo, there is no better horse breed. 
      However, most Quarter Horses can’t even do that. It comes from breeding for the show ring.  ‘Show breeding’ has destroyed the original Quarter Horse. Having worked at my neighbor’s QH breeding farm during my teen years, I can tell you that QH’s were bred to LOOK good at halter. But the fashionistas ruined them for riding. They were bred for fashionably small feet that usually developed into navicular at a young age, and sloping backs that couldn’t carry a saddle (see “Impressive back”  named for the stallion by that name). My neighbor’s stallion was 15 hands, weighed 1200 lbs.  (550 kilos) and had 00 feet…the same size feet of a small Arabian. Even more telling, my neighbors would breed 80 mares a season, and none of the resulting foals were handled or trained to do anything more than carry a halter. So many of their foals developed navicular (sometimes as early as two years old) that I was forbidden to answer any questions about it from prospective buyers. 
     QH’s bred for the halter ring, and lately, ‘western equitation’ have navicular almost from birth, and saddles just don’t sit right on them without a lot of padding. Impressive, also, was the stallion responsible for the disease HYPP. There’s also a disease from another overbred line that results in the subcutaneous skin to ‘dissolve”.

    For some reason I cannot fathom, the QH show breeders want their horses fat. I mean FAT…I remember seeing an ad for a QH stallion that was advertised as being 16 hands (big for a QH) and 1600 pounds (730 kilos)!! Why? Well, fat hides a lot of faults. 
Take a look at this ad I clipped from the 'net, from "Ellis Quarter Horses". Read the caption. This picture is (I believe) taken of the horse as a YEARLING:
Can anyone out there who knows anything about breeding horses explain why he "had very few foals"??? I mean, Duh??. I'd be scared to death to let this monster mount a mare...but then, most QH's are bred AI, so perhaps the point is moot.
Here is another picture of a QH mare, this one with Impressive in her lines:

   My god, she looks like a Beefmaster steer. I feel so sorry for horses kept like this. This mare, also, had problems holding to a breeding. Keeping horses fat keeps veterinarians in business.
    There is no way you would dare to put a horse like this in an endurance race. Not only would they overheat, they'd have problems getting out of their own way. That is, if you could find a saddle to fit the horse.
    Just to balance things and to prove I'm not really anti-QH, I tried to find a picture of a fat arabian.
I couldn't find one. I think that means NOT that Arabs can't be fat, just that Arabians have a different physiological attributes. QH's are bred to be bulky, Arabs are bred to be thin.  
     In the last, oh, twenty years, all the spirit seems to have been bred out of the Quarter Horse. The show breeders didn’t want a horse that had any ‘let’s go!” in them. They wanted a dead quiet horse, one that would plod along at western equitation speeds, ‘loping’ (cantering) so slowly that a human in boots could easily keep alongside the horse, and ‘jogging’ (trotting) that the same human could WALK the horse in hand. I even heard of people injecting the horse’s tail with botulin in order to kill the nerves, so that the horse’s tail hung perfectly quietly. The fact that the horse could no longer use the tail as a fly whisk didn’t mean a damned thing to these shitheads.    

   Wait, I just thought of another ‘set’ of breeds: warmbloods. Haven’t seen a Warmblood doing endurance yet.  Warmbloods were bred to be riding horses. I know that, having had the distinct pleasure to ‘graduate’ to warmbloods after a lifetime of riding ‘other breeds”. Once you’ve ridden a Warmblood, you know what a riding horse REALLY feels like. But, at this time, I don’t see them being used for endurance. Yet. 

   Before I close up this post, though, I have to mention another change. It seems the AERC (American Endurance Riding Council) has grouped a lot of endurance related sports together. There was the regular Endurance ride. There was a small, elite group that was FEI regulated. They even had to be kept separated from other endurance riders, why, I don’t know. There were “trail riders”…folks who, I guess, were there merely for the fun, not attempting to win points, and finally, Ride and Tie.

   R+T was a sport that came about, again, in the 70’s. I thought it’d died out, but no.
It was based on the supposedly Indian (Native American) way of moving a lot of people fast with relatively few horses. The modern way is the same as the original strategy: two riders, one horse. Both start at the same time. The rider rides out a set distance (of course, quickly outdistancing the second person, who is on foot.). Rider rides, say, 5 miles and dismounts, ties the horse to a tree, and starts running. Runner runs five miles, finds the horse, mounts and rides fire miles, passing the first one on the way. I believe they did the R+T at distances of 25 miles.
Ride and Tie Canadian team-look at the tutu!
   There were three teams. One team was a mother/daughter team (with a grey Arabian, of course) who’d driven all the way from WHITE HORSE. (For the non-North American, White Horse is a town in Yukon Territory, Canada, a distance of 1800 miles (2918 kilometers) from Trout Lake, Washington State. I can tell you, bringing a horse across the international border is NOT for the easily intimidated by pencil necked Border agent. Be prepared for a lot of harassment. )
   Not only did they do this solely for fun, they had fun doing it. They dressed in spangled tutus. I am not kidding. While the rest of us 'southerners' were in layers three deep (you can't see it, but the wind was blowing hard and it was COLD.), these Canucks were dressed, well, like this. It was mostly because they were going to be running, but STILL...
    We appreciated their sense of humor. I was told by my vet that in endurance riding, ‘if you see a horse tied to a tree, LEAVE him there’. He  also told of a ride he worked where both runners came in on foot. Where was the horse? Still tied to a tree in the woods, fifteen miles out…

    Endurance has changed. For the better.  

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