endurance riding

The age-old adage says “slow and steady wins the race,” and researchers have found that it rings true for endurance riding—at least at the beginning of the ride.

While that might seem obvious or “common sense,” the fact is many riders continue to ride fast in the early stages of endurance events, said Euan David Bennet, PhD, a research associate at the University of Glasgow School of Veterinary Medicine’s Weipers Centre for Equine Welfare, in Scotland. And as his new study shows, a too-quick start frequently leads to failure to qualify (FTQ) to continue the ride during veterinary checks.

“This should certainly help develop a speed strategy to help avoid FTQ outcomes,” Bennet said. “That’s not quite the same as developing a strategy for a win, but for riders that want to win, safely finishing the ride would be a good start.”

Fast early riding speeds stood out among 25 multivariable risk factors Bennet and Tim Parkin, BSc, BVSc, PhD, DECVPH, MRCVS, also of the University of Glasgow, investigated in their study of more than 35,000 Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) endurance starts worldwide between 2012 and 2015.

Previous investigations linking speed with FTQ focused on average speed of the entire ride, the researchers reported. However, Bennet and Parkin believed it could be useful to check speeds at various times of the ride.

They looked at each horse’s speed during each of the race’s six loops. They found that horses with particularly fast speeds in Loops 1 and 2 out of 6 had a much greater likelihood of ending the ride early due to FTQ, said Bennet. They also noted that a significant drop in speed between Loops 2 and 3 frequently led to FTQ.

Another relevant risk factor? A history of longer previous rides, which tended to be associated with more lameness-related FTQs. “This could be related to the physical toll that endurance takes on the musculoskeletal system of the horse, as well as general metabolic fatigue,” the researchers stated.

Furthermore, horses coming back to competition sooner after a mandatory rest period, compared to later, were more likely to experience FTQ, they said.

And interestingly, they said, rider effect also proved to be significant. Those who’d had horses experience an FTQ in the past were more likely to experience the same kind of FTQ later with a different horse. “This potentially indicates that less-skilled riders will continue to make the same mistakes,” the researchers reported.

“Initially, we hypothesized that each horse could be assigned a ‘risk level’ based on their individual history and current ride performance,” Bennet explained. “If this risk level could be communicated to riders, trainers, and vets, then it could help inform them.

At the very least, knowing a particular horse is, for example, within the top 5% risk category could lead to a different decision at a vet gate. This information could be used by riders to modify their strategies for the next loop and the rest of the ride, so as to maximize their chances of finishing without a FTQ.”

Outside of veterinary checks, however, riders can benefit from understanding risk factors when considering their mounts’ general welfare and health during training and competition, Bennet said.

“On an individual basis, I think the most important focus for riders should be on knowing what their horses are capable of and not pushing them too hard,” he said. “The data is very clear: Some horses are clearly capable of riding at consistently fast speeds when managed correctly. Others are clearly not and end up struggling and getting FTQed when they are pushed.

“I would never recommend a statistical model as a replacement for an individual rider knowing what their horse can handle,” he continued. “But the model could be useful to the individual simply as an additional tool to help manage their approach to the ride.”

Bennet believes his background outside of the equine world (specifically, in astrophysics) has given him a particularly neutral point of view in leading this study, and that riders and veterinarians can benefit from that.

“Based on the pure data alone,” he said, “I would encourage anyone interested in improving performance to make improving equine welfare their starting point, learn from our results, and build from there.”

Editor’s Note: Bennet and Parkin outlined other risk factors, including horse age and sex, rider sex, geographical location, number of competitors, and ride length in a complementary study. Read a recap of that study at TheHorse.com/164245.

The study, “Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) endurance events: Riding speeds as a risk factor for failure to qualify outcomes (2012–2015),” was published in The Veterinary Journal