The best advice I was told before starting into endurance was to volunteer at a ride before I ever entered one. A second person told me that I'd learn 10x more from volunteering at a ride than I ever would riding in a ride. I figured it was a good suggestion, albeit slightly exaggerated... Turns out it wasn't exaggerated even in the slightest.
If you have any interest in getting into endurance riding, I really suggest you do it. It was an absolutely eye opening experience. Here's what I picked up (key words are bolded for what you might be interested in):
Prep for the ride: Get there the night before - there's a dinner and the ride meeting. We didn't make it to this, but that'll have to wait until our actual ride. You can get to know your way around and plan for what is going to happen the next day, as well as receive last minute information about trails, conditions, cautions, etc. What I did get to see was the variety of ways people camped overnight. It was a bit cold, so everyone was in their trailers (I didn't see a single tent). There were high-tyes, portable panel corrals, and portable electric corrals, all of which I expected. My pleasant surprise was the availability to RENT a pen from the ride manager (depending on the ride) - which I plan on doing. Here, they generally charge $5-10/night for renting a pen. When I do get my own trailer, I also plan on making the investment for a portable corral - those things are frikken nifty and many people used the panels along with their truck and trailer hookup to make a nice, big corral for multiple horses.
Start of the Race: There was an area where the water troughs were located, the table for checking in and out, handing over your vet cards, and the vet checks themselves were located. It's also where the start of the ride was. It was pretty low key with a smaller ride (Four 75-milers, fifteen 50-milers, twenty 25-milers). When the time came for the race to start, riders came up, told us their number from their horses, got checked off, and took off. Everyone kind of came up at their own speed when they were ready, though of course there was an initial group that took off right on time. The 75-milers started around 6AM, 50-milers around 7:30am, and 25-milers around 9am. The trail riders took off a while after that. Had you been watching without knowing what was really going on, you'd just have seen a table with some people around it and bunch of riders that came up to the table every now and then to shout their numbers and head down the trail - not exactly how I imagined the beginning of a race. On the LD's, quite a few people left 15-30 minutes after the race had begun!
Then we waited. Here's where I learned SO much - since all the riders were gone, I was able to observe and ask questions about everything I'd seen and wanted to know. The vet was able to answer any questions I had about the vet check and I was walked through the process of taking pulses, recording times, and the things they watched out for. In addition, quite a few people had their gear like boots there, so I was able to see what tack the riders were using, then ask the other volunteers to show me theirs and explain what and why they were using what they were. I also got to hear the types of things said about the riders and their horses, so I could get a 3rd person perspective about how everyone was doing.
Vet Checks and holds: THe manager and other volunteers had a good idea about who would (and should) come in when and told me why they were expecting that. They also told me about what the riders were doing as they approached the vet check area. Most of them walked their horses (and many dismounted) between 200-300 feet away from the vet check to allow their horses to start to come down. Some that weren't in as good of shape dismounted further away. As soon as they got to the vet check, I took their pulse (though some asked me to wait until their horse was done drinking). The people at the table recorded the arrival time, the "down" time (when the horses pulse was down to 60bpm), and then the time that they were able to leave, which was the "down" time plus the hold time. Most of the horses were down already or within 1-2 minutes. A few took 3-6 minutes to come down, and one LD took 19 minutes to come down. You're not pulled from the race as long as you come down within 30 minutes, but generally if it takes 9-10 minutes or longer to come down it's a red flag and the vet will tell you to slow down or another precaution. That rider voluntarily withdrew from the race (they'd gone 17 miles). Of course, this all depends on the horse (the in-shape Arabs with good conditioning and light riders were down almost immediately, one black QH with a heavy rider who doesn't have good balance took 6 minutes to come down, but that's about normal for that horse and just fine - with the Arabs, it would have been a red flag). You HAVE to know your horse, inside and out. Again, I got a running commentary on each horse and how they were doing and why, as well as recommendations for what I should be doing with my boy during conditioning. After pulsing down, they went to their vet check right next to the tables and water, got their scores on their vet card, then went to hang out for their holds.
Vet cards and maps: DON'T loose these! And pay attention to them! And keep them dry!!! We had to replace a handful of lost/ruined vet cards either because something wasn't zipped up, misplaced, or wet from.... well, you can imagine lol. And one rider missed a sign and did an extra 7 miles on one of her loops - she'd been in first for the 50 and went down to last when she came in about an hour and a half after we would have expected her. She wasn't too happy, obviously, though she did go out for the second loop to complete the ride.
End of the race: We stayed until a lot of the LD's had come in, around 2pm, as well as the 50-milers. The LD's have to pulse down at the end of the race, and their placings are determined by the order in which they pulse down - in other words, you cannot run your horse through an LD, come in first, and win. Even if you are the first back and pulse down in time not to be pulled from the race, you may get second or worse if another horse comes in and pulses down before you do. This is to prevent people from running their horses top speed through an LD without proper conditioning. The endurance races (50+) were placed in the order they arrived. Each was asked whether they want to stand for Best Condition (though the vet's wife, who was riding, was not allowed to for obvious reasons), then did their CRI and weighed themselves, which must be done within 10 minutes of completing I believe.
The 75-milers still had another loop to complete (all the rides are completed in loops that come back to the vet check, then head back out again on a different loop). The awards were given at dinner that night, which we weren't there for.
All in all, it seemed the 25-mile LD's were completing in about 5 hours (the results for the Tough Sucker I, a month ago, had the winning time at just over 4 hours), the first 50-milers were coming in at 6.5 hours, and I have no idea how long the 75-milers were taking. This was a bit of a surprise because I was basing "completion time" on our conditioning time and speed. Of course, this also accounts for the 1 hour hold that the LD's and 50-milers had to have (45 min for the 75-milers), so I guess that makes it 25 miles within 3-4 hours riding time, plus the hold.
Anyway, I really recommend that you volunteer before riding, or if you have been riding, do it anyway! Volunteers make the endurance world go round, but you also get the commentary and see the differences between all the riders and horses. So, instead of learning about just ONE endurance ride experience (like I would have if I'd just gone out and done it), I was able to take in experience from 30-40 different riders on the same ride and learn a LOT of invaluable information. And now, I'm ready and confident for our first ride, hopefully next month!!