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Written by leading veterinarians to provide you with the information you need to care for your pets.

The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

Endurance of the 2-Legged and 4-Legged Variety

I’d like to take a moment to brag a little. In August, I completed my first Half Ironman triathlon — 70.3 glorious miles of swimming, biking, and running through the rolling hills of Gilford, New Hampshire, all for a finisher’s medal and a T-shirt. And of course the bragging rights, which I am employing at this very moment.

As I neared the end of the run, which is the last of the three disciplines in any triathlon, and in considerably painful, my mind was fleeting from one thought to the next, desperately searching for something inspiring to get me to that finish line. After pushing thoughts of chocolate cake and Lance Armstrong out of my mind, I settled on the mental image of horse legs in a perpetual gallop — at slow motion for effect. It worked.

After finishing and eating said chocolate cake later, I began to think back on my visualization method. I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise why I visualized horses, since I live and breathe them. And I’ve always been intrigued by the sport of endurance riding, considering the horses that compete in 50, 100, even 500 mile rides are, in my opinion, the best example of athleticism of the equine species. Let’s take a moment to examine this sport more closely.

Endurance riding, at its most basic form, has been part of the equestrian culture since the domestication of the horse, but it wasn’t until 1955 that organized endurance riding became recognized as a formal sport. In this year, a group of riders traveled the Western States Trail from Lake Tahoe across the Sierra Nevada mountain range to Auburn, California in less than 24 hours. Still ridden today, this ride is now known as the Tevis Cup and is considered to be one of the most difficult 100-mile rides in the world because of extreme terrain, extreme elevation changes, and the chance of extreme weather.

Now the American Endurance Ride Conference is the organizing body for many sanctioned endurance events in the U.S. Most events are 50, 75, or 100-mile rides. The competition is not merely which horse/rider team can cross the finish line the fastest. Instead, there are vet checkpoints throughout the course of the ride. Each horse must pass a physical exam at each checkpoint to be allowed to continue the ride. The horse and rider pair that crosses the finish line with a combination of the fastest time and in the best physical condition is considered the winner. However, most riders who participate in such rides merely ride to ride. Indeed, the tag line for the AERC is, "To finish is to win."

The vast majority of horses competing in endurance rides are Arabians. This attests to this breed’s incredible genetic capacity for extreme endurance, which was selected over centuries of breeding in the vast deserts of the Middle East. Riders usually use a fairly lightweight modified Western saddle, which is something relatively easy on the [rider’s] backside for many hours in the saddle.

Naturally, a conversation in endurance sports eventually winds up in the territory of ultra-endurance. What’s the longest horse race in the world? There appear to be a handful of grueling endurance rides across the globe, but one of the best organized is known as the Mongol Derby, a 1,000 km (621 mile) ride across the steppes of Mongolia. Riders from all over the world compete. Actually, the 2012 race ended recently in August, and the winners, a horse and rider pair from Ireland, completed the feat in seven days.

Seven days across the Mongolian steppes compared to my Half Ironman in under eight hours? Now those are some serious bragging rights.

Dr. Anna O’Brien

Image: Marika San / via Shutterstock

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