The first part of the exchange always goes something like this. He's cute, how long have you had him, and I love your bridle, pad, girth, or some other piece of tack. The reply is also pretty standard. Thanks, I bought him from some place down south where his true potential wasn't being realized, and I just got the bridle, pad, girth, or other piece of tack from the Dover sale catalog. From there the conversation continues with an exchange of information about what kind of riding each does and for how long and what came before ... and screeeeech! I can practically hear the brakes squealing.
I no longer get embarrassed about the ruckus my former discipline causes. When I was regularly competing, completing a 50-mile race didn't seem like much of an accomplishment to me, and I was always a bit reluctant to take too much credit. After all, I wasn't even in the top ten. I was usually a mid-to-back-of-the-pack-rider who had a few top ten finishes. Now I realize that many people find endurance racing quite fascinating and rather foreign. Most of the time I know they want to ask me why. Why would I do that? Which is followed by a stream of additional questions.
Just the other day I met a friend of Cha Ching's mom and her questions were much more of the nuts and bolts variety. She inquired about an endurance rider's forward seat position and the lack of contact. This line of questioning seems very relevant since I am now riding dressage which has a much more vertical (to even slightly behind the vertical) seat position and lots of contact. She was shocked that we would move at such speed over rough terrain with little or no contact. What if they fall or stumble, she asked? I replied that it doesn't happen very often. Just like in jumping or dressage, your horse needs to be suited to the job. Endurance horses tend to be very trail savvy and equally surefooted.
That's how you get through a 50 or 100 mile course. You have to be loose. A lot of the concussive forces go through your ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders. Endurance riders stay off their horses' backs, but they don't place all their weight in the stirrups as that would center their weight over the horse's withers. Instead there are more points of contact in your crotch and thighs. Endurance riders don't usually post. The motion is more of a steady bounce/bounce that is probably like posting to both hind legs. When riders do post, a lot of attention is paid to switching the diagonal so as to not sore one side of your horse. Imagine carrying your heavy purse on the same shoulder all day. Switching it back and forth reduces the soreness the weight can cause.
The contact is minimal. Endurance horses get very good at reading trail markers. Montoya could follow the trail in the dark. She would frequently catch chalk or ribbon markers that I had missed and make the turns on her own. With a long neck and head carried higher, endurance horses can see where they're going and use their necks to balance. That doesn't mean every endurance rider has a big loopy rein, but if a horse is traveling at his best pace, the rein will tend to be longer. Riders need a shorter rein when the horse is too hot and pulling to go faster or when the trail is particularly technical.
And with all of that information, I thought I would start posting occasional photos of my horses and me taken during endurance rides. This one is from the Sunland 50 miler in 1997. There's a lot to note in this photo. First, notice the helmet! Endurance riders embraced helmets early on. I did my first endurance ride in 1996, and I wore a helmet. You'll also notice the fleece saddle cover, tennis shoes (this was before Ariat Terrains were available), and the OJ jug used to scoop water on hot horses. My contact is very loose, and we were trotting downhill! Sassy is using her head, neck, and tail for balance. I am doing my best to just stay out of her way! We finished the 50 miles 21st out of 36 riders with a ride time of 9 hours and 18 minutes.
Over the next few months, I'll post more endurance ride photos. Feel free to ask questions. The American Endurance Ride Conference is the sanctioning body for all endurance races. You can find them here.