Monday, May 1, 2017

The story of my first 50 miler – Eagle Canyon, 2017

You heard right. The title of this post is an accurate tease. I finally got to and completed a 50 miler ride. For those who know how long I have been drifting on the periphery of the endurance sport – doing an LD here and there – this was a major accomplishment for me. 

The background

Long story short of it I am catch riding this year due to Deli being out in rehab. Who knows if Deli will ever be able to do even LDs again? Her rehab is going well, but we’ve hit on the issue of saddles. So I’m in the thick of that again: finding a saddle that fits her given her health needs and fits me and is not super expensive. So far it’s been an impossible task.

In the meantime I’ve been riding and conditioning my friend “M” horse Duke. Duke is fairly new to her – a rescue with some possible harsh treatment in his past (he was likely a dancing horse). Either because of the sketchy past or for some unknown reason his brain tends to go to some unknown place when stressed and he pulls like heck. That, combined with becoming less aware of his surroundings – which can lead to more tripping/ignoring of aids – means riding him can be like being a freight train conductor. A freight train that can canter in place when agitated..! He is a little guy (mustang-arab cross), but very solidly built. Luckily he also has comfy gaits, so when he is hopping all over the place like a loon you at least are not being jarred everywhere.

Observe how adorable this guy is:

So I’ve been riding Duke 1-2 times a week and enjoying the challenge and getting to know him better. The good news is every ride came with some slight improvement. I hope I have been helpful overall, because there is some hope that Duke would be the mount for M’s kid, who has also done endurance.

Me on Duke on The Deschutes River trail.
Two weekends before the planned 50 M and I took Duke and her other horse, Pepper (who has completed Tevis) for a long conditioning ride. We ended up doing almost 25 miles out in the Colombia Gorge area. The general idea for Duke was that because of his pulling and general athleticism, his first ride should be a 50 rather than an LD. We did NOT want him, with his pulling and competitive anxiety-brain to get the idea he couldn’t take care of himself. This conditioning ride clinched it, as Duke still had plenty of juice after that ride despite doing it at an endurance pace. The only downsides of this ride were that he got some girth galls and some filling in his front legs after the ride – two things that were good information to have. Plus, that conditioning ride was almost 100% hard rock footing so I wasn’t too worried about a little filling. We could work with that by doing more aftercare on his legs.

The weekend in between (when Duke was resting in prep for the 50 miler) I went and did a 30 mile LD at Grizzly Mountain on another borrowed horse. This time a gaited TWH named Royal for his first endurance ride. I had a lot of fun with him – it’s always interesting to ride a gaited horse and to compare with the strengths and weaknesses of a trotting horse. I also survived the cold nights of that ride, despite sleeping in the back seat of my car for convenience sake.

At that ride I also tested my new Hit Air vest and my other riding gear I had planned for the 50 miler. I also got a cool completion award.

The journey into Idaho and Eagle Canyon

We got up quite early to head over to Idaho, with my husband dropping me off at M’s place at 4:30am. Our other friend “A” and her little mare Reba were there and set to go as well. Normally there are more early-season rides within the 4-6 hour drive distance for us in the greater Portland area, but lots of ride cancelations meant Eagle Canyon was the one.

We hit the road in good spirits towing M’s living quarters trailer and the three horses, with my companions loaded up on coffee (alas, none for me). Due to it being a Friday and a workday for me, I was on my laptop for a good portion of the drive working. Still, it was a nice change from my normal home office as I got to look outside and see the Colombia Gorge in all its stunning beauty roll past as we steadily chewed up the miles.
One of the views once we got to the "dry side" of Oregon.
About halfway there we stopped to let the horses out. Lucky for us there is a great rest stop with a gravel trailer turnaround and a grassy fenced paddock for livestock. The horses were happy to get off, pee, have some water, and run around and graze for about 40-ish minutes. At this stop they were butt-heads and did not want to be caught, but we managed it and were back on the road in short order.

The horses enjoying themselves at their rest-stop.
Then, soon after we crossed into Idaho, a trailer tire blew.

Epically. Taking the trailer fender with it, somehow, and flinging rubber all over the road.

Now that's an exploded tire!
We got to the side of the interstate safely (thankfully M’s truck is a gooseneck dually, so it’s very stable) but found we didn’t have the proper tool to change out the trailer tire ourselves. Not to mention, the destroyed fender was beyond repair and threatening to damage the other trailer tire. M called US Rider to get roadside assistance – something that should have been smoother than it was. It was stressful being on the side of a busy road with cars and trucks screaming past, feeling bad for the horses who were standing around. However, after M finally got it into the customer service’s head where we were (she was apparently very worried as to why we were on the side of the interstate! I don’t know where else you would expect someone to be when they have a tire explode?!) we waited for assistance. Luckily, the assistance that came, came quickly, was competent, and cheerful. He also helped us get the destroyed fender out of the way so we wouldn’t risk popping another tire.

