Written by: Liz Brown

Follow the intrepid Liz Brown as she goes from desk jockey to Mongol Derby competitor.

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I hadn’t given much thought to the equestrian sport of endurance riding until I decided to enter the Mongol Derby – a 1,000-kilometre horse race across Mongolia where riders change mounts every 40km. I’m a recreational English rider – I dabble in dressage, some jumping and go on the odd hack. But this kind of riding wasn’t going to help me trot and canter over 100km per day on terrain ranging from marmot hole-ridden grasslands to river crossings, salt pans and small mountains.

I needed a crash education in the horse world’s equivalent of marathon racing, so I consulted with Christoph Schork and Dian Woodward, owners of Global Endurance Training Center in Moab, Utah, and became a working student for them for seven weeks before the Mongol Derby in August. Schork and Woodward have accumulated thousands of endurance miles between them and breed and train horses for competition. They offer endurance riding clinics on well-trained endurance horses and even lease horses for riders to compete in the Tevis Cup (considered the world’s most difficult endurance ride).

I learned a lot in those seven weeks and consider myself lucky to have learned so much about a sport I knew nothing about. And I had a lot more fun seeing the countryside on the back of a horse than riding 20-metre circles in an arena. If you’re a rider considering trying endurance riding, here’s a quick synopsis of what I learned and what you need to know to get into this sport.

Horse Selection

Not surprisingly, Schork and Woodward prefer using Arabians and half-Arabians for endurance riding. Arabians are renowned for their stamina and have been bred for this purpose. “Typically they have lower heart rates, bigger lung volume and more red blood cells,” said Schork. But, he added, any breed of horse with the right conformation, temperament and heart rate can compete in endurance. In fact, they have a part Belgian gelding who has completed the 100-mile Tevis Cup.

When assessing the suitability of a horse for endurance riding, they look at a number of factors. The first is a low resting heart rate, ranging from 28 to 38 beats per minute. They also look for a descending belly line as this indicates a larger lung capacity.

For the legs, short pasterns and short cannon bones are preferred, as they stand up to stress better than long pasterns, which tend to put stress on the ligaments and tendons over long distances. As well, strong haunches help horses propel themselves up steep inclines that can be part of many races, especially in the western, mountainous regions.

For rides that include a lot of steep inclines, Schork and Woodward prefer riding short-backed horses. “These horses can collect more easily going up and down steep hills,” said Schork.

Physical Fitness

I thought I was pretty fit before I showed up on Schork and Woodward’s doorstep. I quickly learned though that the muscles you build through arena riding and after-work running clubs don’t prepare you to do rising trot over rough terrain for 20km or more.

For me, my calf muscles, oblique muscles and “lats” (latissimus dorsi) took the biggest beating. If you are considering prepping for a long distance ride, I strongly suggest doing exercises to strengthen these muscles. Over the winter, to prep for the Mongol Derby, I did daily calf raises for my legs and push ups and side planks for my core.

Schork believes the most important aspect of endurance rider fitness is balance. “If a rider doesn’t carry his weight evenly, he can cause a horse to become lame over many miles,” he told me when I first arrived. Schork asks riders put each foot on a separate scale to see how evenly they carry their weight. When I did this, I carried 11 pounds more on my right side. He suggested I do one-legged balancing exercises with my left leg on a BOSU ball to help strengthen and rebalance myself.

As with all riding, limberness in the pelvic region is important so the rider can easily follow the movement of the horse. Basic hip opening yoga exercises are good to keep the pelvis and hips flexible for all types of riding, but especially endurance, as long hours in the saddle can shorten and tighten these muscles.

The last thing that Schork recommends for rider fitness (and the training I fear most) is incline running. Aside from strengthening rider legs and lungs, being a seasoned hill runner also comes in handy for the longer distance rides involving steep hills or mountains, said Schork. During these rides, some competitors find it more useful to hop off the horse and run alongside, to save the horse’s energy for terrain where they can travel at faster speeds.

For the horse, the fitness level varies based on distance to be ridden, your finishing/speed goals, terrain and also altitude. For an introductory, limited distance 25-mile (40km) ride, the horse should be able to easily do back-to-back loops of 16km. This means their heart rate should be around 150 beats per minute as they are exercising and it should be able to come down to between 110 and 100 beats per minute within four to five minutes, said Woodward.

Conditioning Program

According to Schork it takes about a year to a year and a half to get a horse fit enough for its first 25-mile ride. This is based on riding about three times a week, about 90 minutes to two hours each time. If you’re riding two or three hours, you need to alternate between walking, trotting and cantering, said Woodward. “Trot for 10 minutes, walk for 10 minutes and canter for between four and five minutes,” she said.

This long, slow training allows the ligaments, tendons and bones to build up strength over time, which reduces the risk of injury.

Schork said that many beginning endurance riders make the mistake of projecting human endurance training programs onto their horses (for example, a typical marathon training program has you run four or five times per week). “But horses hold their conditioning much better than we do,” he said. “You don’t have to break their body down to train for a ride, you don’t have to ride 25 or 50 miles per week.”

Like humans, though, endurance horses benefit from cross training. Hill work can be especially beneficial for building a horse’s haunches. As well, basic dressage work in the arena, and work with cavaletti and poles make for a better balanced horse on the trail who will easily navigate obstacles like fallen logs and creeks.

Case in point: During my second 50-mile ride I had a significant advantage over a few people who were riding behind me, as I was riding a horse that knew how to jump, and I was comfortable jumping small obstacles too. Some other riders had to slow their horses to a walk and step over the obstacles, losing valuable time. I learned it pays to be a well-rounded rider with a well-balanced horse who knows the basics of dressage and jumping.

Rider Position

Endurance riding requires a well-balanced, all-purpose seat from the rider. You need to be comfortable going over many different types of terrain, often at speed and alongside other horses and riders. Because of this, it’s important to be secure in the saddle, so you are able to sit spooks, bucks and stumbles – things that can happen while negotiating unfamiliar trails.

You must be able to balance your horse and keep him from becoming too flat as he travels along and begins to tire. Schork said that dressage lessons are good for this purpose, as riders need to know how to half halt and rebalance a horse.

Hitting the Trail

I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy endurance riding until I tried it myself. In the last year, I’ve developed appreciation for Arabians (they really are the Energizer bunnies of the horse world) and riders who log the long hours it takes to build up the strength to compete in races that can take six hours or longer. And the camaraderie at endurance rides is infectious. People camp out for entire weekends with their horses, support each other during the long haul rides and then settle in to rehash the day’s events around a campfire. It’s an inclusive, laid back community that’s unlike any other in the horse world.