Below are answers to the most commonly asked questions about competitive trail riding. This is by no means a complete guide to the sport, and any questions you have that aren't answered here may be answered in the NATRC Rider's Manual, available for $15 plus $3 S&H, from the NATRC office. Or, contact your regional membership chair or the National Membership Chair.
First of all, Competitive Trail Riding is fun! It is a great way to build partnership with your horse through training, conditioning, and education. You and your horse will build trust and confidence in each other and in yourselves, whether you take home ribbons or not!
Competitive trail riding, or CTR, is NOT a race. It's a timed, judged trail ride. Your ability to work as a team with your horse and be a safe rider and handler are judged by a horsemanship judge, while you horse's condition, soundness and overall health is judged by a veterinary judge.
Judging is accomplished through observations of you and your horse when you check in with the judges; on the trail as you negotiate terrain and are asked to complete tasks such as mounting, backing, sidepassing, etc. (trail skill observations); and your stabling and campsite. Also, your horse is judged on his condition and overall soundness during vet checks and pulse and respiration (P&R) stops.
There are three divisions, Novice, Competitive Pleasure (CP) and Open. You may enter a ride at any level you choose. Novice is for those new to the sport (not necessarily those new to riding) or less experienced riders with horses of any level. Horses must be at least four years old to compete in CP or Novice; riders must be at least ten years old on the day of the ride. Novice riders will ride between 30 and 40 miles over two days at an average speed of 3.5 to 5 miles per hour (a fast walk for most non-gaited horses).
Open division is for experienced competitors and very fit horses. Horses must be at least five years old. Open riders will ride between 50 and 60 miles over two days at an average pace of 4 to 6 miles per hour.
CP division is for experienced riders who prefer the speed and distance of the Novice division. They ride 30 to 40 miles over two days at an average speed of 3.5 to 5 miles per hour.
Novice and Open are divided into three classes: Heavyweight (weight of rider and tack the horse carries--totals 190 lbs. or more), Lightweight (weight of rider and tack the horse carries--totals less than 190 lbs.), and Junior (rider is aged 10 through 17, no weight classifications). Sorry to say, you will get weighed at the ride if you are entered in either Novice or Open! CP doesn't have weight classes.
If you've never done a CTR before, don't be intimidated? if you just tell ride management it's your first ride, you'll be flabbergasted at how helpful everyone will be! All you need to do is ask and you'll get all the help and guidance you can possibly stand--and then some!
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A CTR AND AN ENDURANCE RIDE? -top of page-
A competitive trail ride is similar in many respects to an endurance ride. Both cover a set, measured course, and the veterinary judge closely monitors the horses in both sports. Endurance rides must be completed within a maximum time, and the winner is the horse that finishes first and is judged fit to continue. But in competitive trail riding, the horse and rider must finish the ride within a window of time, and speed is not a judging factor. Horse manners are judged in competitive trail riding, as is horsemanship; these are not judged in endurance. In endurance riding, horses are checked by a veterinary judge at certain points and are judged as fit to continue. The veterinary judge in competitive trail riding will check the horse anywhere along the trail, and the horse is judged on whether his parameters have changed since the baseline established at Friday check-in. Riders can proceed on foot in endurance riding, but for all forward motion in competitive trail riding, the rider must be mounted.
Endurance rides may be much longer than a competitive trail ride-some endurance rides go 100 miles in 24 hours!
NATRC publishes a rulebook, which you can request from the NATRC national office (see contact information at www.natrc.org). Answers to most of the common questions are below. But remember, the first rule is to stay safe! The second rule is to have fun!
NATRC posts a schedule at www.natrc.org. Some regions also publishes a ride book that has a description of the rides, including directions to the ride, description of the trails and camping facilities, fees, meals, and how to enter. To get a copy of the ride book for your region, go to www.natrc.org. You can look up your state to find out which region you are in, then contact the membership chair for that region. If a region does not publish
a ride book, contact the Ride Chairman or Secretary for the ride you are interested in.
