There are two main types of long-distance riding, competitive riding and endurance rides. 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. 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.
Before the ride, horses are inspected by a veterinarian to ensure they are fit to perform in the ride. Usually, riders are given a map 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 ride is divided into phases (or loops). After each phase, 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 64 bpm. 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 time (usually between 20–45 minutes), at which time it is fed and watered. If the veterinary inspection is on the course rather than at base camp, ride management usually delivers to the inspection location a cache of riders’ personal gear, food, and water.
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.
The terrain riders compete over varies greatly from ride to ride.
In an Endurance Ride the first horse to cross the line and pass the vet check as “fit to continue” is declared the winner. Under the rules of competitive trail riding there is no winner, but awards given determined by a combination of speed and the recovery rate of the horse or by a required standard.