To the AERC membership and AERC Board of Directors:
AERC is continuously looking at ways to improve methods of protecting the welfare of our horses in this rigorous sport of endurance riding. Heart rate recovery, specifically the ability to recover within a defined time period, is undeniably a key factor in identifying horses that are at risk for impending metabolic problems. This fact is supported by the experience of many AERC veterinarians, is described in the AERC Veterinary Handbook "Pulse recovery with rest has become the main objective measure of fitness to continue.", and is supported by research (there is a good French research paper that shows horses should recover within 20 minutes of exercise). Evidence states that long distance horses in a stable metabolic state should have the ability to recover within 30 minutes. Horses not recovering within 30 minutes are at risk for a metabolic problem. This is the reasoning behind the current AERC rule that all horses must recover within 30 minutes at checks during the ride, except the postride exam in endurance rides. Certainly, identifying those horses that are not recovering within 30 minutes will identify the horses that are at metabolic risk post ride. Additionally, a vet exam protocol at the finish that is consistent with the rest of the ride should naturally encourage riders to ride as conservatively to the finish as they have the rest of the ride.
There are several issues to consider when changing the post ride exam maximum time from 60 minutes to 30 minutes.
The first issue is the expectation of the horse to recover to a set heart rate within 30 minutes vs. 60 minutes. Regarding the first issue, there is enough data to support the fact that a horse in stable metabolic condition should have the ability to recover within 30 minutes. The AERC Veterinary Handbook states in reference to evaluating fit to continue "a recovery rate of 52 - 60 bpm within 20 minutes of arrival is a reasonable expectation". Endurance veterinarians would agree that a horse taking 55 minutes to recover is not metabolically normal nor fit to continue and is likely in need of medical attention. AERC has recognized this fact by requiring horses at all vet checks during the ride to meet criteria within 30 minutes. This rule was good progress for the protection of horses in this sport. We should keep in mind that horses at the finish are expected to be "fit to continue". The "fit to continue" rule at the finish was a major change for AERC and fought hard for by previous veterinary committees. Allowing 60 minutes for recovery at the finish was apparently not based on medical reasons, rather it was based on politicalc ompromising. Apparently, in order to get membership and board acceptance of this ruling change that previously allowed lame, sick horses to complete rides,the veterinary committee compromised with allowing 60 minutes to recover at the finish line. Allowing 60 minutes at the finish is not medically nor logically consistent with the reasoning behind requiring 30 minutes at all other checks and should be one of the reasons we are now reevaluating the post ride exam criteria.
The second issue is the question of when is the optimum time for veterinarians to be looking at the horses. Horses can develop signs of colic an hour or even hours after the ride. The current rule allowing 60 minutes to present your horse does not necessarily help with recognizing these horses either as many riders wisely tend to present their horse as soon as possible after the ride in order to receive their completion before the horse stiffens up, gets in a wreck, etc. Typically, the riders who are not presenting soon after the ride are the riders whose horses are not recovering and these are the very horses we need to be looking at. Just because we currently allow one hour does not mean horses are being examined at one hour. It is very important for all riders whose horses have completed the ride including passing the post ride exam to continue to observe and monitor their horses and seek medical care when needed. This rule change will not affect that responsibility. Almost half (3 out of 8) fatalities in 2006 occurred post ride which clearly points out the importance of post ride monitoring.
A third issue is the situation where the finish line is some distance from where the final check will occur. The 30 minute post ride exam rule has apparently worked logistically well enough for the large number of LD rides within AERC. As with all rules, common sense must prevail. It is a simple issue of the head veterinarian and ride manager working together to account for the necessary time required to walk from the finish line to the camp/vet check. The important point here is convenience should not outweigh the safety and welfare of our horses.
A final issue are the concerns of those riding non-Arabian breeds. A non-Arabian that has the ability to recover to 30 minutes at all other checks during the ride should have the ability to recover within 30 minutes at the finish line.
The reasons to mandate that horses reach criteria within 30 minutes of completing the ride are:
1) Meeting criteria within 30 minutes meets the definition of "fit to continue", 60 minutes does not. "Fit to continue" at the finish was introduced as a way to improve the safety and welfare of the horses throughout the entire ride, not just to the last vet check on the trail.
2) Riders riding with a mindset they have to pass another "real" vet check where the horse will be expected to meet recovery within a reasonable amount of time may adjust their riding accordingly as they have throughout the entire ride. Near the end of a ride, where the horse is most fatigued and prone to both mechanical and metabolic injury, is not where we should be lightening up criteria in order to allow faster riding. In reality, this will likely not affect the way the majority of the recreational endurance riders ride, but it may serve to put checks in place for those riding at the competitive level.
3) Riders that have chosen to override their horse to the point the horse does not recover as a healthy horse under exercise should, within 30 minutes, should not be recognized and rewarded as completing the ride.
A vocal section of the membership has been opposed to this rule change. This is not surprising, as changing post ride criteria from "sound at a walk" to "fit to continue " met very heavy opposition from the membership for many years. Change is not easy to come by. Fit to continue at the finish is now commonly accepted and even expected as an important improvement in the protection of our horses and the rule change we are discussing now may years down the road fall into that same category.
AERC should be proud to be an organization that has the expectation of its horses being "fit to continue" at the completion of competition. A recovery time of 30 minutes is physiologically consistent with a horse that is fit to continue while a recovery time of 60 minutes is not. The question we should be asking ourselves is do we want horses completing rides to be truly "fit to continue"?
The AERC Veterinary Committee