Entry fees for rides vary, but you'll find that for one or two days of excellent riding, free vet checks, free horsemanship lessons, and lots of fun, it's cheap entertainment!
Sure! Competitive trail riding is a great family activity. Children aged 10 or over on the day of the ride can compete. Parents who are competing may ride with their competing children. Family or friends who don't want to compete may volunteer.
People compete in all different kinds of saddles-western, English, endurance, Aussie, treeless, and even trick saddles. The only rule is that you must have a saddle. Bareback pads are not allowed. Use what you have to start with, as long as it is comfortable for you and fits your horse well.
You may use any well-fitting bridle, halter/bridle combo, side-pull, hackamore, bosal-in short, whatever is safe and comfortable for you and your horse. Use of a halter as the primary headgear is discouraged, as your horse may be very excited at its first competitive trail ride. You may use a breast collar and a crupper if your saddle slips when going up and down hills. You might want a cantle or pommel bag to carry things such as a halter, a lead rope, tack-mending materials, a hoof pick, snacks for you and your horse, a water bottle, a sponge (for sponging your horse at water spots to cool him off), first-aid supplies, lip balm, and other comfort items for you and your horse.
You'll need a halter and lead rope or longe line for presenting your horse to the vet judge at check-in and check-out, buckets for feed and water, a hay bag, a blanket for cool nights, a mucking fork and bucket to keep your campsite clean, and food for you and your horse. Water for horses is generally available in camp.
You should carry a good quality sharp knife with you at all times.
NATRC has no shoeing regulations. Your horse can compete barefoot or with any type of shoe. Your horse can compete in pads and in devices such as EZ Boots, as long as the device does not cover the coronet band. Boots, wraps, and other protective devices that cover the coronet band are not permitted. All horses must compete under like conditions, and your horse will lose points for interference marks or other nicks and cuts on his legs that appear after vet check-in on Friday. Remember, the goal is to find the best trail horse/rider combination! A horse that needs protective wraps or boots because he interferes, forges or has on-going lameness issues should have those issues addressed before coming to a ride.
First thing is to get your horse settled at the trailer. Most rides require your horse to be tied at the trailer all night, although some rides are held in parks with hitching posts. Don't worry your horse will be fine either way! Make sure your horse has plenty of hay and water at all times, keep his stabling area clean, and make sure he is safely tied!
Practice tying your horse to the trailer at home, the key is to tie the lead rope so that the snap is a couple of inches off the ground when hanging straight down. That gives your horse plenty of room to move around and get to his hay and water, and even lie down, but he is less likely to get a foot over the lead rope. Make sure that your hay bag is tied up high enough that your horse can't get a foot into the empty bag when it hangs down. Water buckets should be secured to the trailer so that the horse can't get his foot hung up in the handle. And you know that if he can, he will! If your horse can get his lead rope caught in the door latch of your trailer, stick a tennis ball under the latch or roll up a towel and duct-tape it around the latch so that the lead rope can't get caught.
Once your horse is situated, take your Coggins form, your 30-day health certificate, and your checkbook to the ride secretary. After verifying your paperwork and paying your fees, you'll be given a packet that contains your vest with your rider number, a card with your rider number to put on your trailer near your horse, and two tags or ribbons with your rider number-one to put on your horse's bridle, and one to put on his halter. That way, if your horse gets loose, he can be returned to you. Also in your packet will be a schedule of events. Make sure you note what time ride briefing is that night.
You will also be asked to bring all your tack and equipment that you will carry on your horse to the check-in area to be weighed. This will determine what weight class you are riding in.
If you are a first-time competitor, tell the ride secretary and ask if a mentor can be assigned to you. Your mentor will help you with setting up your camp, checking your equipment, and getting you started on the trail. Ask questions of your mentor-they love to help out first-timers!