At this point I think we were a little frazzled, but with the tire fixed we were free to move on. M decided – smartly – to go to the Les Schwab that was on our route to Eagle Canyon ride camp to get a replacement spare tire. We took this as an opportunity to offer the horses more water and lots of carrots and apples in the trailer. Luckily, the horses were traveling well despite the setbacks and we were not too far from our final destination.

The horses resigned to their fate as we wait at Les Schwab.
We finally got into camp with what I think was a collective sigh of relief. It had been a long day already. With the delays for the tire issues, it was a good thing we started so early! We still had plenty of daylight to set up camp. I ended up holding and grazing Duke and pepper while M and A set up the panels.

Eagle Canyon is a smaller ride compared to some of the rides nearer to Portland, like Klickitat or Mt. Adams. The camp was an open field surrounding by green grassy hills, with snowy peaks visible in the distance. The grassy ground was scattered with whistle pig burrows and badger holes, making it a bit of a minefield, but we managed not to break any legs all weekend! The camp was in an area normally grazed by cattle too, so we had regular interactions with them as well.

With camp set up, A and I decided to do a quick scope of the trails and get Reba’s and Duke’s legs moving. We just did a quick couple of miles while M took notes at the ride meeting for us. From what we saw, the trails looked to be fairly sandy with some washed-out portions and badger holes that would make the footing somewhat challenging the next day.

Ride day

We got up bright an early ride day, though the 50s were scheduled to leave at a cozy 8am. My plan for the day was to leave after Reba and Pepper, as I didn’t want Duke to over-stress himself keeping up with that more-experienced pair all day. In general Duke tends to be more behaved – and keep his freight-train brain fade at bay better when away from his companion Pepper.
Duke ready to go.

M on Pepper and A on Reba leaving for their ride.
Happily, Duke was calm being left behind. We watched till everyone at the front left and then I walked him over to our makeshift mounting block. He was UP and cantering sideways from the moment my butt hit the saddle. But I was used to these antics of his and pointed him in the general direction of the start line. Later, the vet joked with me that he looked a bit “hot” starting out and I laughed about it.

Duke stopped bouncing around pretty quickly and we got to work at a nice working trot down the trail. Right away there were some sections where the trail cut across hillsides where I felt the need to slow down to watch for both ribbons and holes. Duke was already listening nicely, though clearly a bit concerned as to why we were going out into a strange place all alone.

Throughout the ride I was very thankful for Duke’s interesting gait – essentially he is gaited… when going downhill he can get into this smooth wiggly gait where he cruises nicely. It feels similar to the fox trotter gaits I’ve ridden, but I’m no expert. Regardless, it’s faster than a walk downhill and a whole heck of a lot more comfortable than his downhill trot can be since he tends to start dragging you down with gravity.

This ride was a LOT of up and down, so every little strength helped!

We fairly quickly caught up to the tail end riders and passed a good chunk of them. Duke got more excited to see he wasn’t all alone and we got a good pace in for a while.

One of the canyons views on the first loop.
Then we hit the ridge tops and got to experience the full force of the wind. I honestly think this was the most challenging part of this ride: the 35+mph winds that blew almost all day. Often we were pushing against a headwind. Sometimes it was blowing against us side-ways and my body felt like a kite on top of Duke. Sometimes it was blowing up Duke’s butt, which annoyed him to no end. There were several times throughout the day that he stumbled sideways in a big gust. Twice during the day I got off him and walked or jogged alongside him so that we wouldn’t be blown away.

The views were incredible... even as we were being blown around.
At one point in that long first loop (which was 25 miles) a huge tumbleweed soared up onto the hill and before either of us could react smacked into Duke’s hind end, getting tangled somehow in his tail and/or hind legs. Duke is not a very spooky horse. At most before I’ve had him do one of those minor flinch-spooks. Having a tumbleweed attack him?! That warranted an all-out bolt spook complete with jumping straight into the air and kicking out against the offender. He crashed off the trail and through the sagebrush, with me clinging on (having lost my stirrups in one of the jump-kicks) the best I could, half-slid off him. Somehow I managed to calmly repeat to him “easy, Duke. Whoa, Duke. Everything is okay.” Whether that or me getting a better grip on the reins, I got him to stop, unclipped my air vest, and got off. Remnants of the tumbleweed were around his hind legs and tail, though a lot of it had been crunched by his antics.

Poor Duke was shaking, eyes rolling, much sweatier than he had been moments before when we were trotting along at a working pace. I’m pretty sure he thought he was being attacked and needed to fight for his life for those brief moments. It took a little bit to convince him not to spin around me while I removed the offensive tumbleweed from his tail. Luckily he wasn’t injured at all, just shaken up. I’m impressed with myself that I stayed on, to be honest!

