Competing On The Trail, Part I: Competitive Rides

Have you heard of this trail competition?
J Dan/Flickr/CC

J Dan/Flickr/CC

Maybe you used to compete in the show ring but have since transitioned over to recreational trail riding. Maybe you grew up riding horses around the farm and are curious about competing … but don’t want to show. Perhaps you and your horse want to take a break from the show ring and dabble in something else this season. Maybe you’re a trail rider to the core, never had a desire to show, but want to test your and your horse’s skills. If any of these sound like you, competitive trail riding might just be your new discipline!

Competitive trail rides in the United States are sanctioned by the North American Trail Ride Conference, whose mission is as follows:

The North American Trail Ride Conference (NATRC) promotes horsemanship and horse care as they apply to the sport of distance riding by offering a variety of challenging and educational experiences designed to strengthen horse and rider partnerships.

NATRC’s competitive trail rides (CTRs) are essentially exactly what they sound like: a trail ride with a competitive element. Riders must complete the ride within a designated window of time, but a CTR is not an endurance race: riders do not get any extra points or bonuses for finishing first. Horses are assessed for soundness, condition, way of going and trail manners; riders are assessed for horsemanship skills and equitation pertaining to trail riding (for example, an effective and safe position in the saddle for riding up a hill.)

Each event begins the day before a scheduled ride, when all horses must pass an initial vet check for soundness and condition. Riders are then briefed on trail conditions. The next day, riders head out on the trail with the aid of a map. Each trail includes judged obstacles and tasks (such as a water crossing, side pass, gate opening/closing, and a judged mount and dismount.) Horses’ pulse and respiration are assessed at least twice daily during each two-day ride.

CTRs are divided into three levels:

  • Novice: for riders new to the discipline. Novice rides will cover about 40 miles over two days at a slower speed.
  • Competitive/Pleasure: for riders with more experience but who enjoy the slower pace of a Novice-level ride.
  • Open: for experienced riders with top-conditioned horses; these rides will cover 50-6o miles over two days a faster rate.

One of my favorite aspects of the CTR is the distance-only option: anyone can enter any level as a distance-only rider, meaning that they and their horse can complete the entire ride but may choose to go around judged obstacles. Horses are still required to go through all veterinary and conditioning checkpoints. Distance-only riders do not receive points or awards, but mileage is recorded; distance-only riders also receive their scorecards with judges’ comments. Choosing the distance-only option is great for assessing your horse’s condition, your own horsemanship skills, and for accessing beautiful horse trails that may not otherwise be open to you as a rider.

J Dan/Flickr/CC

J Dan/Flickr/CC

The country is split up into regions, with each region hosting clinics and CTRs all year long. Check out the NATRC website for more information!

Have you ever competed in a CTR? Share your story in the comments section!

Go riding!

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