I started endurance riding in 1971 in Utah, and even though I have never really left the sport, I have just under 4,000 miles. Why so little? Part of the answer is just life, but most of it is an epic battle with horses tying up.
My endurance career started in Utah, with Jacque Jewkes as my mentor and Elene Bonine (Mom) as my coach, pit crew and resident “horse expert”. We did fairly well in the beginning; just trailing Jacque around guaranteed you’d be in the top five! I campaigned our Arabian stallion, Cyam, to the Mountain Region Champion Stallion. Then came the 80’s and my personal life turned upside down. We moved to Idaho pursuing employment, I went back to school to finish my degree, and in the middle of all that, my grandmother and dad were both on their last legs, requiring home nursing from Mom. We still had the stallion and mares, and now we had 2 yr olds, 3 yr olds, 4 yr olds that all needed training and riding, so I was riding, but not in competition.
Finally, in the early 90’s, life began to settle down. I had a good job, Mom had retired…it was time to get serious about endurance again. We had two beautiful ½ Arab, ½ Saddlebred brothers, both close to 16 hands and perfect conformation, lots of bone, fit the “three circles”, deep girthed, and just gorgeous! Cyrex was 5 and his full brother, Cyrox was 4. Our good friend, Andrea Day, broke both of them for us and put the first couple of endurance starts on them. Rex was my favorite and since he was the oldest, I put the most time in him, and just brought Rox along slowly.
This was the beginning of 8 years of heartbreak and frustration with tieing up. Rex and Rox both started tieing up the first year. They would do fine in the spring conditioning, but once the year really got rolling and they got in better and better shape, Wham, they would start. This was early onset type, if it was going to happen, it did so in the first two or three miles. If we got past that, we were OK.
Over the next several years, we went through the entire gamut of tie-up advice. We changed our feed – NO grain, grass hay, VIT E, Se. We ran literally hundreds of blood tests. I have tests from 2 days before the ride, day of the ride, day after the ride, 5 days after, 10 days after on both horses! The blood showed that their ca/mg ration was high, as was their ca/phos ratio. We adjusted diets, fed extra magnesium, supplemented phosphorus. Nothing helped. Some rides we would top ten, then the next one, we’d tie up in the first 3 miles. We adjusted riding schedules..I was religious about riding every other day, no matter what. Nothing helped. It started to get very discouraging - right along, we had had people telling us that it was because they were Saddlebreds and tall, big horses weren’t suited for endurance. Our common sense told us that this was nonsense…Rex had a light floating trot averaging about 15 mph that he could do all day long, wonderful recoveries, and a “get out of my way, I’m going down the trail” attitude. Finally after trying everything we could think of, or were told to do for 4 years, we reached the end of our rope. We quit our beloved bred and raised arab/saddlebreds and I went out and bought 2 purebred Arabian mares – One 14.2 hands and one 15 hands. Since I am 6’3”, they seemed a bit small for me, but if there was any truth to the “too big” theory, I wasn’t going to take any chances.
We brought these two mares along VERY slowly, entering LD’s the first year and a couple of LD’s and a couple of 50’s the second. They seemed to be doing fine, and I was heartened. Then, we started getting serious and they started tieing up! Now, I’m totally frustrated. It couldn’t be the bloodlines or size, so we’re back to the management issue, but what could it be?? You just can’t believe how careful we were with everything – feeding, training schedules, supplements. The pattern was still the same as with the big boys. They would start out the year in training and conditioning just fine, go through the first couple of rides fine and then in early summer start tieing up – not every ride, but enough to give me about a 50% completion rate. I got so good at detecting tie up that many times when I would lead the horse back to camp, the vet would say, “This horse isn’t tied up – look at her, prancing and pulling the lead, no cramps” But the blood test would show it.
Just about the time that I was ready to give up on endurance forever, we found an answer – our WATER. We had read an article in EQUUS about horses in Sweden that were tieing up and water was the cause. We thought that was ridiculous, but by this time, we had nothing to lose to check it. We took a water sample down to the local state lab. It came back that our water was thousands of times higher in Ca than it should have been!! All this time, no matter what we fed or didn’t feed, every time they took a drink, they were ingesting high levels of calcium. And what’s worse, come late spring, early summer, they were now grazing on grass irrigated with that water! As they got fitter and fitter as the season wore on, their calcium intake would increase.
What bothers me most is that in all that time, talking to everyone we could think of; consulting with numerous veterinarians, no one ever mentioned water as being a possibility. We strayed close to it in our puzzling – we would say to each other, “Why didn’t we ever have any problems when we endurance rode in Utah – all of this has started since we moved to Idaho?” Still, we continued to think it had to be a management issue, and not an environment issue. It breaks my heart to think that I wasted 4 horses before we finally stumbled across the right answer. (For the record, all 4 are still healthy and being used for pleasure riding/lessons/driving and broodmare uses, but will never be able to do endurance).
The cure was fairly simple – a high capacity water softener system on our domestic water lines, and making the pastures off-limits to the endurance horses once the irrigation season starts. We have now had four endurance horses going off our place for the last 4 years – Andrea Days’ horse “Zinger” ridden by Dot Wiggins; Dot’s mare, Chris; my new Arab (15.3 hands), Chancey YW; and the last of our homegrown foals, Lynn (Arab/Saddlebred). They are all doing fine – no signs of tie up anywhere! We are still careful – we sent hay samples to Susan G. and balanced our ca/mg with extra supplements, feed Ese, limit grain and alfalfa. We try to ride regularly or, if we’re going to give them some time off, we make sure it is 2 weeks. I think I will probably be paranoid about tie up for the rest of my life, but for now we seem to be OK.
My purpose in writing this is twofold – (1) If you’re having troubles with tie up, you might want to check your water. Even mildly high levels in water will contribute to the problem. (2) When I see people on ridecamp making judgements about someone based on their completion/pull records, I cringe…Based on just my pull records, I must look like either a stupid, naïve idiot or a cruel, careless over-rider, when the truth is that 2 long-time (over 100 years between the two of us) experienced horsewomen were completely stumped and always chose to pull when in doubt rather than hurt the horses and yet we love the sport so much that it wasn’t acceptable to give up!
Barb McGann, AERC # 840