How Do I Ride for the Top-Ten?
After you have put enough endurance rides under your belt, you may start thinking about making the ride a true race. There are five things you must always remember if you want to ride for the top ten:
Plan Your Strategy - Riding for the top ten requires that you have a well-formed plan of what it will take for you and your horse to succeed. You'll want to choose a ride in which you are familiar with the terrain, so that you can accurately plan on how to allocate your horse's energy throughout the ride. You must know how well your horse eats, how it
handles the excitement of the start, whether it likes to go alone or in company, how well you can rate it, if it will allow you to tail it up mountains, and what speed it can travel at the upper levels of its comfort zone. Knowing your horse is the first prerequisite to being able to plan for a top ten placing.
Ride Your Own Ride - It is far better to ride alone if you plan to top ten. This way you can keep to your strategy and maintain the pace that your horse finds most comfortable. Teach your horse that it's okay to go alone, and not to slow down when you come upon other riders. You want your horse to pass at a brisk pace, even going into a canter to leave others quickly behind. If you ride with someone else, it is both more difficult to maintain your own pace, and to keep your horse's attention on you. You don't want your horse being dragged along by another, nor do you want someone along that is slower and who will be an anchor on your speed.
Ride To Your Horse's Strengths - This goes hand and hand with riding your own ride. Take advantage of where your horse is strong - uphills or downhills or on the flat - and use those strengths to gain the advantage against the trail, the clock, and other riders. Don't walk where you can trot, and don't trot where you can canter. And don't gallop until the last two miles of the trail, and only if you are racing someone in. When your horse is finished drinking water - leave immediately! Get back on trail and don't linger waiting for other horses to finish.
Time is Your Enemy - The more time you spend getting your horse's pulse down, fiddling around with equipment, overstaying by error at the checks - the longer it will take you to reach the finish line. The tighter you have your routine, the better. The more savvy you use in reaching the vet check with a diminishing pulse in your horse, even if it means getting off and walking in, the quicker you will be on the clock with a faster recovery, while that rider that trotted past you just before hitting the vet check is still trying to get their horse's pulse down to parameter. Also, you want to start the ride at the front of the middle pack, or just behind the front runners. Never start from the back of the pack - you may get caught in the slow moving groups and waste precious time dragging behind them looking for an opening to pass. It is difficult to make up for time, being stuck in the back behind slow riders. Better to be at the front, where you can move along at a good pace with others of like mind, than to be stuck fuming at the back.
Don't be Drawn into the Race until the Last 5 Miles - A 50 or 100 mile trail is a long, long distance to go. Never waste your horse on a run at the beginning of a ride, because you will burn your horse out long before the race is half over. Riders that charge to the front at the beginning, often end up being pulled, or falling to the back of the pack later on. Stick to your ride plan, and focus on the trail and clock as being your competition first and foremost. Ride wisely, ride safely, and ride with a view to complete without dwelling on the trail. Then, when the final 5 miles come into view, your horse will still be strong with plenty of energy, and you can switch your focus to challenging any riders in front, or out-running those challenging from behind.
Riding Crewless *or* Are Crews Really Necessary?
Crews are wonderful to have on any ride, regardless of the miles. They are put to their best advantage; however, when rides are point to point. When the mileage is 75 or 100 miles, an extra set of hands becomes indispensable for taking care of the horse and the rider. It is always wonderful to see a friendly face waiting for you at a vet check, someone to give you that encouragement and comfort you need when you're tired and sore, and someone you can share the joy of finally completing the ride with. Crewing is a great way to teach a novice all the ins and outs of endurance riding, and how to care for the endurance horse. It doesn't matter if your crew is your spouse, your kids, your best friend, or a fellow rider that volunteered to help you for the day. Bless them all -- they can make your day brighter and so much less stressful.
But going it solo can also be more rewarding in the amount of time and care you can give your own horse. On trails with loops that come back into base camp, it is easy to go crewless. You don't have to worry about another person sitting around waiting for you, and the responsibility you have to do it all yourself can strengthen that wonderful bond between the horse and rider. It can be a real motivator in you ensuring that your horse is comfortable and happy throughout the ride. However, going solo also means you have to carefully plan out your equipment and feed, and make sure that everything is arranged so that you can access it easily and immediately.
Riding Alone or Riding in Company - Benefits and Pitfalls
Riding alone is the best way to ensure that you can follow your own strategy and set the pace you and your horse feel is the best for whatever section of trail you are on. The key is "Riding Your Own Ride". Riding by yourself encourages you to pay attention to the trail, to spot the ribbons yourself, and to stop for grass or water or tack adjustment without inconveniencing anyone other than yourself. When alone, your horse isn't influenced by others, and you are not forced to wait while others are fiddling around. Less riders lose the trail when riding alone than those riding in a group. Horses are also less inclined to pull or tailgate, and will settle quicker to drinking and eating when they are on their own.
