Competitive trail riding

Competitive trail riding

Competitive Trail Riding (CTR) is an equestrian sport where riders cover a marked trail for a distance that is usually between 15 and 40 miles per day. Some rides are only one day long, others may run as long as three days.

The goal of the competition is to demonstrate partnership between horse and rider. Unlike in endurance riding, factors other than speed are considered. If the ride is timed, it is a form of pace race; else it is a judged trail ride. In a timed ride, horses may not come in under or over a certain time, and veterinary checks, rider behavior and other elements play a role in the placings. The horse is evaluated on performance, manners, and related criteria. "Pulse and respiration" stops check the horse's recovery ability and conditioning.

There are many different organizations which sanction Competitive Trail Rides. Horsemanship may be considered at some competitions, depending on the sanctioning organization. Riders are evaluated on how they handle the trail, manage the horse, and present to the judges and veterinarians throughout the ride. Obstacles are also set up along the trail and the horse and rider are graded on how well they perform as a team.

Rides are often held on public lands, such as Forest Service or BLM lands in the United States, but are also held on private property. The terrain varies depending on the part of the country in which a competition is held, and lands available for the event. Unlike trail riding at a guest ranch, where inexperienced riders walk their horses most of the time and cover simple trails, riders who compete in competitive trail rides are asked to have their animals navigate a variety of terrain and use all gaits, especially the trot.

Similar events exist around the world, though often with wide variations in rules and distances. In all cases, the most obvious difference between an endurance ride and a competitive trail ride is that the winner of an endurance ride is the first horse and rider team to cross the finish line and pass a vet check that deems the horse "fit to continue," whereas competitive trail rides usually consider additional factors and penalize a horse and rider that finish in too little or too long of a time.


Sanctioning organizations

Competitive trail rides are sanctioned by numerous organizations in the United States, Canada and Europe.

United States and Canada

In the United States the sanctioning organizations of CTRs include the North American Trail Ride Conference (NATRC), Eastern Competitive Trail Riding Association (ECTRA), South Eastern Distance Riders Association (SEDRA), Upper Midwest Endurance and Competitive Rides Association (UMECRA), Middle of the Trail Distance Riders Association (MODTRA), and others. In Canada, the umbrella group for the provincial organizations is the Canadian Long Distance Riding Association (CaLDRA). Provincial Organizations are active in BC (BCCTRA), Alberta (TRAC), Saskatchewan (SLR), Manitoba (MTRC), Ontario and Quebec (OCTRA), and the Atlantic Region (ACTRA).

The largest organization is NATRC, followed by ECTRA; their ride philosophies differ primarily in that NATRC selects trail obstacles and ECTRA avoids them. NATRC, ECTRA and SEDRA use a "window" type of pace race, where time is a factor only to the extent that the horse and rider must complete the distance within minimum and maximum time limits. In contrast, TREC uses a "precision" type of pace race where the objective is to complete the course in exactly the time specified (see Pace race).

Sanctioning organization Region Pace race Obstacles Notes Driving
MTRC Manitoba Window Avoided
ECTRA Window Avoided
NATRC Window Sought out
(OCTRA) Ontario & Quebec Precision Avoided
(SEDRA) South Eastern US Window Varies

A typical competition

Horse standing ready at the trailer, first morning of a competitive trail ride

Rides usually are weekend activities. For two-day and three day rides (multi-day), competitors arrive on the first day to set up camp for themselves and their horse or horses, riders present their horse to the judges for a physical exam and trot them in hand or longe ("lunge") them. The pre-ride examinations will be used to determine the FITNESS OF THAT EQUINE TO START THE RIDE. Equines showing evidence of contagious disease are ineligible to compete, and shall be promptly removed from the grounds. Any blemishes or other pre-existing conditions are noted.

In the evening prior to the start of the ride, the riders are briefed in a general meeting. Maps are reviewed and veterinary hold criteria are given. The necessary ride speed is given, and if the ride is a window type pace race the minimum and maximum times are given.

Depending on the organization that sanctions the ride, a CTR may begin with either staggered starts or one or more mass starts. Rides that involve judged trail obstacles often use staggered starts to reduce the competitors' waiting time to try the obstacles. Various organizations offer different divisions, based either on experience of the horse/rider team, age of the rider, weight of the rider, or other criteria. The average speed of a CTR usually is set between 3 and 6 miles per hour, this would depend on the level or division you have entered.

The following morning, the ride itself begins. Competitors set their own pace and, unless instructed otherwise, in the gait they prefer. The choice of speed and gait in each segment of the ride is an important tactic. Competitors are observed by the judges at various points along the trail. The horse's pulse and respiration ("P&R") are checked periodically, during mandatory holds/lunch stops. During these stops/holds which are generally between 10–20 minutes or more depending on ride management, you may take care of yourself and your mount. Lunch is either provided by the rider or ride management depending on the CTR. Any feed given to the horse must be carried by the rider.