After your camp is set up and you've checked in with the ride secretary, put on your vest, clean up your horse, and take him to the vet judge for check-in. You are officially in competition when you present your horse for this preliminary examination. The vet judge will check your horse over for painful areas, note any hair losses or cuts or scrapes, check his vital signs, feel his legs for heat or swellings, check his shoes, listen to his heart and gut. Then he'll ask you to trot your horse, have him lunge or trot in a circle in each direction, and trot back to evaluate lameness. The horsemanship judge will evaluate the horse's grooming, overall care, and your safety and effectiveness in presenting the horse. Then you're done until briefing!
Briefing is held on Friday night and Saturday night. At Briefing, the Event Manager will introduce the management team and the judges. The manager will go over any housekeeping, such as what to do with manure, trash, where the bathrooms are if you're lucky enough to have them, etc. The judges will speak about what they observed at check-in and will tell you whether to report in the morning mounted (ready to go) or unmounted (expect a judged mount or obstacle). The vet judge will give the Pulse and
Respiration (P&R) hold criteria. Then the Trail Master will hand out the maps and go over the trail, noting any hazardous conditions, special markings, etc. He will tell you what time to be ready to go in the morning, give the overall ride time, P&R time, lunch time, and speed. This will help you time your ride. More on that later, too! Then it's off to walk your horse a bit, set your alarm, and hopefully get a good night's sleep.
Feed your horse first thing, so that he has plenty of time to eat and digest prior to beginning the ride. Try to eat breakfast, although the excitement of a ride can make that difficult! Take some snacks on the trail with you to munch on later. Saddle up, walk your horse a bit to loosen him up, and make your way to the starting area. The timers will tell you when to cross the start line. Generally, Open riders go first, since they have further to go and move at a greater speed. If you want to ride with a friend or mentor, when the timer tells you, you are "out", go down a trail a ways and wait for your friend.
Remember, this is not a race. Everyone has a 30-minute window of time to complete the ride without penalty points.
The trail will be marked with ribbons and junctions may be additionally marked. Refer to your map frequently. Occasionally, you will see the judges on the trail. They may stop you and ask you to perform a task, such as back between two trees, or they may observe you as you negotiate a hill or water crossing. If they give you instructions that aren't clear, ask questions. If you feel the obstacle is too difficult, or if your horse is too excited, you may "pass". You will lose some points, but it's always better to be safe!
At least twice each day, you will come to a P&R stop, or pulse and respiration check. You will be given a card with your arrival time and your ride number. A crew may take an incoming pulse and respiration if time allows, although this is not counted on your score. Dismount, calm your horse, get him to lower his head and relax. You may want to apply water to his neck and along the big veins in his legs to cool him down. You can remove your saddle if you wish. Some people fan their horses. Exactly ten minutes after you arrive at the P&R, the crew will check your horse's pulse and respiration again. Your horse must meet the target pulse and respiration rate in order to continue on the trail. If he doesn't you will be "held" ten minutes and will be checked again. If he still doesn't meet criteria, you will be held one more ten-minute period. If he is in such distress that he can't meet the criteria, for the well-being of the horse, he will be disqualified.
You may get a lunch break on the trail-the trail master will have covered that in Briefing the night before.
At the end of your ride, check in with the timers, then follow the instructions that were given in Briefing the night before. The veterinary judge will check your horse similar to check-in on Friday afternoon. The horsemanship judge may observe this vet check.
Conditioning is a step-by-step process. The goal is to safely help your horse achieve its highest athletic potential by increasing the efficiency of the heart and lungs, building strength and endurance, and helping your horse build bone density, tendon, ligament and muscle strength. The foundation is Long Slow Distance Training to build a sound foundation for your horse's distance career. LSD training will improve your horse's aerobic (working with oxygen) capacity. An aerobic heart rate is usually 120 to 150 beats per minute (bpm).
Here is a basic, suggested beginning program. Spend a few weeks at a brisk walk. Most horses walk between 3 and 5 mph. Begin your program with an hour's walk or between 4 and 6 miles per day about every other day or 3 days a week. Get in what you can--it is better than not doing anything.
