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Looking back…

I was asked to write an article about the history of our sport from a veterinarian’s prospective, but when I started writing, I came to realize that I was a rider rather than a vet in the beginning. To me it was a sport, and I tried hard not to get involved in the politics or vetting. So my early memories are from a rider’s perspective. As I reminisce about the good old days when we used to party all night and ride all day, then party again the following night, I think we were a tougher group than today’s contestants. We used to go to rides in a pickup truck with the horse in the back, or pulling an old two-horse trailer. I remember seeing one of the wealthy fat cats at Tahoe City driving a new GMC pickup with a camper shell on the back and a new trailer painted to match. Boy, was that class, long before the days of $75,000 trailers and million dollar horses! I came to my first Tevis in an old Ford truck that was painted with a paintbrush. It had a mattress in the back and we tied the horses to the side and let them eat hay on top of our bedding. Maybe that’s why I’ve always been allergic to hay. We camped in a skunk cabbage patch behind the Chevron station in Tahoe City and told stories of the adventure to come. Pity the poor newcomers, who had to endure sagas of snakes, steep canyons and moss covered swinging bridges that swayed precariously over the rushing rivers below. I miss the tall tales and the campfires.

I was introduced to the sport of endurance riding in the 1962 Tevis Cup Ride. Although I had spent a good part of my young life on horseback, including a number of long trail rides, the Tevis was my first organized competitive event. There were other rides and races in those days, sometimes for very long distances, and with no controls. I remember one early event in Utah that ran from Heber to Duchesne along Hwy 50. Although no one knows for sure how many horses were lost during those races, the carcasses along the side of the highway repulsed and angered the general public and horsemen in particular. Fortunately for our sport, Wendell Robie, founder of the Western States Ride, had the vision to see that horses must be treated humanely and be under veterinary control during extreme endurance events. Although he didn’t always agree with some of the individual decisions the veterinarians made, he recognized that the sport would have to be regulated in a humane manner if it were to continue.

My mount on my first Tevis was a 1200 pound buckskin mare almost three years old. In 1962, there was no age limit for entering. Obviously, she was short on conditioning, but she was long on true grit. The owner of the horse and I decided on entering this great adventure just a few weeks before the ride,– something that no one in his right mind should ever attempt. At that time it was necessary to obtain a veterinary exam prior to entry. I still remember the look on Dr. Stewart’s face when I told him I wanted to ride this horse a hundred miles in a day. The thinking behind a pre-ride veterinary examination was to get riders mentally prepared for what they were about to undertake. Along with this pre-ride veterinary exam, there was a detailed questionnaire to be filled out by the rider. The questions were more to get the rider thinking about what was ahead than anything else. Most riders at that time had absolutely no idea of the challenges before them. Many horses competing in the Tevis and other endurance events did so with little or no training. In 1962 (and even into the 1980s) the pulse criterion was most commonly based on a recovery to 72 within 45 minutes. There was an equal amount of importance placed on respiratory recovery and body temperature. Higher respiratory rates were deemed more significant that they are today and inversions (a respiratory rate higher than the pulse rate) were a cause of great concern. Body temperature was considered important, but that has faded away in many areas both because of the time factor, and the danger of obtaining a rectal temperature in a fractious horse. Gut sounds were recognized as being important but the lack of them was an indication, in the minds of many, to hold off on feed until the digestive musculature had recovered sufficiently to operate properly. We were fortunate in those days to have the services of veterinarians like Bruce Branscomb, Dick Barsaleau, Hank Cook and Bob Goulding, to name just a few. This was a time before computerized medicine, when veterinary schools taught their graduates that the practice of veterinary medicine was as much an art as a science. Early veterinarians made their decisions on overall impressions, rather than relying on the “numbers game” that has become so popular. I cannot imagine any of these old time vets ever letting a horse which looked stressed or overly fatigued continue because it passed all the criteria with acceptable number measures. I personally believe this is one place where we have regressed. We let the pressure for a fair and equitable judging system overwhelm the need for our good judgment.

By the time AERC was founded, many things had changed. There was a rapid growth in fifty mile rides. The pace on these shorter rides was such that horses were being pushed harder than they were on the hundreds, calling for different thinking on the part of control veterinarians. I remember in 1974 or 75 there was considerable resistance to the lowering of pulse criteria to 68, and shortening the acceptable recovery times. Many riders insisted that such strict standards would eliminate most horses from the sport. Some people still think the old recovery standards are fine, even though experience has shown us that stricter levels reduce illness and injury in our horses. Perhaps the greatest innovation in veterinary procedures however, was the institution of a gate into a hold at vet checks. Many different individuals must have come up with this good idea at the same time, as I personally know of at least three people who claim to have invented it. A major concern has always been to separate the unfit horses from a pack of better-conditioned horses. Horses that took 45 minutes to recover were sent back on the trail with horses that had recovered far more quickly. This was obviously a recipe for disaster, and disasters we did see. The gate into hold vet check has gone a long ways to eliminating this problem.

In the early days of my endurance career, the subject of drugs never came up. Most horses were fed a diet of hay and oats, although other grains were popular with some. Electrolyte supplementation consisted of placing a salt block in the feed tub, or perhaps spreading some granulated salt on the grain. Apparently others were more concerned than I, as the State of California began to regulate drug use in competitive events in addition to racing by the late sixties. I believe it was the NATRC which showed most concern with drug use at that time. There was probably more potential for abuse in that variation of distance riding, where a great emphasis was placed on judging principles similar to our present Best Condition judging, and horse show standards of appearance and behavior.

I have always wondered why so many people espouse the principle that horses should compete on their natural ability, but are willing to spend hundreds of dollars on every kind of imaginable substance to make their horses run farther and harder. I know many will find it hard to believe, but horses were completing the Tevis and other strenuous events with nothing but hay and oats for years. It is interesting that few if any people had ever seen ulcers and enteroliths until recently. It seems to me that our new diets, supplements, and “legal drugs” may be allowing us to go further out on the limb. With horses, if a little is good, a lot is not necessarily better. There is little doubt that some of our sport’s greatest disasters have come from good science used badly. A classic example being the carbo loading fad when a number of people, who should have known better, extrapolated the information on carbo-loading for runners to endurance horses, which had unfortunate consequences for some of the best equine athletes in our sport.

Veterinarians will always be an important part of endurance riding, but the ultimate responsibility for our horses’ welfare must always rest with the rider. As our sport grew, many new riders became dependent on ride veterinarians to do their thinking for them. Fortunately for the horses, veterinarians objected, and we have returned to placing the responsibility for horses’ welfare squarely where it belongs: on the riders. A rider spends the entire day with the horse, and a ride vet sees the horse for only a few moments at a vet check. Advances in diagnostics and treatments have certainly made veterinarians much more effective at safeguarding horses in modern endurance. Although the numbers of rides and riders have increased substantially from the early days, failures to prevent destruction of horses have declined. Improved veterinary control has definitely made a difference. But in the end, better education and skill among riders in assessing the condition of their horses has become not only the best protection, but the major assistance received by ride veterinarians in evaluating the safety of each horse.