Endurance racing can be equated to a marathon over natural terrain for horses. Recognised as an international sport in 1978 by the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), a horse and rider will cover a total distance of between 80 and 160 kilometres, usually over the course of a single day.
This distance is made up of multiple loops or phases: an 80-kilometre race might consist of three phases of 30, 20 and 20 kilometres each. The exact number of phases and kilometres to be completed can differ from event to event based on the race organiser’s preference.
The welfare of the horses is very strictly monitored, with heart rate, dehydration, lameness and fatigue among the health conditions checked by veterinary staff before, during and after the race. A full condition check is carried out at the end of each race phase and a mandatory rest period is imposed before a decision is taken on whether the horse is fit and capable of continuing in the race. If there is any doubt about the horse’s welfare and condition, the horse and rider will be eliminated.
It’s therefore imperative that a rider understands how to pace an individual horse to ensure that it remains in peak physical condition and is able to perform well on changing terrain throughout the course. Assistance from the team’s support crew is permitted at designated points in each phase, where water and nutrition can be provided to both rider and horse.
The winner of an endurance race is the first horse to cross the finish line and successfully complete a final vet check. Additional awards are normally presented to the horses in the best condition following the ride.
Many different breeds of horses are capable of completing endurance races, but the versatile Arabian has historically found greatest success based on its stamina and natural endurance ability.
FEI-recognised races comprise the following categories:
- CEI * (one star): distance between 80 and 119 kilometres
- CEI ** (two star): distance between 120 and 139 kilometres
- CEI *** (three star): distance between 140 and 160 kilometres
- CEI**** (four star): championships for senior or young horses; junior or young riders
‘CEI’ (Concours de Raid D’Endurance International) is the notation that the competition is an FEI-approved international competition. National-level competitions are denoted ‘CEN’ (Concours de Raid D’Endurance National).
At national level, competition distances range between 20 and 120 kilometres, and may include separate events for women riders, mares, private stables and so forth. However, endurance riding is one of the few inclusive sports where men and women compete alongside each other for equal opportunities and recognition from introductory level right up to the world championships.
All riders and horses seeking to compete at international level must qualify for an accredited licence, which involves a number of requirements stipulated by the FEI.