When riders reach a certain mile marker at the end of the day's ride, they must maintain forward motion into camp, with no further stops allowed. Thus, it is the last opportunity to make timing adjustments. Riders who are ahead of time may stop at that point for as long as they like, but once leaving it, may not stop until they get into camp. The only exception to the rule is if the horse wishes to drink at a creek crossing, which is permitted in the interest of good horsemanship. However, riders are not to linger, but simply let the horse drink and move on. Riders behind schedule need to speed up to get to camp.

At the end of the day, all horses are again presented to the judges for an exam. The Horsemanship Judge checks each competitor's trailer and camp for safety and care of the horse. If the competition is a one-day ride, awards for these horses and riders will be given. If a two-day or three day ride, there is another ride briefing to recap the day and announce maps, trail, speed, distance and hold criteria for the following day.

The ride on next day is similar to the previous day in terms of routine and rules, but the distance may be shorter and the ride itself may be on a different trail. There will be a check of the horses' soundness before competitors are timed out to begin riding. After arriving back at camp, horses are cleaned up and presented to the judges one final time. When all the riders have completed the final check out, scores are tallied, an award ceremony is held and all riders are given their score cards.

Preparing for competition

Preparation well in advance of a competitive trail ride is critical. Competitors must not only have a well-trained horse in good physical condition, but also must be able to safely and effectively camp out with their horse, as stabling is not provided at rides.

Conditioning the horse

Before embarking on a competitive trail ride the horse must be up to the task. It takes a number of weeks, and sometimes months, of careful work to condition a horse to do 15–25 miles of trail in a day. Conditioning needs to start easy and gradually build until the horse can physically and mentally handle the stress. Ideally this work should be done on natural terrain, including hills.

Ideally a conditioning program needs to get the horse's pulse and respiration levels elevated at least 3 times per week. This can be accomplished with a vigorous 20-min workout, or a long, slower 4-hr ride. The horse’s pulse and respiration should be monitored as it is being worked to ensure that the workout creates an appropriate amount of physical stress, but not too much.

During this phase of training, the horse’s speed and duration of exercise should allow for steady state heart rates below 150 to 170 beats per minute, which is the anaerobic threshold. The horse’s speed increases at these heart rates as the horse becomes more fit. Also, recovery heart rates will occur faster as the horse becomes more fit. A horse in good aerobic condition will have recovery heart rate around 100 beats per minute at two minutes post exercise when exercising at rates to induce heart rates near the anaerobic threshold. Recovery heart rates at 10 minutes post exercise should be less than 60 beats per minute.

Riders need to be familiar with their horses' resting and working heart and respiration rates and know when an animal is stressed. This is an important part of the conditioning routine to ensure that a rider is able to anticipate the results at a P&R check in competition.

Things to bring

When packing for a competitive trail ride, the following items need to be included:

  • Horse supplies: tack, buckets, brushes
  • Horse feed, such as grain and hay
  • Personal supplies: clock, boots, and clothing, including rain gear.
  • Camping supplies: tent, sleeping bag, lantern, tarp, and other equipment.
  • Food supplies, cooking utensils, ice chest, camp stove.
  • Trailer and supplies
  • Fire extinguisher
  • first aid kit
  • Spare parts and repair supplies
  • Coggins test, veterinary certificate, brand inspection, & registration papers
  • Maps and directions
  • Trail supplies: watch, water bottles, hoof pick, knife, lead rope, halter, sponge on a string.

Competition details

There are nuances that allow competitors to obtain better scores throughout the competition that go beyond having a sound, well-conditioned horse that finishes within the given time. Horsemanship and horse care are also considered throughout the competition.

Check in and inspection

Upon arrival at the ride site, setting up camp competitors report to the Ride Secretary, complete registration, weigh in the rider and tack, and then provided with a ride packet. The ride packet contains a penny or number bib for the rider, a halter/bridle tag for the horse, and a number to be displayed on the horses stable area. Packets may also include an agenda, rider's list, and ride map. Often there are goodies, such as a piece of candy or gum, or a discount coupon

You are considered entering the event after registration and must wear the number bib assigned you and display all other required identification at your camp and/or stable/corral. While presenting your horse to the judges, they may introduce themselves and answer any questions you might have. Most competitions have two or more judges, the Horsemanship Judge is looking for a rider who is attentive to the horse and to the Vet Judge. The Vet Judge assesses the condition of horse to establish a baseline. The horse that looks as good on the last day as it did on the first day will score well. Blemishes, scars, and marks are noted. Points are not taken off for blemishes or minor cuts at check-in and are scored at checkout only if they are worse. The exception to this is soundness, which can be scored off at check-in, and if severe, may disqualify the horse from competition. The judge also notes if the horse will stand quietly for examination and allow its feet to be picked up, and this behavior is scored under manners on the horse's score card.

In Hand Presentations

The horse is trotted out after the veterinary exam. This is both a horsemanship and a soundness component of the competition. There are two basic methods for in-hand presentations. The first method is to longe while the second one is to lead the horse in hand at a working trot in a wide circle, in opposite directions or in a figure eight, depending on the vet judge. It is the rider's option on which method to use. This presentation will be used to determine any lameness by the vet judges and maybe scored in horsemanaship.

