I'm just going to describe the sport anecdotally, and if you're interested in getting into it, you can search out all the technical details. There are actually four different types of event that are covered by long distance competitive riding.
You accumulate mileage for successfully completing any of these sanctioned events. At every 500 mile plateau you are awarded a pin. When your horse completes 500 miles, he receives a very nice plaque with his picture on it. Mack completed his 500 miles in the 2000 season and now has his plaque. Dandee has also completed 500 miles, but so far Pat has ignored his reminders that she needs to submit his ride certificates and pay the registration fee to obtain the plaque.
Pat & Dandee, Vic & Mack, Ali & Barney
Coates Creek Competitive Trail Ride, 1997
Endurance Racing is a ride of at least 50 miles. A few of them are 100 miles. You guessed it. This is the one event I haven't done. About every 12-15 miles there is a vet check with a hold (usually 30 minutes, sometimes more). The hold is not counted in the time, but it also doesn't begin until the horse's pulse rate has reached the parameter set by the chief veterinarian, usually 64. The horse then undergoes a thorough examination and will be pulled if there is any sign of stress or lameness. By the way, in an endurance race, the rider may, and often does, dismount from his horse and jog alongside it, especially when climbing a steep hill or going over rough terrain.
Some people just do these rides for the sake of piling up mileage, and you have 12 hours to complete a 50 miler and 24 to do a 100 miler. However, the winning times are more like 4 hours and 10 hours.
In an endurance race even after the horse crosses the finish line, it has to pass another vet check and be pronounced "fit to continue."
Ribbons are awarded to the first 10 people across the finish line, provided that the horse passes the final vet check. There is another prize, much coveted, for best condition--the horse in the top ten that is the fittest at the end of the race.
As I say, I've given up any intention of doing one of these rides, but I sometimes assist as a volunteer worker, timing or driving the water truck to ensure that there are full water troughs along the trail.
Pat and I were much more into Competitive Trail. This is a shorter ride, 25 to 40 miles. You are given a set length of time for completion, typically 4 hours for a 25 miler. There are no holds; that time includes your mandatory midway vet check.Basically you have to average out to a fast trot for the whole ride. In competitive trail, unlike endurance, you must remain mounted while you are moving forward along the trail.
At the vet checks any measures of stress are quantified. For instance, a quarter-point is taken off for every heart beat above 40 per minute, and there are many other items that are checked. Perfect score is zero, which I've seen people get once or twice, and our Dandee once recorded a pretty darn good .75 to bring Ali in first in the Novice Class. You only have five minutes leeway on the finishing time. Of course you never come in early; if you're 15 minutes ahead, you just pull up a few yards before the finishing line and wait. If you're late, you're picking up time penalties at the rate of one point per minute, and you are disqualified if you come in over an hour late.
Best I've ever done is second on my little mare Tisca in a tough 30 mile event. I once did a two-day event, 25 miles a day, two days in a row. Lots of people tell me that's tougher than a 50 mile endurance race, but I'm still not tempted.
Quite a few people do the endurance racing, but there are never enough entries to pay all the bills--like honorariums for a couple of vets to put in a long day. So there is another type of event held parallel. It's called a Mileage Ride, and it's much more relaxed than the others.
Typically you will be given 4-6 hours to complete 25 miles. (Those are minimum and maximum times.) The vets check the horses as in the competitive ride, but grade in letters instead of numbers just to give an idea of how the horse is performing. There is no ranking of the entrants. You just get to add the mileage to your total for sanctioned events. I'm up to 600 and something miles now.
One last sport, rather different, which Pat and I have done a few times. It's called Ride 'n' Tie. You have two people and one horse. You start off with one team member running and the other riding. When the rider has got a bit ahead, perhaps a half-mile, he/she dismounts, ties the horse to some convenient object and starts running. The first runner overtakes the horse, mounts up and leapfrogs his partner before tying the horse, etc.
Around here the events are usually 8 miles and 16 miles. In the USA Levi-Strauss sponsors a 52 mile event--double marathon--with serious prize money. Apparently quite a few marathoners who are only so-so riders enter this.
Ride 'n' Tie originated from a practice back in pioneer times. When two people had to share one horse, they could go faster and farther by alternating than by riding double.
There are several things Pat and I like about long distance competition. One is the lack of fussy little rules and regulations. There are of course rules ensuring the welfare of the horse, and there are some arcane rules concerning scoring. However, the sport is very informal. You can use any tack you like, as long as it's humane, and you can wear anything you like. Most people ride English because the saddle is so much lighter, but if you only ride Western, there's no problem. Myself, I used an ultra lightweight Wintec saddle with western stirrups (!) because I find the wide tread is easier on my feet. And I wear a bright blue bicycle helmet.
People are mostly friendly and always ready to help each other. One time I was motoring along and missed the signal for a turn in the trail. I suppose in many sports people would happily let their idiot competitor get into time trouble. However, someone called out from way behind me, "Vic, you missed a turn." When the vet scores were in, Tisca and I had nosed him out for second place.
