Endurance riding is an equestrian sport based on controlled long-distance races. It is one of the international competitions recognized by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports – FEI.
In an endurance ride the winning horse is the first one to cross the finish line while stopping periodically to pass a veterinary check that deems the animal in good health and fit to continue. There are also longer, usually multi-day, rides as well.
As with human marathon running, many riders will participate to improve their horse’s personal best performance and consider finishing the distance with a proper vet completion record to be a “win”.
Any breed can compete, but the Arabian generally dominates the top levels because of the breed’s stamina and natural endurance abilities.
Endurance rides can be any distance, though they are rarely over 160 km for a one-day competition.
Though the need to ride long distances has existed since the domestication of the horse, endurance riding as an organized activity was first developed in the United States based on European cavalry (particularly Polish and Russian WWI) and breeding program tests requiring the ability to carry 300 lb (140 kg) over 100 miles (160 km) in one day.
Organized endurance riding as a formal sport began in 1955, when Wendell Robie and a group of equestrians rode from the Lake Tahoe area across the Sierra Nevada Range to Auburn in under 24 hours.
Endurance riding first was brought to Europe in the 1960s.
Before the ride, horses are inspected by a veterinarian to ensure they are fit to perform in the ride. Riders may be given a map or GPS waypoints for the course, which shows the route, the places for compulsory halts (called “holds”), and any natural obstacles (such as ditches, steep hills, and water crossings). The trails frequently are marked with colored surveyor’s tape ribbons at regular intervals with additional ribbons or small arrow markers at turns in the trail.
The ride is divided into sections, with different names (legs, phases, loops etc.). After each section, horses are stopped for a veterinary inspection (sometimes called a “vetgate”), where they are checked for soundness and dehydration, with their pulse and respiration taken. To continue the ride, the horse must pass the examination, including reducing its heart rate below that specified for the event, typically 64 bpm, although terrain and weather may require the ride veterinarians to set a different maximum target. The riders’ time keeps running until their horses reach the required target, so it is important that the horses recover as soon as possible. Any horse deemed unfit to continue (due to lameness or excessive fatigue, for example) is eliminated from further competition.
After the veterinary inspection, the horse must be held for an additional hold time (usually between 40 – 60 minutes), at which time it is fed and watered.
Riders are free to choose their pace during the competition, adjusting to the terrain and their mount’s condition. Therefore, they must have a great knowledge of pace, knowing when to slow down or speed up during the ride, as well as a great knowledge of their horse’s condition and signs of tiring. Riders may also choose to ride, or may dismount and walk or jog with their horse without penalty. However, they must be mounted when they cross the starting and finish lines.