Taking him in hand because he was still shaking I walked back toward the trail. I think when he bolted we were actually at a flagged turn in the trail, so we missed it. I walked him for a bit and then got back on, thinking by this time that it had been awhile since I’d seen a ribbon. We eventually turned around and got back on track, but that whole mishap set us back in more ways than one: everyone we had passed had now passed us, and we wouldn’t see anyone the rest of the day.

Another upshot of the tumbleweed incidence is that Duke, who again, is not normally spooky, started worrying about all the sagebrush thrashing in the wind and particularly the bits of plant life flying around. He started spooking frequently. His brain was much less forward minded, which is saying something of Mr. Freight Train pony!

We came in from that first long 25 mile loop very happy to see camp. Duke took some time to pulse down, which I think was more from nerves of a bustling pulser area and not having buddies around more than anything else. I ended up pulling his tack and sponging him (sponging the belly/groin area was particularly helpful) before he drop to the required 60bpm. We then vetted in – with all As – and headed for our first rest and the longest hold of the day. Duke got a cooler because it was still windy in camp and as much mash as he could eat, while I ate and drank as much as I could stomach.

Duke being a good boy and eating everything in sight during the first hold.
Before I tacked Duke up I smeared his old galls – which had healed since that conditioning ride, but were still hairless – with goo to continue to protect him and rubbed his itchy face down with a damp towel. He seemed to have perked up from being somewhat demoralized by the latter half of that first loop.

I started off the second loop on foot, expecting (and I wasn’t wrong) that Duke was going to be unhappy about leaving the comfort of camp. Starting this loop Duke would have gone further than he ever had before.

Once I got back on Duke and had convinced him that yes, we were heading out again, I found this loop very enjoyable. This was the prettiest of the loops, with the beginning winding and following a lovely creek. There were also lots of wildflowers and tall grass alongside the trail. And the best part: a good portion of this loop had us in the canyons and protected from the worst of the wind. We settled into a steady pace again, with Duke trotting along on a loose rein for the most part.

Other than another exaggerated spook at a clanging metal sign and a nerve wracking moment where we were riding down a hill that some local folks were using as a shooting range for some semi-automatic rifles, this loop was scenic and more fun. That is until my left calf started hurting. Bad.

I think (which has now been confirmed by consulting with my masseur at home) that I pulled or tore a muscle in my upper calf when clinging on during that bolt-spook. When posting the particular way my muscle was flexing in relation to the stirrup and the rest of my leg gave me some very sharp terrible pain. It was all I could do to keep trotting at times, and I was always happy for the downhills because it meant I could throw Duke into his nice speedy downhill gait where posting was not needed.

 Despite how pretty that loop was (and that it was only 14 miles), it felt like it took forever. The last five miles of that loop I felt like we were going at a snail’s pace and that it was my fault due to the painful calf. Duke didn’t seem particularly motivated for speed either, and I think at one point he was feeling a bit depressed about being all alone. I had to get off and walk at several points to stretch the leg out. I tried to time it with when there was long great, at least, so I could pull grass and hand it to Duke as we walked. He also drank great on this loop after not having much interest for that first loop. I’d been giving him electrolytes every 10 miles or so since the start of the day and I think that helped.

At any rate, I came into my second check feeling more than a little haggard, questioning whether I was capable of doing the last loop of 11 miles in time as I was defiantly the turtle and the day seemed to be zipping by.

Both M and A were already finished with their ride and actually hanging out in the pulse area with their ponies when I arrived. Duke, seeing the company, pulsed down much more quickly and both M & A jumped to help me with getting him taken care of and vetted. Without a doubt they saved me from crashing and burning! Duke vetted in again with all As – he was looking much better than me at this point! It was a short (30 minute hold) and I was so grateful that M & A were there to badger me to eat and drink and take care of Duke’s needs. They also told me I had plenty of time – slightly less than 3 hours – and described the trail on the last loop to me. It sounded like I could do more cantering if Duke was up for it and make good time.

I brace myself and got back on when the time came. Luckily the break had done my leg some good and even though I hadn’t felt hungry, being badgered to eat had been good for me. I felt some of my energy return, at least.

I left for that loop with people in camp cheering for us. I asked Duke to canter and we cantered out of camp to the whoops of riders who had already finished long before us. What a rush! Duke had no issues leaving camp at this point. In fact, I felt completely synced up with him by now.

It’s an odd thing, but the last loop was my favorite loop. I know I should have been exhausted – and I was still in pain and worn out from that – but Duke and I hit some kind of groove that last loop.

The light was getting softer as the sun sank. The wind had died down, and with it, Duke’s spookiness. As promised, there were long stretches of good footing and when I asked Duke to canter he obliged with his lovely smooth ground-eating pace. Cantering was the perfect break for my calf and we cruised along watching the clouds make patterns on the endless folded hills, birds flying. I felt like we were the only living beings in the world with a purpose at that time. Duke whinnied at every cow we passed as if to say, “how’s it going, neighbor?”