Progress to walking and trotting. You may walk a mile, then trot a half mile. Build the foundation slowly and with care. Remember, your goal is to safely build the stamina and endurance of your horse. DO NOT INCREASE SPEED AND DISTANCE AT THE SAME TIME.
Later in the season, increase either the speed or the duration (miles). Go from 5 miles to 8, then 10 or 12 miles twice a week. Include a longer ride every two weeks. A good rule of thumb is to ride about 30 miles a week the first season, and 80-90 miles every two weeks the second year. Do not increase your speed at the same time. Once your horse is accustomed to a distance, you can increase the intensity by asking for more trotting time or adding a slow canter.
It is very important to not over condition the horse. The reason for taking days off is to allow the horse to rest and repair itself from the mild stresses of the beginning conditioning program.
The average speed for a Novice ride is 4 mph. The rides will have a variety of terrain. Some may include a long uphill which will slow you down and other terrain that will allow for faster travel. So, if you are conditioning at a speed of 4 to 6 mph, you should be able to handle a Novice ride easily.
After your first year of competition, you will have a better understanding of the conditioning needs of your horse. You will have experienced a variety of terrain and weather conditions for the area you ride in. It will be easier and simpler to plan your future conditioning.
There are many good books available on conditioning. One of the best is Go the Distance by Nancy Loving, DVM. It is primarily for endurance horses, but the basics are there for the competitive trail horse.
Finally, don't forget arena work. Such activities as dressage or driving will help to mentally and physically condition your horse. Variety is the spice of life and will help keep you and your horse fit!
Competitive trail riding is about fun and education. Part of the fun is the awards ceremony, held a few hours after the end of the ride. Judges tally all the scores and rank the horses and riders in each class. NATRC places horses in first through sixth place in all classes. The high-point horse in all Open classes is the Sweepstakes winner; the Novice Division may offer a similar award. The high-point horse-rider combination in Competitive Pleasure is a highly coveted award. Ribbons or certificates are awarded, and small prizes are given for the top finishers. Year-end awards are made in each class in each region and nationally.
NATRC looks for the best trail horse based on the horse's own merits; therefore, performance-enhancing drugs are not allowed. The NATRC Rulebook states: "Prohibited medications are not limited to but shall include any stimulant, depressant, anti-inflammatory agent, local anesthetic, tranquilizer, general pain killer, or drug which could affect the performance or well being of the horse and any substance that would mimic or mask said medication." Read your feed and supplement labels carefully to make sure that you follow the spirit as well as the rules of NATRC.
At the ride, you may not use liniments or braces, boots, leg wraps, ice packs, or other artificial aids. You may hose your horse's legs or have him stand in a bucket of water, and you may hold ice on him, but you may not wrap ice on. If you have a question about a procedure or substance, ask the veterinary judge.
Electrolyte use is not only permissible it is encouraged! You may put electrolytes in your horse's feed, in his water, or use paste electrolytes. Get your horse used to electrolytes before your first ride.
NATRC is a membership organization. You do not have to be a member to compete, but if you do several rides a year, it is cost effective to join. In addition, you'll receive "Hoof Print," the organization's bi-monthly slick magazine that contains regional ride results, excellent articles on topics of interest to distance riders, ride stories, and other valuable information. Many regions also have regional newsletters. If you wish to compete for year-end regional or national awards, you must be a member of NATRC.
Contact Beth Braznell, National Membership Chair, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 314-495-2681; or contact your regional membership chair. You can find that person at www.natrc.org by clicking on your region (look for your state, that will lead you to your region). You will be sent a packet of information that will answer most of your questions.
There is a CTR online bulletin board on which you can post questions, get answers, and learn from the discussions going on. called horsesctr. Join the group and the posts will be sent to you. There is no charge for this service.
Some regions hold clinics that can be a great source of fun and learning. NATRC has booths at various horse fairs and expos. Volunteering at a ride is a fabulous way to see what it's all about without committing to riding!