With the prestigious Tevis Cup Ride just two weeks away (Aug. 9, to be exact), I figure it's only fitting I devote a blog post to a sport I know hardly anything about: endurance trail riding. During this 100-mile event, nearly 200 horses will attempt the trek across rugged California mountain terrain within a 24-hour time frame. The best of the best will be able to complete their ride on a healthy horse in approximately 14 or 15 hours, but half of the starters likely won't even finish. Why? Because this type of grueling ride can take its toll on horses.

Issues veterinarians commonly note at endurance checkpoints include muscle injuries, metabolic problems, and a lack of eating and drinking.

Photo: Thinkstock

Throughout the race, riders will present their horses at nine checkpoints, where veterinarians evaluate whether each animal is fit to continue. Any signs of equine injury or exhaustion, and your journey ends right there.

Two years ago I had the chance to talk to Dr. Wes Elford, a veteran FEI endurance veterinarian as well as rider. I asked him what types of physical issues he encounters most when evaluating endurance horses. I know ligament strains and back soreness are at the top of my "watch list" for hunter/jumpers, but what about horses whose focus is more stamina than form and speed? Here's what he shared:

  1. Good ol' lameness "The most prominent issue at most rides is lameness, but the most prominent lameness that occurs is dependent on the ride," Elford said. "A deep sandy ride will have suspensory ligament and flexor tendon issues, while a rocky ride will cause stone bruises," therefore resulting in lameness as a result of bruised soles.
  2. Muscle injuries. Elford said these range all the way from mild muscle cramps to strains to exertional rhabdomyolysis, or "tying-up."
  3. Sore backs. Typically due to ill-fitting tack, many endurance horses develop sore backs over the course of a ride. "The backs of some horses get so sore that they will not let you touch them, and they just radiate heat when you place your hand over them," Elford explained.
  4. Lack of eating and drinking. "It takes a horse a while to get used to the procedures of an endurance ride with the vet checks and other horses all around," he said. "The transition from going down the trail to coming to a vet check and then having to eat and drink and get checked by a vet has to be learned by a new competitor. Even some old campaigners can have difficulties at times."
  5. Metabolic issues. Elford calls these the most critical of all endurance horse health issues. "A horse may have everything going for it but for some reason gets into trouble with its metabolics--in other words, the biologic activities of life that have to go on for the animal to function: eating, drinking, peeing, and pooing," he said. "These all involve hydration and energy metabolism that are so important for the vital life-sustaining activities that go on within the horse's body."

So there you have it--the most common endurance horse health issues seen from a veterinarian's perspective.

All you trail riders (competitive or otherwise) out there, what health challenges do you run across?