You can see the mountains in the distance!
In another amusing moment there was a point in the flat valley where we rode past a (still!) large tumbleweed along the trail. Duke spun his but around at it and kicked out with a squeal. I think he was very proud of himself for “killing” a tumbleweed on his own terms that time, because the rest of that valley he felt puffed up, his neck arched despite a loose rein, like a stallion strutting his stuff.

And Duke – he was amazing! Horses are such incredible animals. I thought he would be super tired but he perked up for that last loop. He literally felt stronger that loop than the preceding one! And I know, even though I was doing my best, that I wasn’t riding optimally with my injured calf. Duke didn’t seem bothered. For such a little horse he carried me all day without complaint.

When the footing got more technical and we had to trot I actually dropped my stirrups and rode without them. At that point muscle soreness from exertion was not any kind of concern of mine compared to the stabbing of my poor abused calf muscle.

On those moments when I had to pick up my stirrups I sang to Duke (and probably a lot of whistle pigs who were embarrassed for me) to not focus on the pain. I sang the Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtle theme song the most… because we were Turtles!

We cruised into our final vet check with a little less than an hour to spare, plenty of time, really! We were the true turtles, with the ride meeting already in progress when we arrived. Duke vetted in great, with the vet making the comment that he looked even better than he had on the last check.

With A & Ms help we got Duke settled and I limped over to catch the tail end of the ride meeting and my completion prize (a hoof pick). All the Idaho riders were very kind and congratulatory on my first 50. Duke deserves the most credit, honestly, and I’m immensely grateful I was given the opportunity to ride him.

The conclusion

Other than the pulled calf muscle (which I really think happened during the “tumbleweed incident”) I found 50 miles is enough to give me rubs where I’ve never had rubs before. Next time I will employ some body glide or something similar to myself and not just my mount!

I actually was not as sore as expected, which I guess is a good sign. But despite my efforts to stay hydrated all day I certainly got dehydrated. That was the worst of it – and I think the strong wind contributed to the dehydration. I love Ms living quarters – I was able to rinse off in her little shower and feel like some semblance of human again afterward. Though cold water on rubbed-raw thighs and bits is a new and different kind of ouch that I will try and avoid in the future!

I’m pretty bummed that the photographer abandoned their post before I got to them. I guess that’s the hazard of running as the turtle. Regardless, I would have liked a photo of my first 50 to keep next to my favorite photo of Deli and I at the Mt. Adam’s LD.

After the ride I put sore-no-more clay on Duke’s legs and put standing wraps on his fronts. His back felt good, happily.

The next morning Duke was still feeling perky, his back good, and he was totally sound and pushy about wanting his food (he ate wonderfully all weekend). Pepper and Reba – they had gotten 3rd and 4th in the ride – were also perky. We packed up camp and hit the road without too much fuss.

Ride camp the next morning (many people had cleared out!).

The ponies at the rest stop (Duke in the foreground, then Pepper, then Reba).

Duke looking great the day after his first endurance race.
Lucky for us the drive home was uneventful, including the stop-over at the same rest area. I was very tied still and napped for part of it. It would take a couple days to make up my water debt, but otherwise I recovered pretty well.

So that’s it: I now have a 50 miler completion on my record! I can’t wait for the next ride and am so thankful for my friends and teammates support me the way they do. The endurance community is the best niche in the equestrian sport, hands (and hooves) down!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Friday Prep For a Stress-free Endurance Ride (PNER Convention Notes)

“For a Stress Free Ride: the Friday Pre-Game” presentation by Karen Leiman at the 2017 PNER Convention. Leiman showed the audience her step-by-step routine when setting up camp and prepping for the following morning. 

What follows is a rough bullet list of her step-by-step. The hope is that this will give those new to the sport some structure and possibly give old hats some other ideas!

Electrolyte the horse the night before (Thursday) – it helps get the thirst going early on. Include lots of water in the feed you give them at this point.

Give one more walk-around after loading horse into trailer before you set off!

Hauling to the ride:
  • 3-4 hours away, she won’t get horse out for a break. Going further than that, she gets the horse out for a rest break.
  • When you stop and get the horse out, let them pee and offer them some water.
  • This lets them now they are not going to be stuck in the trailer – they will be given a chance to get out and drink.
  • First thing when unloading, whenever you arrive – offer them water!
After arrival, Leiman does a warm-up ride. The purpose of this is to:
  • Confirm horse isn’t lame
  • Confirm has all equipment (like your sponge, bags, etc.)
  • Work up a tiny bit of sweat
  • She goes about 5 miles
After the pre-ride Leiman focuses on her saddle packs:
  • Include a whistle and extra boot
  • Electrical tape can fix everything!
  • She keeps her water bottles out at night handy on the side of the trailer – they will get cool at night and remain handy.
  • Mixes pro-biotics with the electrolytes after the pre-ride.
  • Adds additional lyte salt (which is additional potassium)
  • She use olive oil spray with her electrolyte syringes to keep them working smoothly (and so they last longer)
  • She also does one syringe of electrolytes every 10 miles or so during the ride (on a 50)
  • Electrolytes go in the saddle bags
Packing the vet-check box;
  • Towel for wiping itchy horse faces!
  • PNER Handbook – has contact information for everyone you could need!

