Thinking about trying your first distance ride this year or are a bit nervous to? Here are a few reasons why you should get out and try one!
More bang for your buck
Horse shows are expensive. You pay hundreds of dollars for a few minutes in the ring for a ribbon. If you’re looking to still experience the competition but at a cheaper price, consider trying competitive distance. Your entry fee gets you riding for a few hours, camping, dinner (most of the time), at minimum 2-3 veterinary checks throughout the day (plus the vets are there if you think something is not quite right after the ride), and some sort of token of achievement (certificate of completion, ribbon, t-shirt, medal, whatever ride management decides. Heck, I’ve received a small turtle patch once for coming in last in a 50 mile ride!)
Any horse can do it!
Distance riding is not just for Arabians. Yes, they are purpose-bred for this sport but any horse is capable of doing distance riding. At OCTRA rides you will see everything from kids riding ponies, to western riders and their trusty stock horse, to even draft and draft crosses!! If you are riding regularly, you should be able to handle a shorter set speed ride. For reference, in a regular 45 minute dressage lesson, my gps watch usually tracks me as having ridden roughly 4-5 miles. You can make the maximum time allowed in a bronze level set speed ride by just walking and trotting at a good working, forward pace.
You can compete against yourself or other riders
The most often heard concern I hear from other riders is that they are nervous to try distance riding because they don’t want to race. Distance riding (and even endurance riding) is not all about racing. In fact, the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC), one of the distance riding sanctioning bodies, has the motto “To Finish Is To Win”. You get to choose what you want to make this sport. It is not always a race. There are different disciplines within distance riding depending on what your goals are. With Set Speed, you are only competing against yourself and a grade of fitness. Can your horse complete X distance, in X range of time, with the lowest heart rate. CTR steps up the competition a little more with every horse travelling at the same speed over the same distance. The winner of a CTR is the horse that completed the course in the allotted time, in the best condition as determined by the total point score following the post-ride exam. Points are deducted for such things as bell boots and protective boots, rubs, girth galls, soreness on the horse, etc.) Ride n Tie and Endurance are races by definition (first over the finish line wins) BUT horses still have to pass through a number of veterinary checks before, during and after the ride and their heart rates must come down to a certain level in a set amount of time or else you are disqualified.
Excellent cross training
Preparing and training for distance riding is a great cross training tool for both you and your horse. A fitter horse means a better jumper round or dressage test as your horse won’t tire as quickly and he will have better ground manners as your horse will have to get used to different people touching him (pulse takers, veterinarians, etc.). You will also be more fit which will help you not tire as quickly on those long horse show days. You will also learn to problem solve quickly as anything can happen out on the trail when you are out there for that long and you will gain mental toughness. A hunter course will seem like a piece of cake after doing a distance ride! Trail training will also help prevent burnout/boredom for you and your horse. Going around and around a ring with the same four walls can get boring after a while. Getting out on the trail gives you and horse a mental break and can rejuvenate your riding. Riding over different terrain is also good for your horse as he will use different muscles and learn to think about where he is putting his feet.
Boost your horsemanship skills
Does your barn have a stethoscope and do you know how to use it? Do you know what your horse’s normal heart rate is? Not only will this help you in distance riding, but it could also mean the difference between a major and minor health issue. At a distance ride, your horse will have to pass a number of veterinary checks to ensure your horse is fit to continue. The vets will check things like capillary refill time, mucus membrane, jugular refill time, skin pinch test for hydration, soreness in the back, anal tone, gut sounds, heart rate, and lameness. Knowing what is normal for your horse is important as if you catch a problem early enough, most of the time it is easier to fix. For example, at a ride last year although I completed the ride successfully and the vet didn’t see anything unusual at my last vet check, I knew something wasn’t quite right. I asked the vet to recheck and sure enough my horse was in the early stages of a gas colic. A quick shot of banamine and some handwalking and everything was fine. This does not mean the vets are not doing their job at the vet checks. They only get to see your horse for a few minutes out of the entire day and everything could be fine at that moment in time. I take care of my horse at home, and I’m with my horse all day so I have a better idea about what is and isn’t normal for her. Don’t ever feel like you are discounting the vets by returning to them to double check something. That is what they are there for. Sarah’s horse Bentley likes to squeeze out every last drop of pee so even when he is fully hydrated at home, the last little bit out is a darker colour. Normally this would indicate that a horse is severely dehydrated but since Sarah sees Bentley often and knows that he does this every time, it is not too much of a concern. She knows the normal colour and can tell the vets this.
You will also learn how to fit up/condition a horse properly. You can take these skills and carry them over to any discipline to ensure your horse is in shape enough to perform the required task and as an added bonus, they are less likely to hurt themselves than if they were unfit. Additionally, you will learn how to calm your horse and lower his heart rate quickly. There is a lot going on at a distance ride with horses coming and going in the pit crew areas, horses being trotted out in the vet checks, and people walking around. While fitness is the biggest factor in lowering the heart rate after exercise, there are a few tips and tricks that distance riders use to gain their horse’s focus and get him to relax and be calm. Sometimes those few extra beats can make or break your vet check.
There are always going to be bad apples everywhere but distance riding seems to attract really good people who care about their animals, are out for a fun time, and enjoy helping others, When I showed up to my first distance ride, I must have looked like a deer in the headlights as the ride secretary asked me if this was my first ride. She paired me up with an experienced rider who had put forth their name as someone who would assist new riders to the sport. It made my first ride much less stressful. I had someone to talk to on the trail to ask questions as they came up and showed me some tips along the way. A great way to get into this sport is to volunteer at an event first. Not only will you get to see how they are run, you will be introduced to people who are willing to act as mentors. This sport is built on mentorship. By finding a mentor, you will have all of the knowledge of an experienced distance rider to help you with a training and conditioning program, what feed, supplements, electrolytes to use, help with entering rides, and if your mentor is close to you, a riding buddy! You will also find at rides that pretty much everyone is willing to help you out and answer your questions. When you sign up for a ride, mark on your entry form that you are a first time rider or just new to the sport and put a green ribbon on yourself and your horse. People will find out that you are new and are more willing to assist you if you need it.
The great thing about this sport is that family and friends can get involved too though pit crewing, volunteering, or even as ride n tie team members. It’s not unusual to see entire families out at rides enjoying the outdoors, horses, and camaraderie.
If you’re curious about trying a new exciting sport, please contact the Eat Sleep Ride Repeat team at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d be more than happy to give you more information and put you in touch with a mentor in your area. We will also be at the System Fencing 30th Anniversary sale so come by to talk with us and watch some helmet cam videos from Sarah’s adventure to South Africa for Race the Wild Coast,