Do you enjoy endurance riding? There are a number of different disciplines that you can follow if you enjoy riding horses. One of these is endurance riding. The rules may vary a little according to the country you are in but the following information is relevant to general training and to Australian endurance events in particular.
In Australia, there are stringent veterinary checks before, after and sometimes during a ride. Vet checks are very important. Horses tend to give their all for their riders and it is easy for a horse to become stressed without a rider realising that things are not going well.
Horses registered with an endurance association will have a booklet which details their performances on every ride. Every ride for that particular horse will be documented in this book. For horses and riders who compete only occasionally, a card may be issued as a one-off record. At the front of the book is detailed information about the horse regarding markings, brands, and distinguishing features as well as its breeding, height, age and sex. The book or card is presented at the veterinary checks and the relevant information recorded in the book or on the card, some of which use the letters A to D. A is a good score and D is bad.
When a horse is presented to the vet, usually the first thing to be checked is the heart rate. A stethoscope is placed behind the elbow joint of the horse on the left (near) side. This is taken over a full minute and must lie with certain parameters before a horse is allowed to begin or continue on a ride. Horses may have quite a high heart rate before a ride. They are often excited or perhaps stressed from the journey to the venue.
When a horse reaches the base camp after a section of the ride, the rider and/or strapper have half an hour to work on the horse to bring him back to a state of rest as far as possible. Before the half hour is up, the horse must be presented to the vet for assessment.
There is no maximum heart rate before the commencement of a ride. Training rides of 40kms or less require a heart rate of 55 beats per minute or less on all legs of the ride. For longer rides, the heart rate at the first check point must be 55 beats per minute or below. For all other check points, the rate must be 60 or below. A consistently high rate can indicate poor recovery after exercise. If a horse exceeds the parameters, it can be represented to the vet after another half hour. If all other factors are acceptable and the heart rate has dropped, the rider may be allowed to continue. Otherwise the horse is withdrawn from the event.
The rhythm of the heart should be even and regular. Fluctuations in intensity and rhythm may indicate fluid and electrolyte imbalances, in particular low calcium and potassium levels.
Normal heart sounds are clear and of even intensity. Disruptions to the unidirectional flow of blood through the heart and large blood vessels may result in a murmur.
Respiration is also done over a full minute. As the horse breathes the body wall moves in and out. This is easiest counted by watching the flank (just in front of the hind leg). A hot horse can lose up to 25% of his heat through respiration. External factors influence respiration but a consistently high rate can indicate distress.
The temperature is taken by inserting a thermometer in the rectum. It is only taken at the pre-ride check and should be around 37.5 degrees Celsius.
Dehydration levels are checked by applying pressure to the gums and observing the colour of the gums when the pressure is released. The gums should be pale pink in colour with visible moisture. Dry gums that are pale, dark, white, purple or grey may indicate early signs of dehydration and metabolic conditions.
The jugular groove is pressed with the thumb. This helps assess peripheral circulation and blood pressure. This is marked between 1 and 3.
A third way of testing dehydration is to lightly lift the skin on the shoulder and release it. It should recoil in less than a second. This is also recorded as a number. The mucous membranes, capillary and jugular refill and skin recoil are usually called by the vet together, for instance A,1,2 or A,1,1.
Gut sounds come next. Exercise results in blood being diverted away from the stomach. Sweating removes electrolytes and water from the body. Vets therefore listens to the gut sounds of a horse to help determine how stressed they are becoming from the rigours of a long ride. Gut sounds are listened to on both sides of the horse behind the ribs. During the half-hour break before a vet check, horses should have access to water and feed to ensure good gut sounds. Too few or poor gut sounds may indicate dehydration or significant electrolyte losses.
GENERAL BODY CONDITION
General body condition is recorded from 1 to 5. A very lean horse would be scored 1 and a more rounded horse 5.
Muscle tone is checked by palpation of the rump and shoulder. Relaxed, supple and toned muscles are the ideal. Any cramping, tremors or twitching will be closely monitored in case of metabolic collapse. Horses should be kept warm by the application of rugs and by walking around before presenting to the vet.
ABSENCE OF INJURY
The girth, back and withers are assessed visually and manually. Severe galling could result in a horse being vetted out. Legs will be checked for injuries. Minor cuts and swellings may be discussed and managed but otherwise horses will be vetted out if they have painful swelling or open, draining wounds.
Finally the horse is trotted out on a loose lead. Vets may ask for a straight line out and back of about 80 metres or a triangular path may be indicated. Vets will be looking for irregularity (lameness) and consistency. Horses should not be reluctant to trot and the action should be free. At this point, it is often the rider who has most trouble covering the ground after a long ride.
A ride of 80 to 160 kilometres will normally require three or four veterinary checks. One pre-ride, one after roughly 40 kilometres, then 80 and finally at the end of the ride. There is great satisfaction in bringing in a horse safe and sound after an endurance ride. You might have left in the middle of the night on the first leg of the journey, travelled on and off all through the day and not reached the final checkpoint until dark. Tracks often cover the same ground with horses and riders returning to the starting point after each leg.
Endurance riders have a saying that 'to complete is to win'. They gain immense satisfaction from training their horse to the high level of fitness needed for successful completion of a marathon ride.