For feed:

  • She takes a container of soaked oats to the vet checks.
  • Soaking her carrots in water as well (all cut up)
  • She does not feed beet pulp on ride day. Does not put electrolytes in the AM feed either – because it’s more likely the horse will eat it!
After everything is set up, sit back and relax or socialize with your fellow riders!

Chilling pony at the EDRA Grizzly Mountain ride this year.
Last time: Choosingthe Endurance Horse (PNER Convention Notes)
Next time: Ride report!

Choosing the Endurance Horse (PNER Convention Notes)

Meg Sleeper, DVM, DACVIM (cardiology) gave this presentation in conjunction to her talk on interpreting the results of blood machine analysis at the 2017 PNER convention. 

The Basics (what you should consider first):

Balance: the front and hind end should have weight evenly distributed throughout (endurance horse being slightly uphill is a minor flaw, but being built downhills is something to avoid). Bone substance should be appropriate to body build (8” of cannon for 1000lbs). A nice deep heart girth and chest is also extremely beneficial!

Straightness: Straightness of the legs is important because any significant deviation could result in a weak spot that is prone to injury. Minor flaws such as if a horse has mildly turned out or toe in or is over at the knees are generally less important flaws. One concern with a horse that is toe in/out is that they can interfere.

Feet: Concave soles with thick walls, good heel structure. A good farrier can significantly change foot anatomy! The balance of the foot depends on the sport. For endurance you want a shorter toe and a good low heel that is not under-run.

Body type: It’s better to select for long tapered muscles vs. short and bunchy. The reason being – heat dissipation!

Movement: Efficient, freely moving gait. Padding or winging is inefficient and can cause injury. When comparing between a “daisy clipper” (a very low mover) vs. animated mover – we want something in the middle who can move through bad footing without using excess energy.

Understanding the limitations when choosing a horse (i.e. there is no perfect horse):

There is no perfect horse and we often choose to compete the horse we have. Because of this, have realistic expectations for your horse. A heavier built horse is not going to cool out as easily as an arab or arab cross. Ride and care for your horse accordingly!

If it’s a horse that does not have great recoveries – slow down the last mile coming into the vet check. You can also learn to pace by maintaining a very steady efficient speed. Trotting is actually a more efficient gait than a walk and horses can learn to cool down in a slow trot.

Assess which speed/gaits are more efficient for your horse! Some horses may prefer to canter, for example. (She tries to condition her horse to develop a canter to avoid doing the huge extended trot. A relaxed easy canter is often less wear and tear than a big trot!). Its often a personal preference for the horses. (When she’s conditioning she tries to do 60-40 diagonals/leads on the weaker side.)

Spend time cooling and effective cooling on the trail. Sometimes we get caught up in going forward but it may be rare that you get off and cover your horse with water. It’s amazing how much cooler you make them by dousing all of them (belly and groin) with water. Carrying a scoop can make a huge difference on hot rides. This can be the difference between getting their heart rate down for big-bodied horses! There was no link between dumping ice water on horses and horses cramping up, but if they are continuing to work and move down the trail then cramping should not be an issue. Try riding in the shade whenever possible – and never walk when it’s hot and sunny because you want a breeze on the horse. Putting the same temperature water on the horse that is their body temperature is essentially useless (sometimes mixing alcohol with water will make it evaporate faster, or having ice water).

Monitor the effectiveness of the cooling at holds by checking the heart rate during holds. If they don’t have a normal pulse, continue to put water on them throughout the stop.

A horse that is not particularly well suited to endurance will be at increased risk of lameness and/or may require more preparation than a well-suited horse. Know when to admit a horse is not suitable for the sport – you may have tried your best.

Other considerations:

What about pre-examinations before a purchase? Consider evaluating heart size if you want to be really competitive (remember, meg Sleeper is a cardiologist!). However, soundness is even more important for the endurance horse! It’s reasonable to consider basic radiography. However, if the horse is already doing the sport and is successful, normal flexions can show you a lot too! $350-400 for a comprehensive examination is important.

A sound brain on a sound body is key!

Al Mara breeding is what Meg Sleeper does. DR Thunder Bask stallion. Sirocco Cadence Some stuff with the mind is genetic! A good mind is inheritable. Recoveries may also be genetic -- Meg Sleeper certainly believes this is the case!

