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Endurance Riding: Reaching the Finish Line is Winning

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Endurance riding is a blend of stamina, discipline, fitness, and patience, traditionally known as the ultimate challenge in equestrian sports. Riders must understand their horses well enough to guide both through a day of long-distance riding across diverse terrains. Endurance rider Tracey Parker takes you on a journey through the many facets of this challenging discipline.



Contrary to what many might think, there is an extreme focus on the horse's health in endurance riding today. For instance, there are various age limits depending on the race length to ensure that younger horses do not participate in competitions that would overburden them. A veterinarian inspects each horse to ensure their condition is sufficient before they are even allowed to start.

Routes are marked with ribbons or similar markers. At the international level, riders are provided with maps or GPS coordinates, showing obstacles on the course such as water or steep terrain, and "pitstops," which are mandatory stops with additional veterinary checks. At each stop, horses are examined by veterinarians for hydration levels, health, any saddle sores, pulse, and respiratory rate. Horses can be withdrawn from the race if deemed unfit to continue.

The horse's recovery rate at each stop is crucial for performance. Typically, this involves having a resting pulse of 64 beats per minute within a set time period. This can take from three to four minutes to achieve, and up to twenty minutes towards the end of the race. A horse can only win if it is still fit enough to continue.

Spanish rider Jaume Punti Dachs during one of the many pit stops along the FEI Endurance European Championship 2019. Photo: FEI/Martin Dokoupil.


A relatively high number of bitless and barefoot horses are seen in endurance circles. Depending on the distance and terrain, barefoot horses might use boots to protect their hooves. In southern Spain, where the ground is like coarse sandpaper, boots are often essential; otherwise, the hooves would simply wear out too much. The equipment is often plastic because leather is not as easy to clean. This means people can have some wild and crazy colors. Whips, spurs, and fixed martingales are prohibited. Tracey recommends training in a heavier saddle than the one you compete in. High-level riders might use a carbon fiber saddle for the race itself, but these are not flexible, so they are not ideal for training or daily use.



At each stop, the rider and horse can have a team waiting for them. They can help with hydration, cooling down both horse and rider with water, and checking their well-being. Tracey Parker has been an endurance rider for fifteen years and organized both international and local competitions in southern Spain before the pandemic.

“Often, the team consists of the rider's family. This contributes to the caring atmosphere at many races,” she explains.

When races focus on health and safely reaching the finish line, rather than beating competitors, it often creates a good atmosphere among riders.

“If someone is struggling or gets a little lost, it is common for riders to help each other. At the pitstops, you can also share and exchange equipment among riders, especially with those who do not have their own team,” Tracey emphasizes.

A veterinarian inspects each horse to ensure their condition is good enough before they are even allowed to start. Photo: FEI

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Riders can be as young as ten years old, and there is no upper age limit. Certain competitions have minimum weight limits for the riders. Any rider, saddle, and pad weighing under 75 kg must be equipped with additional weights. Weigh-ins can occur at any time during the race, as well as at the start and finish.

All horse breeds can participate. In Spain, where Tracey lives, she explains: “The most common breeds used for endurance are Arabs or Anglo-Arab crosses. Arabs were bred for long distances, so they can be good horses for this type of competition. Often, for example, Irish Cob or Spanish PRE horses simply cannot get their pulse low enough.”

In the UK, there is a points system from one to three, so Irish Cob and other similar breeds can still participate. They will likely finish in a different result category than the other breeds. This fair system promotes the horse's health as the primary focus and personal best as the performance focus.

There are no big prizes in endurance riding. Most do it for the love of it. To qualify internationally, one can apply for sponsorships. Some aim to be among the top ten in the world.

Spain is one of the countries that has won internationally several times, even though the sport is not very big in the country. The World Equestrian Games have been won by Spain both individually and as a team many times.

“I think it is an overlooked discipline because companies prefer to invest money in the more popular spectator disciplines, which endurance riding really isn’t. Also, the fact that it is not an Olympic event may mean it lacks the attention other equestrian sports receive,” Tracey says with some wonder.

The gold medal-winning team from Spain taking a well-deserved rest at the FEI Endurance European Championship 2019. Photo: FEI/Martin Dokoupil

Read also: A Competent Rider Must Have Ample Self-Confidence to Lead the Horse


“I like to start riding my horses when they are five years old. Before that, we do a lot of groundwork together to develop our relationship,” explains Tracey.

“Ideally, in my opinion, you would initially train a group of youngsters together to trot without a rider. This helps them get used to being in a crowd for group starts, which can feel claustrophobic with all the commotion. In such a highly charged atmosphere, it can be overwhelming. It can end up being really unpleasant and dangerous for the horses.”

According to Tracey, another way to start them is to use an experienced horse to lead a young one. The experienced one shows the young one how to stay calm and react to new situations, stimuli, etc.

Similar to how a person would train for a marathon, training horses for endurance riding should start slowly and gently. Tracey simply suggests: “Walk, walk, walk. You need to ride your horse five days a week and increase the distance a little each time. The first month is just walking. The second month, you can alternate between walking and trotting. The third month, you can increase the ratio of trotting to walking. There is no quick way to physical fitness.”

Proper feeding is also crucial for proper conditioning. Feed with fiber will support the horse's muscle strength. Using electrolytes often in the diet and increasing this before a race will also support hydration. This is very important for both horse and rider throughout the race.



  • Riding long distances has been important for as long as horses have been domesticated. The earliest records of long-distance rides date back to the early 1900s, when armies, primarily Russian and Polish, trained for World War I. They rode an average of 480 kilometers over five days, with each horse carrying at least 90 kg.
  • This form of military test evolved into a sport in the USA in the 1950s when Wendell Robie and a group of others rode the Western States Trail in a week. A distance that eventually could be covered in a maximum of 24 hours. This became the Tevis Cup and is still today the toughest 160-kilometer ride in the world.
  • Competitive endurance riding involves riding horses on routes over mixed terrain over long distances between 80 and 160 kilometers. The sport’s international motto is “To finish is to win.” The sport focuses on the horse's health throughout each race. It is more about personal records than competing against other riders and their horses.


It is a good idea to ensure that you and your horse train on various terrains. Although you must be in the saddle at the start and end of the race, there are no rules that you must stay in the saddle the entire way. Tracey recalls a competition on Costa de la Luz where the route took participants down the dunes.

“Instead of staying in the saddle, I decided it was safer for the horse to navigate the dunes without my extra weight. That way, if there were any obstacles under the sand, like hidden tree roots, he could just easily protect himself from them. I just let go and rolled all the way down. It was so much fun, even though I ended up with sand in my underwear. It was much safer for him.”

Riders must be fit themselves to participate in endurance riding.

“The golden rule is that if you can’t walk a kilometer yourself, you can’t expect your horse to do it with you on its back. Out in the terrain, you just have to get off. Therefore, you need to be in good enough shape to continue, even when you are not sitting on the horse,” Tracey explains.

“And then the fact that you are in a light seat most of the time. We usually don’t post trot, so you and the horse really need to be in biomechanical harmony with each other. So you need to have an independent seat and centered riding.”


As with many other international sports, you often have to travel quite far to get to a competition. This means that horses will stand in their trailers or transporters often over long distances before the race even begins.

To take good care of the horses, most will travel to an event several days in advance and stay a few nights before the start date. This gives the horse a chance to rest and be in good form before participating.

The same happens after the race, so the horses can rest before traveling home again.

When the horse is home, it should have a rest day for every 16 km ridden in the race. You can even increase this depending on how far you have traveled.

This article was originally written and published in Danish by Louisa Wood

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