Almost everyone shows a great concern and love for his or her horse. People in other equestrian disciplines often say that long distance people are the worst riders and the best horsemen of all. Some of us don't have such an elegant position in the saddle, but most have a vast fund of knowledge on conditioning horses and caring for them.
A story that Pat will never read
Pat will never read this story because she's already heard it far too many times.
To understand the story you need to know two more things about competitive trail.
It is a strictly amateur sport, which means that you are constantly going up against the best people in your region. For instance, many people who have represented Eastern Canada in the North American Endurance Championships live in Ontario and compete in almost every ride. One of the best is Earle Baxter. Earle is the same age as me, but has done a lot more in the sport. He has completed thousands and thousands of miles in sanctioned rides. He was the captain of the Canadian Endurance Team at the 1990 World Equestrian Games in Sweden, and on his horse Rushcreek Pawnee he came fourth in the hundred-mile event, competing against riders from all around the world.
You also need to know that in competitive trail you are penalized for every little scratch your horse picks up in the course of the ride. You are not penalized for pre-existing scrapes or nicks unless they get worse during the ride.
In 1992 I was entered in a 30 mile competitive trail event--along with about 130 other people. Pat was staying home because a mare was due to foal any day.
For a short time Pat owned a big, aggressive gelding named Breezy. He didn't just dominate the other horses. He often bit them drawing blood. Two days before the ride he bit Mack on the withers--right where the saddle bars go. You could see every individual tooth mark.
I went to the ride and of course pointed out the bite at the pre-ride vet check. You may remember that the summer of 1992 was very cold. That day, at the end of May, it was only 10 Celsius, and it rained steadily all day. By the end of the 30 miles the cold water had wicked its way down from my collar, and my clothes were sopping wet under my rain suit.
At the vet check Mackie did fine--except for the bite. "That looks inflamed," said the vet. I replied, "It is only two days old, but, yeah, I'd agree, it does look a bit worse than at the beginning." She took off one full point, which can be a substantial amount in determining your standing.
After I'd taken care of Mack I was finally able to crawl into the camper, towel myself off, and get into some dry clothes. Then I headed over to the dinner. We always have a dinner at these events and hand out the ribbons afterward. I had a long wait. For some reason it is customary to announce the awards in the heavyweight division last of all.
It was a tight competition. The first nine riders in heavyweight all had scores of less than four points. All of us except the first two had scores of three point something. I was seventh (and very pleased). Earle Baxter was fourth, about a half a point ahead of me.
So ever since, whether Pat's in earshot or not, I cannot resist telling new horsy acquaintances about the time when Mack and I would have come ahead of Earle Baxter and Rushcreek Pawnee, had it not been for Pat's psychopathic gelding.
Ride 'n' Tie: we had a blast when we came last
Pat and I are not your slim, trim marathon runner types, and for our first try I had the added liability that I had not yet quit smoking. However, we did get ourselves into passable shape one spring by jogging along our road for several weeks, and we entered a ride 'n' tie with Tisca.
You don't get a lot of competitors at these events. An 8 mile race and a 16 mile race were being held concurrently, and there were six teams entered in each event. We were in the 8 mile race naturally.
At the vet check we were feeling pretty self-congratulatory. Five miles into the race, over halfway, and we were in second place!
One of the rules in ride 'n' tie is that the two riders must change at the vet check. So Pat jogged off, while I gave Tisca a few more minutes to rest and have another drink of water.Then I mounted and less than a quarter mile along I overtook Pat, not running but standing beside a young woman in the 16 mile event, who was jumping about hysterically. When I was within earshot, Pat shouted that the girl had been stung by a bee and was (like Pat) highly allergic. I wheeled Tisca and galloped back to the vet check to summon help.
At the vet check the ride manager held Tisca while I went back in a van to guide the people. Pat did not have her ana kit on her as she should have, so she accompanied the girl in the van to see if she could find it in our camper back at the starting point of the ride.
I walked back to the vet check. The ride manager told me I should lead Tisca back to the point where the incident occurred and wait there. Someone would bring Pat back after the girl had received medical attention.
I waited there a long, long time. Eventually a woman we know drove up. She told me that she hadn't thought it was fair for us to be penalized so much for being good samaritans, and she had dropped Pat off a bit farther up the trail--figuring I would have kept riding. I started galloping again. Just half a mile before the finish line I overtook Pat. She had been jogging along slow and steady for some time. We traded off and I jogged the rest of the way in. We crossed the finish line only 10 minutes behind the fifth-place team.
Even though we came last, it was a great day. There is always an award for horsemanship/sportsmanship, and we received it that time. The ride manager also had a special award for the team with the greatest combined age. (If you must know, ours was 106, and Tisca was only 8 then.) So we were given a large bottle of wine for the humans and a bag of apples for Tisca.
I hope these stories give you some feel for competing in long distance riding. If you want more detailed information, you should visit the website of the Ontario Competitive Trail Riders' Association