Horses for a heavyweight? It’s most important that the rider is balanced and the tack is very good! Height does not matter. A 14.3-15hh horse can be fine for a heavyweight rider, especially with good bone. Bigger horses need more LSD than a smaller horse to get a good base before speed is added.

That's all for now!

Next time: "A Stress-free Friday: endurance ride prep." (PNER Convention Notes)

Blood Machine Testing – How to Interpret the Results (PNER Convention Notes)

Meg Sleeper, DVM, DACVIM (cardiology expert!) gave this presentation on how to interpret the information you can get from blood analysis.

Lovingly nicknamed Camilia, PNER’s Abaxis blood machine travels to endurance rides throughout the region. Riders can pay to get their horse’s blood drawn for analysis – this is helpful information for those curious! Beware... it's about to get technical!

Overview (what are these terms and what are we looking for?):

  • PCV/TP, CBC (complete blood count – looking at #s of white blood cells), chemistry (this is important and usually taken at rides)
  • Packed cell volume (PCV) – manual count (vs. Hematocrit which is done in a machine). Normal results vary by “breed” and “fitness”. Endurance horses tend to have a lower PCV. Red blood cells are important! They are the main oxygen carrying capacity in your blood. They also remove CO2. Anemia results from: blood loss (external or internal – which can be from something like a bleeding ulcer). If anemia is acute, it will take 12-24 hours until PCV accurately reflect that lost because it takes time for the body to compensate. If it’s chronic, however, it should show in the PCV.

Polycythemia means increased red cell count. This is usually seen in dehydration cases (and is usually coupled with high protein levels). Also, if a stressed horse or working horse their spleen will contract and release more red blood cells. The equine spleen has muscles in it that contract with cantering or excitement and dump those cells into the blood stream. An “absolute” change is when you have more RBC than you should (usually because of disease, such as chronic hypoxia, some forms of kidney or liver disease can also cause an increase).

Total protein (TP) in the blood is made up of 3 components: albumin, globulin & fibrinogen. This can be helpful measurement if you are looking at a low PCV horse because it will help you to determine what each means.

  • Albumin is a protein produced in the liver and helps prevent fluid from leaking out of the blood vessels. If you have a high albumin, it is consistent with dehydration. If it’s lower than normal, the common reason for that is diarrhea. Kidney disease, liver disease, and other reasons (all chronic disease) can also make this number low.
  • Globulins are produced in the liver and are important for immune function. Higher than normal globulins are a sign of inflammation (infection, cancer, etc.). When they are low there are other issues and those are not usually seen in endurance horses (often seen in foals when they haven’t received colostrum).
  • Fibrinogen produced by the liver in response to inflammation. A high number indicates active inflammation!

The main two we are interested in is dehydration and the spleen contraction (because the spleen’s contraction will indicate if the horse is truly dehydrated).

Chemistry tests:

Glutamyltransferase (GGT) – can show evidence of liver disease. Donkeys and mules normally have higher levels of GGT than horses. This number can also be elevated in horses in intense training programs.

Aspartate Aminotransferase (AST/SGOT) – the main reason we see this in endurance horses is when there is muscle damage. It peaks 48 hours after muscle damage and takes 3-4 days after the injury.

Creatine Kinase (CK) – Is another muscle enzyme that is not elevated with liver disease. This level is more associated with skeletal muscle or cardiac muscle damage. It can have mild increase with transport, rolling, and hard work. Significant increases to CK (up over 5000) consistent with muscle cell damage. The CK will go up very quickly after damage (peaks within hours of the insult to the muscles) while the AST will peak later and stick around much longer. A CK of 2-3000 after a hard vigorous work is not necessarily tying up!

Creatinine is a byproduct of muscle work and it’s excreted through the kidneys. It can indicate kidney damage and is a good test for accessing kidney function. Horses that tie up or have another muscle-stressed events are at risk for kidney disease.

Blood urea nitrogen (BUN) – the urea is the byproduct (and is also filtered through kidneys). BUN is increased by GI bleeding. Is the other main test to look at kidney function.

Glucose Measures the amount of sugar sitting in the blood. Hypoglycemia (the lack of sugar) can happen just because the blood sample sat before it was run – hours can make a difference. Hypoglycemia is also found in cases with endotoxic shock, or young horses that are not eating well. Elevated levels in the blood can be due to excitement, equine metabolic syndrome (pre-diabetes in horses), PPID, etc.


SodiumLow sodium is most common from loss of sodium in sweat. Equine sweat has a high amount of sodium – more so than their blood level. You can see low sodium because of diarrhea, etc. Increased sodium is often due to water deprivation – something rare in the horses we will be dealing with because we will always be offering them water! Salt poisoning can also occur for horse that eat too much salt. The horse kidney is very good at getting rid of excess electrolytes, at most it will show in an upset stomach (i.e. you might not see it on the blood work).