Riding in company is perfect for those who are merely riding to complete, and for horses that hate being alone. Many horses are more motivated when they are in fellowship, often less spooky, and will drink better on trail. When you are riding with someone, you have less chance of being left in the lurch should something happen, and the friendly chatter of companions can make the miles fly by. Riding with someone who knows the trail, means you benefit from their knowledge of where you should increase/decrease pace, where the water can be found, and how far it is from one mile to the next vet check.
Dealing with Fatigue
Fatigue is the enemy of the endurance rider. It saps the strength of the horse, and beats down the resolve of the rider. If you come face-to-face with fatigue, that means that you've probably pushed too far, beyond your, or your horse's, fitness level, and/or failed to keep the fuel level at optimum.
The best way to spot/avoid fatigue in the horse:
Pay attention to the rigors of the ride in relation to you or your horse's fitness. If the mountains, or the endless flat trails, or deep going are getting to be too much for your horse, slow down or stop. Take breaks, get out of the saddle, let your horse graze, spend more time at the water just sponging -- anything you can do to give your horse a rest break, will refresh it enough for both of you to get back on trail with a brighter attitude.
Be proactive in monitoring your horse's stride, way of going, and mental state. If your horse is starting to stumble frequently, or starts to wander on the trail rather than going straight, or just being very lackluster, your horse is tired and needs a break. Get off and walk, or let your horse stop and graze. Just a few minutes to rest will go a long way in refreshing your horse.
Keep your eye on the horse's pulse and respiration so they don't shoot too high with the type of exercise that you know should be producing a much lower heart rate.
The best way to avoid fatigue in the rider:
Fatigue in a rider is just as debilitating as in the horse. The rider needs to be alert, functioning, and ambulatory at all times during the ride. You are there not only to guide your horse, but also to provide care, help, and encouragement if necessary. A fatigued rider can do none of this, and when the horse is left pretty much on their own to carry forward, it is not the best situation. Learn to recognize the signs of impending fatigue: drowsiness, inability to concentrate, deteriorating riding ability and posture, nausea and/or vomiting. These signs mean you need to STOP, REST, and REFUEL. More riders pull with a Rider Option due to fatigue than any other reason, but it's a poor reason when it could have been avoided. If you can spot these signs of an impending crash well ahead of time, you can take the necessary steps to avoid it and prevent it from escalating into a pull.
Make sure you embark on your own fitness program when you are training/conditioning your horse. You want to be at your optimum performance at critical times during the ride, so that you can get off and walk or run if the conditions warrant, you can stay alert and functional, and your riding ability does not deteriorate. Being fit means you will be stronger for a longer period of time. You want to be less of a passenger, more of a partner. Unfit riders make poor team players -- they are a burden to a horse, not a help.
Fuel yourself! Competitive stress often shuts down the desire to eat, but it is very important that the rider continue to fuel themselves, even when their body says no. The human body cannot store large amounts of carbs and must take in each day what it needs. As you use your energy supply, endurance decreases. You can keep endurance high by consuming appropriate amounts of "fuel foods". High protein, complex high carbohydrate food is best. Simple sugars will give you a boost if your energy level is flagging, but always follow it up with a complex carbohydrate to sustain the energy level. Anti-fatigue foods - Candy bars (simple sugars for a fast shot of glucose), peppermint (to stop nausea), apples (complex sugar), raisins (full of complex carbohydrates, sugar and fiber), potato chips (salt and starch), Vitamin B-50 pills (for extended boost to the body's metabolic system to bring it to optimum), and fruit juices (fast acting simple carbohydrates). Keep in mind, glycogen burns quickly to provide quick energy, so always follow up the fast carbs with more complex carbs or protein.
Don't overextend yourself. If you want to run down hills or walk up mountains alongside your horse, make sure you don't overdo it to the point where you become exhausted. Take your time and tail up hills to conserve your energy while giving your horse a break. Jog down when you can, at a pace that your horse finds comfortable -- not allowing it to lag too far behind. If you find your horse clipping your heels, you need to either speed up or mount up and let your horse set the pace. Remember - you don't want to actually be a hindrance to your horse while you think you are trying to help.
Stay cool in the heat; warm in the cold. Weather can be a huge factor in sapping the strength of the rider. Hot, humid conditions can wilt a rider within hours. The key is to drink plenty of water and take human electrolytes throughout the ride to replace lost minerals from sweating. Cold weather can be just as debilitating. It is better to be too warm in the cold, than not warm enough. Shivering generates body heat, but does so at great expense to your energy. A few minutes of shivering equals the energy spent in a whole mile of running. Smart riders will dress in layers of light thermal clothing. Letting your extremities get cold, however, can chill your whole body, no matter how many clothes you have piled on. Plastic holds heat, so slipping plastic baggies on your feet (as long as your tootsies are warm to start with) will keep them toasty warm all day long. Have warm gloves on your hands, and an extra set in your saddle pack for emergency purposes, and wear ear muffs or a warm head band to keep your head and ears warm.