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Endurance for the long haul

Endurance riding is the odyssey among equestrian sports. No other discipline requires a horse and rider to traverse such varied terrain and travel such great distances as this one, writes CHRISTINE ARMISHAW.

In the sport of endurance riding, horse soundness, fitness and overall health are of utmost importance. Added to that, rider gumption is essential. Vet inspections are held at multiple locations throughout a ride and any horse that doesn’t pass the mandatory checks can be vetted straight out of the competition.

Those are stringent requirements, so you may be wondering how horses are trained so they can successfully compete in what are often rugged conditions. In search of answers, I spoke with Rebecca (Bec) Radny, who competes in endurance right up to FEI level alongside not just one, but both of her highly successful parents. The endurance gene runs strong in this family.

Bec has been involved in endurance for 18 years, pretty good going considering she’s just 23 years old. ¯In 2014, she placed 7th overall and 2nd in the Junior Under 18 section in the Tom Quilty Gold Cup, arguably Australia’s most prestigious endurance event. She also represented Australia at the 2017 World Endurance Championships for Juniors and Young Riders in Italy, and was a member of the 2012 Australian Endurance team as groom for her mum, Jane Radny, when she competed in the Trans-Tasman Championships held in New Zealand. In the same year, Bec again joined the Australian team as a groom for the World Endurance Championships in the UK, this time for her dad, Norbert Radny.

It’s fair to say that this trio has a pretty good idea of what it takes to get a horse to the top level of endurance.

At home in Western Australia, as well as further afield, the family regularly compete against each other, taking turns in sharing the glory of the podium. The Radnys are super strategic – they plan everything out. We don’t just go out there and flog it, says Bec. Right down to the day-to-day routine, all the details are refined.
Longevity is key

This equestrian family approaches the training of all their horses with one motto: every horse is to have a decade-long career, if not longer. Bec stresses the importance of not overtraining. Throughout the season, running from March to October, each equine athlete is worked three to four times per week. These sessions start with an hour on the horse walker. This allows them to warm their muscles and get their joints lubricated, it also saves me a lot of time, as I work full-time as a teacher, shares Bec. Being riderless also allows for horse fitness to be built gradually, without human weight putting extra and unnecessary strain on precious limbs.

The ridden components following the walker warm-ups take place out in the national park backing onto their property. Over the course of a week, each horse does a couple of 7km loops, primarily spent in walk and trot with lots of stretching, then one longer 20km workout to further build on fitness. In line with keeping the horses fit, healthy and sound, for every 10kms travelled they get one day off. This is especially necessary when training on hard or concussive surfaces, Bec explains.

An intriguing point from the Radny training schedule that struck me is the daily integration of competition simulation. Every time we train, we simulate a vet check, Bec tells me. We take the heart rate after every ride. We put the [heart rate] monitor on before we strap them. We’re checking for the speed of recovery. How quickly the heart rate comes back down to that horse’s normal is an indicator of fitness.
And that’s not all, following strapping, these dedicated endurance professionals also trot each horse out to check for evenness. Full of endurance wisdom, Bec outlines the details: We trot them out 20-40 metres and back, always on bitumen – it’s unforgiving and will show up any signs of unsoundness. If necessary, we film this so we have a baseline to check against.

A training aspect the family has employed in more recent years is the addition of groundwork and behavioural connection. We had a couple of horses not wanting to get on the truck and float. Groundwork has been the answer, says Bec, it helps them make the right choices ™. She chuckles as she likens the horses to the students she teaches at school, then continues: We use plastic bags and flags to desensitise. You see the personality and get to know your horse. With groundwork, my main horse West Coast Kia has improved in confidence. While not quite able to be off all on her own yet, she is now able to get out in front during a ride.

Crunch time: Competitions are attended roughly every four to six weeks. When it comes to the day of the ride, strategy remains the name of the game. It’s a bit like cycling, Bec tells me. She is referring to the peloton formation employed in a cycle race. She describes how a horse and rider combination will lead the pack, doing more work than the others as they cut through the most air resistance. Being on a horse and not a bike, the rider in this position is required to pay more attention to what’s coming up ahead. The whole process is quite methodical. Each horse has different strengths, which wax and wane throughout the event, Bec says. We pair horses up, to each bring out the best in the other, and they adjust to each other’s speed. We choose one that’s a solid leader, who won’t look and shy at the start.

The staple in the stable at the Radny residence is a horse named Reg. He competes in every second event or so and makes a fantastic lead horse. He doesn’t shy, gets out there, does his job and sets the pace, Bec says fondly. When I question how much difference this could really make to the overall result, she had the perfect example of the implications of a bad match. A few weeks ago, two horses we paired up for the first time were a terrible combo, she recalls of a nappy couple that simply didn’t want to move out and get going. We tried riding them side-by-side, then one in front of the other, which was a little better, but they only really settled properly once they realised they were going back towards home. Endurance rides are set up as a circuit and horses are very location-aware, they can tell when they are heading back to base, even though they have only been in that location for a matter of days.

Endurance rides can be distances of 40kms (considered training rides), 80kms, 120kms and 160kms. Vet checks usually pop up every 40kms, where horses are assessed for soundness and heart rate, both of which must be deemed satisfactory in order to be allowed to continue. These checkpoints are where you strap your horse and offer them food and water, Bec says.

These stations are where riders must also remember to look after themselves. They are kitted out with bottled water to mitigate headaches and lollies for a sugar hit. Party mix, Bec offers when I inquire as to which lollies are available. I really like milk bottles, she laughs when I probe further.

Lots of rest makes happy horses: Travel to different locations, staying away from home, and, during the longer rides, not being trickle-fed ™ as they would be normally, all contribute to massive change for the horse, something the Radnys recognise and take into serious account. So, after a competition, the horses get a full two weeks off – practically unheard of in other disciplines. Horses can maintain their fitness for six weeks, explains Bec, our aim is to always keep them fit and healthy, and that includes mentally.

The longest rides of 160kms are only ridden once every one to two years. These are a huge ask of both horse and rider, and undertaken only on a needs must ™ basis, to qualify for a national event or state championship, for example. In addition, these big events are always end-of-season rides, after which the horses are turned out for a well-earned long spell. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, they return fresh and eager for more intrepid action the following year.

Endurance is the ultimate test in horsemanship, Bec concludes. You don’t have to be the best rider – some of the best are self-taught and have never had lessons. But you do need to really understand and manage your horse and the terrain you are riding.

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