Things a Tevis-bound Horse Needs to Know

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[Considering the format of this text, please understand that the below are all 'according to Jenni'. ?My fellow endurance riders can probably add ten times this many to the list and I encourage them to weigh in!]

How to go uphill.

Lakota engages his engine on Cougar Rock in 2009.

Lakota engages his engine on Cougar Rock in 2009.

It is better to push a pony, than to pull a pony.? The endurance horse must learn to use its rear end - and condition that important engine - to go uphill effectively and efficiently.? The best hill horse I ever rode is ? Quarter Horse and that little guy has a serious back-end engine.? He can throw in a couple of strong stokes with his back legs and it's like riding a turbo booster.

How to go downhill.

Going downhill is more an exercise in balance and controlling momentum.? The horse in balance will drop its rear end to manage its center of gravity and make the navigation of the hill effortless as it uses gravity to create each step.? Several horses I ride will actually plan - I can feel them doing it - to let the momentum take over toward the bottom of the hill in order to use it (by cantering, typically) as they travel up the next peak.

How to lead from either side.

Garrett Ford showing The Fury for BC in 2012

Garrett Ford showing The Fury for BC in 2012

Seems simple, most endurance horses are fine with it, but it's key if you just cannot walk on the horse's left due to trail conditions.? In general this is a convenient and safety-promoting skill for your horse to have.? Also if you are fortunate enough to show for best condition (you finish among the top ten), you are required to trot your horse in hand both directions in a circle.? Try doing that from the outside - you're lucky if you don't get knocked down and you will look idiotic trying to outrun an amped endurance horse, regardless.

How to stand quietly and allow the rider to mount from either side.

Perhaps the most comic element of mine and Stella's partnership is our relative heights.? I'm 5' 2" and she's every bit of 15.2.? To add to the mix, I'm riding her in a beautiful Brown's Orthoflex endurance? saddle which itself has height, so once I'm up there it feels like I'm riding a really tall horse.? This works as long as I remember to watch for low trees.? Until I dismount for some unforeseen reason ?and then need to get back on out on trail.? Here's where your horse must be trained to (a) lead up to and stand quietly next to stumps or hillocks or rocks and (b) allow you to mount from either side.? Stella is actually great at this but you'd be surprised how many people go to Tevis with a horse they can't mount from both sides (sometimes it's the rider with the handicap) or one that won't stand quietly on trail for them to regain the saddle.? Imagine being on a cliff-side trail, with the down edge on the left side of your horse, and you can only mount on the left side, and your horse is dancing away from you.? How's that going to work?? Yikes.

How to sidepass.

Frequently necessary even if you don't need to work gates - side passing in close quarters, on the side of hills, off trail are all necessary skill sets of the safe endurance horse.? Your mount needs to willingly go both directions quietly and without objection.? I always check where each new horse's buttons are for side passing and backing before I head out to ride.

How to go without a bit.

It does depend on the horse, but the ability to ride your horse out of a bit - either just in a halter with reins clipped to each side or in a bitless bridle of some type - is an advantage.? Most horses I've raced cannot start a ride without a bit.? Brakes are pretty important in the competition-crazed Arabian.? But typically after some large number of miles has passed under their hooves you can transition to something that just applies pressure to the nose for communication.

The benefits are that the horse can eat and eat well at any opportunity and it generally provides some relief from the chapping and chafing that a combination of metal bit and electrolytes can induce in the delicate corners of their mouths.

How to run with the rider.

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For any number of reasons, you may want to run with your horse on the trail.? If the rider is heavy - nearly any male fits this description - running with the horse will give it a much-needed rest.? If the ride is long, or grueling, or both, any rider may want to get off and give the horse a break for a mile or two.

So a well-trained endurance horse should know how to jog quietly behind or beside their running rider.? This means not on top of the rider and not at any great distance that might create the dangers of a long lead rope.

I've ridden horses that I nearly had to drag when I was on the ground and horses that I had to run in front of, waving my hands like a windmill, to keep them behind me. ?Either is really annoying and discouraged me from running with that particular horse, which was unfortunate.

The vast majority of horses like it when their runner is off and running next to them.? It's a nice moment with a tired horse that's carried you for scores of miles.? And - if you are fit enough to do it (and you should be) - it feels really good to use your legs for what they were designed for after hours posting in stirrups.

How to tail.

I can't actually say that every horse I've ridden knew how to tail.? But it's worth putting the training in to have that flexibility.

"Tailing" is sending your horse uphill on trail in front of you, holding the end of his lead rope (your trail reins attached just at one end) and grabbing onto his tail to walk behind him.? Clearly the horse has to be trained for this.? Going forward with you holding onto his tail will not make sense to begin with and you certainly don't want to get kicked.? But a good little trail horse will put its head down and motor up that trail with you skipping along behind.? It's less work for them to pull some fraction of your weight than to carry all of it.? And some of the trails we have to go up in Tevis will make even a fit hiker's knees weak.

How to eat and drink.

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Competitive horses are nervous creatures.? Sometimes eating and drinking are the last things on their minds as they focus on other horses and vet check activity.? And Arabians are desert bred - or at least I like to say that, maybe it's irrelevant - and they often won't take their first sip of water until they are 15 or 20 miles into a race.

Having a horse - and it seems not to be anything you can really train for - who will opportunistically drink deeply and eat anything that comes to hand is a clear advantage.? Stella is one of these beasts.? You'd think Jenn never feeds her the way she acts on trail.? She'll even go after trees like she's some sort of giraffe.? But it serves in spades when we get to a vet check and she immediately tucks into whatever we put in front of her.? She's also a great influence on horses she rides with.? By plunging her muzzle into a trough and purposefully sucking down gulp after gulp of water, she will convince other horses that it's a good idea.

How to pee when given opportunity (and on cue).

Again, can't say that I ride a horse who will pee on command (whistling is, for some reason, what we use as the cue) but as a rider you learn to spot the places a horse would like to pee and you can ride them or lead them into it with that objective in mind.? Saw dust, sand, tree debris - anything that will prevent splashing is usually what a horse prefers.

I'm going to assume that by having this on the list you will infer that peeing = good.

How to carry a rider.

This is something that a lot of endurance horses aren't very well-versed in.? A horse will carry itself - generally and if left to its own devices - just like it would if it were living wild.? Which is great if you're just a naked horse, running along over the tundra.? But add 165 to 250 pounds of rider and that form no longer works.? A horse needs to round its back upward to support the weight of the rider and that requires it to get its legs - particularly the rear legs - more underneath the whole assembly.

Some horses are more naturally inclined to make this adjustment, but it typically requires arena training and rider understanding/knowledge to get the horse into a form that will compensate for the rider's weight over a full 100 mile distance and leave the horse as good as he was to begin with.

I wish I could say that I have absolutely ridden all of the wonderful and willing endurance horses I've been on in perfect collected form.? Ha!? Not even close.? I have an advantage in being small and light, so riding badly isn't as hard on the horse.? But I would like to think that I learn and grow and try to do better every day so that the horses I ride come away from the experience at minimum no worse for the wear and at maximum having had a pretty good time.