Thoroughbreds are typically bred for speed, and often the question asked is “can they go the distance?” Can a horse stretch out from carrying their speed a few furlongs in morning workouts to a mile, 1 1/8 miles, 1 1/4 miles or more in a race?
For a young gray filly named Casey's Lear, her races aren't measured by furlongs, but by miles. Together with her owner, Dixie Kendall (Hayes), “Steele” as she's known around the barn, is a budding endurance horse, and while Kendall has her sights set on some lofty long-term goals, every race – even an endurance race – begins with a single step.
As a racehorse, “Steele” wasn't exactly breaking any land speed records. In her one and only race, she lagged behind her competitors early on and was distanced from the field before the horses had reached the halfway point in the 1 1/16-mile maiden claiming event. She was offered by Second Stride and adopted out, then was offered for sale.
“I bought her privately in October 2017. Her previous owner made a Facebook comment in OTTB Connect on an inquiry someone had posted about possible trail horses for sale in the group,” said Kendall. “If I had to guess, Steele may have had a breathing restriction at high speeds because she snores like a freight train when she naps, so much so that we had to put a sign on her stall door because the boarders and visitors at the farm always thought she was colicking due to her man snore. I've never had any issues with her making any noise while riding, so I've not had her scoped. She also has a very uphill, lofty canter, which is lovely to ride, but not very effective as a racehorse.”
Kendall, who is the program coordinator and lead instructor at the North American Racing Academy, dabbled in endurance riding as a child and was looking to re-enter the sport with a Thoroughbred.
“My entire background is in Thoroughbred racing, so that's why I wanted an off-track Thoroughbred for endurance racing. The breed is incredible and needs to be showcased for all of their abilities,” said Kendall.
Endurance riding, which is sanctioned by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI) at the highest levels and by the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) at the local and national levels, is a sport based on long-distance races ranging from 13 miles at the introductory levels (called “limited distance” rides) to 100 miles at the elite levels, such as the World Equestrian Games and Tevis Cup.
Endurance rides are typically held in parks, open land and other settings with various types of uneven, raw terrain. As such, much of an endurance horse's training centers around trail riding and navigating obstacles one might encounter on the trail or in the wilderness.
“Since we are in the beginning stages of our endurance career, our focus over the past few months has been long, slow miles through varying terrain,” said Kendall. “I also utilize obstacle training and natural horsemanship techniques to help desensitize Steele, so she's prepared for the various things we might encounter on the trail and help her build trust in me for those situations.”
In addition to trail riding and natural horsemanship, Kendall has also been working to put a dressage foundation on Steele in an effort to encourage her to soften and use her body in the most efficient way possible while on distance rides.
While any breed of horse can compete in endurance races, the Arabian is most commonly used at the upper levels of the sport. Kendall, however, is eager to see and to show what her Thoroughbred can do.
“Steele has a lot of excellent qualities that can help her to be a successful endurance horse, including a ground-covering trot and stamina to maintain her pace over a route of ground,” said Kendall. “My favorite quality of hers, though, is probably her eagerness to lead out on the trail. She actually gets very annoyed when I ask her to wait on a slower horse to keep up with us on any training rides. She seems to prefer when it's just us out on the trail.”
Horses must be a certain age to begin working up the levels (distances) in endurance riding. A horse must be a minimum of 48 months of age to compete in an intro (10-15 miles) or limited distance (30 miles) ride, 60 months to compete in a 50-mile ride and 72 months to compete in a 100-mile ride. With her birthday being March 6, 2014, Steele is 52 months old and just recently completed her first intro endurance trip, which was 13 miles, on June 23 at the Backstep Boogie Endurance Ride.
“Any doubts I might have had of Steele being an endurance horse were put to rest at that ride because she vetted perfect and was a total professional during the entire process,” said Kendall. “Our next goal is an AERC limited distance (30 miles) endurance ride on September 8 in Tennessee.”
In preparation for the longer rides, Kendall has been teaching Steele to snack on command while out on the trail, which may sometimes be easier said than done.
“An important part of endurance riding is the vet checks and gut sounds are typically a factor for horses at the mid-point checks,” said Kendall, who explained that veterinary inspections are done prior to competition, at the mid-point of the ride and post-competition.
Kendall says her short term goal is simply to keep her horse happy and sound so she can build a foundation of endurance for not only longer-distanced races but also for longevity awards offered by the AERC.
“Our long-term goal is to earn an Equine Longevity Award with the AERC. Those awards are granted to horses who compete in endurance racing, doing two limited distance races or one 50- or 100-mile race each year for 10, 15, 20 and even 25 years,” said Kendall. “We also have a long bucket list of goals, some of which are more realistic than others. Those include completing a 100-mile ride, completing the Tevis Cup, completing an FEI ride and maybe even competing at the World Equestrian Games. What's great about having an OTTB like Steele is that all of these things are possible, so it's up to me to get us there!”
Jen Roytz is a marketing, publicity and comprehensive communications specialist based in Lexington, Kentucky and was recently named the Executive Director of the Retired Racehorse Project. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, her professional focus lies in the fields of equine, health care, corporate and non-profit marketing. She is the go-to food source for one dog, two cats and two off-track Thoroughbreds.
Email Jen your story ideas at [email protected] or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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