Potassium – Is indication of the free-P in the blood. However, the majority of potassium is located in the cells. Potassium measure meant because low P can lead to arrhythmias in horses. Low potassium can be caused by reflux, diarrhea, polyuria, & excessive sweat loss. Horses usually have diets high in potassium. You should test the fractional discretion and a blood sample, because horses that are trying to conserve potassium the blood sample may not be enough (if a horse is trying to conserve it, it will be under 16%). High potassium can be found in a blood sample if there are some burst cells in the sample; HYPP can also cause this.

CalciumThe most common cause for low calcium in our horses is when the albumin is too low. Cantharidin (toxin in blister beetles) can cause dramatic reductions in their calcium levels. Kidney disease and muscle exertion are also common for low calcium. Calcium that is too high is really unlikely in a healthy horse – kidney disease, cancer, or too much is given orally will make calcium levels elevated.

Phosphorus – This is not a common test, but low P indicates chronic kidney disease or starvation. High levels of P is often because abnormal ratios in the diet (compared to Ca); intense endurance exercise, and possibly even bone metabolism.

That's all for now!

Next time: Choosing the Endurance Horse (PNER Convention Notes)

Conditioning and Maintaining the Endurance Horse (PNER Convention Notes)

This presentation was given by Heather Wimer at the 2017 PNER Convention.

Building a strong athletic horse is not just about the miles.

Here is what Heather Wimer suggested to improve yourself and your horse (which will, in turn, improve your endurance experience):

Become a great horse-person – the better you are the better you will be able to draw out the full potential in your horse. Horses will come and go but your skills as a horse-person should always be improving. What you take with you matters! Take lessons – learn what diagonals and leads are and switch them; become aware of how you are riding at all times; learn how to ride well downhill; never think you know it all because you probably never will know it all!
  • This pursuit includes making your personal fitness a priority. Wimer suggest that you have a fitness program that includes cardio, strength, and flexibility training. Keep track of how you feel after rides to diagnose your own fitness level and work to diagnose and fix your “problem spots.”

 Become an expert on YOUR horse – you need to know that horse better than anyone else (including your vet). You need to be the one who will know when something isn’t right because the vet (at checks) only sees them for a short space of time. Your job is to be an advocate for your horse!

Ask questions! It’s a good idea to know something about the person who you are asking for advice. Find people who ride the way you ride or remember what it was like for them when they were at your stage.

You should not neglect training in favor of conditioning. Carefully building your horse means taking time the think about thing you want your horse to learn and then take the time to teach them what they need to know to succeed. For example, you need to improve strength between necessary muscle groups, work on specific biomechanics, etc. You can get a 15-40% edge on your competition for the ride itself and soundness over the years with this kind of approach.

You can change the way a horse moves for the better by doing dressage!

Dressage will help your horse move better, more balanced, and more flexible. Things to consider: 

Balance “A horse is balanced when it has developed the necessary muscles and physical posture (or self-carriage) to facilitate distributing and supporting its own weight.” – Endurance Riding and Competition by Donna Snyder-Smith. Horses by nature are good at figuring out the easiest way to propel themselves down the trail. When a horse lacks balance they will use more energy, be harder to steer and control because they will be heavy on their forehand, be less comfortable to ride, etc. They need learn to balance themselves and distribute the weight of themselves and the rider, making themselves lighter on the front end. When the hind end drags it hollows out the back. When a horse is reaching underneath himself it lifts the back and suspends the weight of the rider more easily.
Where do you start to build balance? Get them to raise that back by stretching DOWN. Once the back is stretched out then they can use their hind end.

One trick: use polo wraps one end on the bit, feed through armpits and tie up by their withers. To help stretch down and therefore lift their back!
I now use the polo-wrap trick with Deli for her rehab and it works well.

Straightness – “The ability to use both sides of their body with equal suppleness and strength.” – Donna Snyder-Smith. On a core level there horses are not using everything equally, so when they get pushed they will wear out the side they are using more and favoring. When they wear that side out they are going to have to rely on something they are not used to – and then the consequences start piling up. It’s our job to see where their strengths and weaknesses are. Horses are the master of compensation and they are often so willing to serve us to their detriment.

Observations on adding speed…


When you speed up, it often requires a new set of skills. If you train at a different speed, you are introducing different factors. When you introduce speed work it needs to not compromise the quality of your horse’s movement! Essentially, make sure they are not compensating when they speed up.

Conquering common issues:

To conquer inversion: work on relaxation, focus, and longitudinal flexion (getting them to flex through the body).

To  conquer speed or sluggish retardation: work on balance, rhythm, impulsion, and collection. Your horses may be using either of these as a cop-out when something is hard – often it depends on the horse’s personality which one they choose!

To conquer crookedness: teach them to be supple and engage that part of themselves they are trying to avoid.

 Maintaining your horse once you are on track with all of the above...

