By Donna Snyder-Smith
c 1998 Howell Book House, New York, NY 244 pages
I picked up Snyder-Smith’s book in preparation for my successful first time attempt at completing a three day 100 mile competitive trail ride. The author is an experienced horsewoman with a broad background and successful Tevis Cup completion on her resume; while the focus of the book was more on endurance riding than competitive trail, I found that more than anything, it was a book about good horsemanship, and there is something which riders of any discipline can take away from it.
In this book, Snyder-Smith takes a comprehensive look at the details of how to prepare a horse and rider team for success in the sport of endurance. Full chapters are dedicated to riding in balance, gymnastic development of the horse, conditioning and feeding the endurance horse and the merits of various types of equipment. The book concludes with a look at the requirements for crewing at an endurance ride and then the dynamics of a ride itself.
What struck me over and over in reading this book was how so much of what the author stated applied to not just endurance horses, but to all equine athletes. For example, she outlines the requirements for a successful endurance horse as follows: “good feet, a good respiratory system, a good mind, to be an efficient mover, the desire to do it” (Snyder-Smith, p. 8). However, these are ideal qualities for ANY performance horse, though perhaps certain other disciplines could be more forgiving to a horse which does not have the best attributes in some of these areas.
In her chapter on the importance of rider balance, Snyder-Smith goes into great detail on the importance of body awareness, symmetry and correct riding position and their collective effect on the horse for better or for worse. If a rider is expecting a horse to carry them over tens of miles of terrain, it is critical that the rider is doing their part to be efficient and to maintain their own balance and coordination. Horses can cope with rider asymmetry or weakness to a point, but adding in the cumulative stress of a long ride to the mix means that an inefficient rider can make the difference between a completion or a pull. Lest anyone think that trail riders need not be attentive to the performance of their mount, Snyder-Smith states that “Riding that is comfortable and productive for both horse and rider is based on the rider’s ability to feel the horse and what it is doing with its body” (Snyder-Smith, p 22). In other words, riding well, and riding correctly, matters!
In her chapter on preparing the endurance horse, Snyder-Smith addresses the difference between conditioning and training, and emphasizes that both are required for success in endurance. Snyder-Smith explains that endurance horses need to spend time in the arena in order to develop their flexibility, suppleness and strength. In fact, she proposes that basic dressage training is an excellent way to introduce a “systematic, gymnastic training program…to enable horses to perform to the limits of their athletic capabilities without injury,” (Snyder-Smith, p 63). Another especially important concept for successful conditioning is that “if you are not able or willing to listen to your horse and learn from him, your success as an endurance rider will be limited” (Snyder-Smith, p. 84). Again, the author is specifically referencing conditioning for the sport of endurance, but the reality is that this idea applies to all disciplines across the board. Another universally applicable statement is that “commonsense is the single ingredient that, when missing, causes the greatest damage to horses” (Snyder-Smith, p 87).
Throughout the book, Snyder -Smith inserts tips and helpful hints from her own experience as a distance rider. For example, she suggests mixing electrolytes with baby food like strained carrots or applesauce to make them more palatable. She also discusses the experience of how having a vet make a comment about your horse’s soundness at a check can cause even an experienced rider to doubt the animal’s fitness to continue. Having personally had this experience at a few rides, I know how much it gets under your skin and infiltrates your consciousness, even when you are really fairly confident that the horse is okay and what the vet saw might be just fatigue or the result of a misstep.
Overall, I found Snyder-Smith’s writing easy to follow and the concepts clearly explained and well-articulated. This book was immensely helpful to me in my own preparation for the 100 mile ride, and to help me as a novice to become more familiar with the requirements of the sport. But more than anything, I found the author’s perspective on horsemanship refreshing. Simply put, if you take your time, do your homework and only ask of the horse that which you have properly prepared them for, you can expect their best effort. For this reason, I would recommend the book to riders of any discipline who are reaching out of their comfort zones for a larger goal.
“If your horse has it in him, you’ll be able to get it out of him if you don’t ask for too much too soon and use him up,” (Snyder-Smith, p 175).