January 17, 2015

What Does "Endurance" Riding Mean Anyway?

I've been thinking about this what with all the babble that fills my news feed everyday. There is a lot of negativity and ego when talking about what defines if someone has done an endurance ride or for that matter a limited distance ride. Personally, I think it is all a bunch of crap. What one person does or says they did or feels like they did does not in any way, shape or form distract from what another person has done.

I went for a final 20 mile conditioning ride today and there were multiple times during the day that I could have, and a few where I really wanted to, called it quits early and just went home. Who was holding me accountable anyway? It wasn't an event. Nobody was riding it with me. Gemmie would have been glad to eat her mash and go home. So why continue on?

Around mile 8, when I needed to get creative with my route yet again, I realized something. I finally know what "endurance" riding is and what sets it apart from "trail riding".

It isn't the distance. Plenty of "trail riders" go as far or farther than "endurance" riders. They just do it privately.

It isn't the speed. Not all "trail riders" are slow.

It isn't the type of horse, or saddle or bridle being used.

Do you want to know what separates the two?

It is the commitment. It is the conditioning.

The actual event itself is fun. Yes, it is trying and hard and you have to deal with a ton of things you otherwise don't (like race brain for Gemmie), but there are a ton of others out there helping you along the way. There is water, hay, volunteers to hold your horse, a crew at times and a ton of adrenaline and excitement that you can use to carry you through a lot of it. There is a lot at stake because you are setting out to cover x number of miles in a very public manner. If you fail, people will know. There is incentive to keep getting back on that horse after the holds because there is a camp full of people, and for many a lot of those are friends, expecting you to do just that. When your own ambition and motivation starts to run dry, there is somewhere there to snap you out of it whether that is the ride vet, a volunteer or a fellow rider that lets you drag toff them for a few miles.

I'm not down playing or knocking the race itself. Lord knows I haven't done enough (go ahead and look up my record as is the fashion lately - I have a whopping 75 AERC miles to my name) to feel even remotely capable and I am already nervous about our next outing. It is hard and anyone who crosses that finish line with a sound horse deserves all the accolades and congratulations they can stand.

However, I don't honestly believe that the race itself is what makes you an endurance rider.

What makes you an endurance rider are the times that you hit the trails at 6 am to beat the summer heat. And the times you are out again at 7 pm squeaking in as many miles as you can before the sun goes down. It is the ride in 90% humidity with swarms of mosquitos and a lost trail. It is the ride in 10 degrees and a foot of snow. It is all those times when nobody knew you were out there. When the only person holding you accountable for the miles you wanted that day is you. When you are all alone and have to pee and there isn't a volunteer to feed your horse as you duck into a port john. It is the time you really, really wanted to stay home and watch TV but instead found yourself behind the wheel of your truck heading out to lay some tracks.

Those are the times when an endurance rider shows their stuff. When it isn't public. When the only reason you get on that horse is because you make yourself. When you know you could take the short cut, but point your horse's nose the opposite direction even though nobody else but you would ever know the difference. When the footing is mush or ice and you pick your way slowly along because gosh darnit you need these miles and you need them now. When you end up at your trailer 15 miles later knowing there is no pretty t-shirt, warm dinner or photo waiting for you.

To make this personal: I'm not good at conditioning. My brain doesn't function on charts and tables of miles completed. When I was running half marathons, it was a thousand fold harder for me to convince myself to get out at 6pm in the middle of a WI winter with a head lamp on and go run. There were a million excuses I could make to not do it and who would care anyway? Nobody was holding me to anything. Those miles were harder than any step I took on any half marathon race day. During an actual race, I let my excitement and the crowd drag me along. I let the knowledge that I could pass the person in front of me push me along. And when my energy ran low - look there was an aide station with water and oranges and people! All I had to do was get there. And I loved it because it was fun. Yes, I hurt. Yes, going 13 miles when I had never gone beyond 4 in the past was physically much, much harder than any training run I did, but mentally it was much, much easier.

And that is how I view endurance. Physically it is more challenging to participate in and complete an actual scheduled race. There is no questioning that in my mind. But mentally, I'm not enduring anything. I'm having fun. I am out there to test myself, my preparation, my luck, my tack, my food, my horse on that day on that trail. I get stressed. I get frustrated. I get scared. I get tired. But I'm still having fun because it is race day. On a conditioning ride, where nobody knows or cares if I put in the 20 miles I prescribed for myself or cut it short and head home at 11 miles, that's where it is at. That is where your fortitude, your passion, your commitment come into play. To me, that is where matters.

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