Observing – constantly evaluate how your horse moves. Horses are masters of compensation, but it comes at a cost! This can mean putting your horse on the lounge at least weekly to evaluate how the horse is moving regularly. Things to watch for: watch length of stride for each foot; the path each foot takes;  is the movement the same going each direction; watch all the way into the hips and shoulders (not just the feet); are they able to bend both directions? Training to make that possible means building lunging skills and the ability to bend, flex, and stretch.

Stretching – there are serious benefits to routine stretching. This can lead to increased flexibility and rage of motion, decreased possibility of injury, better bond with your horse, relaxation techniques you can use the morning of a ride, and it can also serve as a means to track the horse’s flexibility.
  • Hold your stretch for 10-15 seconds and release. Ideally you want them to relax into the stretch (otherwise they won’t get a good benefit from it).
  • Don’t do more than 3 repetitions with the stretches.

Other things to consider include: body work, massage, and chiropractic work to maintain your athletes.

Conditioning your horse at last:

One plan will not work when applied to every single horse! There is no one-size fits all plan.

Progressive loading – gradual increase in workload with each new level of training being maintained until the body adapts to the additional stress. This is the basic principle on which all conditioning is built on! We want to stress the body just enough to make the changes to make stronger.

The difference between aerobic (where the work still allows for oxygen to be supplied and replenished) and anaerobic (means without oxygen, working at a pace where the body cannot supply enough for the working muscles – this builds up more lactic acid eventually lading to fatigue.). Anaerobic conditioning is something you can use to tap into the next level of fitness (as with interval training). Generally most horses start to get into anaerobic around 150bpm

Remember there are cycles of work and rest. When the body gets stressed it needs that time to make changes. Your horse will get worn down if you don’t allow them to rest. A little amount of work only needs a little rest, and it scales up depending on how much effort is put forth.

There are baseline time frames for how long it takes to get structures to see changes (with serious work):
  • Cardiovascular training and fitness – about 3 months
  • Muscles 3-6 months
  • Support tissues 6-12 months
  • Bone – 3 year

Further recommendations from experienced endurance competitors

Jornaling/record-keeping. It’s helpful to have a journal to write down what you are doing – what worked, what didn’t, etc. Date, distance, time it took, electrolytes, where you rode, the weather, and recovery info (forming a routine by adding heart rates when you first hop of and 5 minutes after – it’s a great way to track their actual fitness. All the info from your actual rides (each loop, how long, etc.)

Wimer asked experienced endurance riders in the PNER group for their advice for a specific scenario. The hypothetical horse they were asked to plan for 100% sound, 6-7 years, well-trained, currently being trail ridden mostly at walk 1-2x a week.

  • Many folks said they would require a minimum of 3-4 months before an LD and 3-6 months before a 50 miler.
  • Karen Bumgarner said she wants to see a horse do at least 200 miles before doing a 50-miler.
  • When checking their heart rate monitor – needs to get down to 60bpm within 10 minutes after a 10 miles ride of almost all trotting.
  • Some folks do walk a mile trot a mile starting out; some folks use one of their rides for long slow distance (same speed, but extend distance), one fast day, one day for arena work. Many of these folks only do 3 days of riding in a week!
  • Consider your personal safety! Wear a helmet, carry a phone on your person, carry an ID and pertinent information.
  • The golden rule is: never increase speed and distance (OR difficult terrain) at the same time.

 Once your horse has a good LSD miles – once you’ve got them going – how many miles should you be riding on a weekly basis?
  • 15-20 miles if you are going LD
  •  20-40 miles for 50s per week
  •  Do a couple conditioning rides that are at least as long as the longest loop on your first 50!

How do you decide how to pace a horse on your first ride?
  • Never faster than you trained!
  • Use their efficient working pace (which will change as your horse gets more fit).
  • Watch heart rate and recoveries.
  • Take the terrain into account.
  • Practice negative splits – concept that you start the ride slower than what you finish it at. Gives your horse time to warm up, gives you time to analyze whether you were right about your horse’s level of conditioning and ability. If you start conservatively, then you still have time to adjust and adapt and still finish the ride well.
  • Don’t use what you haven’t conditioned with (tack, speed, etc.).
  • If your horse is having issues in the brain department at a ride – stop and think!

Describe average week of conditioning for a horse in their first season of 50s?
  • 2-4 days a week
  • One long ride up to 25 miles (LSD 8-9 mph may be average, but adjust for your horse) – some folks do one longer ride each week.
  • Shorter rides on hills (8-10 miles at 9-10mph or 8-10 hard but slow hill work)
  • Not forgetting arena work (at least 1 day of arena work)
  • One or two days that are two hours of walking – try and get as big and marchy of a walk as possible!
  • Some folks do hill repeats – walking up, then trotting up, then cantering up and leading them back down the hill.

And good luck on the trail!