Responding to pressure from its members, the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) has taken a giant step forward to ensure the safety of horses competing in sanctioned rides with the formation of an ad hoc horse-welfare committee.
The AERC's 2003 convention included two "Hot Topic" sessions that were widely attended by veterinarians, board members and riders. During the sessions, AERC Director John Parke of Solvang, California, presented a committee charter stating its official mission: Foster peer pressure and a culture of [horse] protection through noncoercive means.
In AERC-sanctioned rides, which generally range from 50 to 100 miles, participants follow a premarked trail and stop at designated rest points, where their horses are examined by a veterinarian to ensure that they are physically able to continue. If needed, horses receive veterinary care.
Despite these precautions, tragedies do occur, if rarely. Of the more than 20,000 entries at the roughly 700 AERC events held in 2002, seven horses are known to have died. But, says ride veterinarian Mike Jaffee, DVM, the number of competitors requiring treatment hasn't been documented. "We're just seeing a small part of the problem."
Research ("What went wrong?") and education ("How can we prevent what went wrong from happening again?") have been coupled in the AERC's new initiative to reduce the need for treatment and prevent equine fatalities occurring during or after endurance rides.
Procedures for collecting information during and after treatment are central to the new initiative. "We need a lot more data," says Stagg Newman, of Candler, N.C., who has completed over 30 one-day 100-milers with his horse, Ramegwa Drubin. "We might be able to correlate [a problem] with factors such as 'didn't recover well at the first vet check.'"
Possible lines of inquiry wound include, "Were they the frontrunners? Back of the packers? What were the ambient conditions? How far were they trailered?" suggests AERC member Laura Hayes of Frewsburg, N.Y.
The AERC's veterinary committee wasted little time following up on the board's action. Within one week of the convention, a "letter of caution" went out to the membership.
The fatalities occurring in 2002 involved both experienced and inexperienced horses and riders, and the causes included metabolic failure and colic as well as traumatic fractures caused by accidental missteps and falls, the letter stated.
"Improved rider awareness of the condition of horses during and after a ride is our best tool for preventing equine fatalities in the future," the mailing advised. Tucked into the envelope was a "Preventing Treatment" document written by Newman, based on the collective input of riders, veterinarians and board members over a several-month period.
The horsemanship guidelines for before, during and after a ride included riding to your plan, rather than to what other horses are doing; keeping your horse well hydrated, especially early in the ride; and not trailering home until your horse is adequately recovered and hydrated.
Echoing in the recommendations are reverberations from the two most widely publicized incidents involving endurance riding in 2002: the fatigue-related deaths of one Spanish and one Malaysian entry in the World Equestrian Games (WEG) 100-mile endurance competition held in Spain.
While noting that concern over equine welfare was already strong in the United States before the WEG tragedies, AERC president Mike Tomlinson, DVM commented, "The deaths of two horses has probably saved hundreds of horses' lives on a worldwide scale. It is a terrible thing that has awakened thousands of people around the world."
As for the AERC's latest initiative, Tomlinson added, "This [committee] is not a witch hunt or to lay blame. We care about how we can learn and prevent [fatalities and treatments] in the future."
Endurance rider Pat Farmer of Fortuna, Calif., expressed the horses-first mindset evident at the AERC convention. "Our representatives have done a terrific job channeling the emotion, intellect and spirit of a few thousand individualists into a new model of watchfulness for our horse partners," he says. "This was such an important start to addressing a painful but truly crucial issue."
In an effective protective effort for endurance sports, Farmer adds, no punitive measures will have to be taken because information and education of the human half of the talent pool will have helped protect horses from competitive harm.
This article first appeared in the July 2003 issue of EQUUS Magazine.