Calculating speed and pace

The required speed for each division (in mph) is announced at the pre-ride briefing.

Rate Your Miles – CTR – If the terrain allows, the following is an easy rule of thumb to go by. Trot for six minutes then walk for three minutes. Keep repeating that, you and your horse will finish within the time frame (not too fast and not too slow). It also allows for an even distribution of work and rest. Carry a cheat sheet too (with the times/mileage). Set your watch at 12:00 when you start and check it when you go by the mile markers. You should be within the parameters below. If necessary, adjust your speed up or down.

This is an example of the "cheat sheet" that some use.

Miles to go! Your Watch Reads:
25 12:00
20 12:45 – 12:50
15 1:20 – 1:40
10 2:15 – 2:30
5 3:00 – 3:20
4 3:09 – 3:33
3 3:18 – 3:46
2 3:27 – 3:59
1 3:46 – 4:25

Ride maps are sometimes provided which show distances between key markers along the trail. Based on this information, riders calculate what time they should be at each key marker. Miles divided speed equals the time (hours plus fraction) Riders multiply the fraction by 60 to get the minutes, add the minutes to the hours and arrive at the time. There are also mileage conversion charts available for riders who need them.

Timing Out, The Start of the Ride!

At most competitions, riders leave camp one at a time with their departure time recorded. This is not a racing start; horses need to stay relatively settled and maintain a safe distance between one another. Each competitor proceeds down the trail at the specified speed for the division entered. Riders commonly set their watch for 12:00 when they begin their ride in order to simplify their time calculations.

Judging and Obstacles Encountered At Some CTR's

At various points along the trail, judges are posted. Sometimes they observe riders traverse some natural obstacle such as a deep gully or creek, large logs across the trail, or a bridge or boggy place. Other times, they give riders specific instructions, such as to back or sidepass the horse, open and close a gate, or travel at a specified gait such as the trot or canter. Riders may be asked to complete obstacles either in-hand or under saddle.

If riders have to wait their turn, they must keep track of the time from arrival until they are able to be judged and give this time to the judge or his/her secretary. If riders finish the trail late, this time is given back to the competitor.

Other examples of judged obstacles include:

  • Emergency stops from trot or canter.
  • Back between or around trees, uphill, or in water
  • Sidepass up to a tree, over log, or in water
  • Mount and Dismount, including offside
  • Tie a ribbon on a tree or tree limb.
  • Climb or descend a bank, hill or cliff.
  • Step or Back over a large log.

Horses and riders need to practice obstacles at home in order to build the trust and teamwork that enables them to be smooth on the trail. Any time riders are asked to do something they consider unsafe, or the horse is not ready to do, it is acceptable to "pass," though the rider will lose points.

Pulse and Respiration Stops

There are generally one or two Pulse and Respiration (P&R) holds, 10 to 20 minutes long each day (although there may be a third at discretion of ride management). At most ride briefings, the Trailmaster will indicate verbally or on maps where the P&R stops will be.

Depending on the mileage of the competition the first check usually occurs between 7–10 miles after leaving camp. If there is a second hold it will be another 7–15 miles into the ride.

When riders arrive at the P&R checkpoint, a time will be recorded. After 10 minutes (1st intermission), workers will come and check the horse's pulse and respiration. If the horse has a pulse and/or respiration rate over the criteria given, the horse is stressed and will be held at the P&R an additional 10 minutes (2nd intermission). Holds are generally scored. If the horse still fails to meet the criteria specified by the Judge, it is held for another 10 minute period (3rd intermission) and loses more points. After the 3rd time, if the horse does not recover it is pulled from competition and arrangements are made to trailer the horse back to camp.

Note that for each Hold, 10 minutes is added to the maximum and minimum times to ensure that a horse that might be stressed is not stressed further trying to make up time.

When the P&R time is up and your organizations requirements are completed, you may proceed with your ride. It is also good etiquette to wait until any adjoining horses are also done and ask permission from that rider before leaving.

A few CTR's Organizations offer Lunch Stops

Horses are timed into the lunch stop, when there is one, and must remain there for the time specified (generally 45 minutes). If water is available, this is a good time to offer your horse a drink and wet them down. You may remove tack or just loosen it, at your discretion. Then you will want to find a place to sit down and eat your lunch. At the end of the designated time, tighten your tack, mount, and report back to the timer to be timed back on the trail.

Return to Camp- FINISH LINE-In Timer

Coming towards the end of your ride, most CTR organizations require the rider/mount to "maintain a forward motion (trot or gait equivalent)" at a certain mile marker before the finish line. This helps to assure that all horses reach the P&R in a similar elevated state of exertion.

Upon arriving back at camp, usually in the mid to late afternoon, all riders report to the timer after crossing the finish line, the times are noted. Multi-day teams on the first and/or second day after checking in with the timer, return to their camp, remove tack, and get the horse ready to present to the vet judge at a preset time.

Single day competitors and multi-day riders on the last day of the ride, may be subjected to a CRI/PR (Cardiac Recovery Index) in 10 minutes after crossing the finish line, depending on the organization. The horse and rider team may then return to their camp site to take care of their horse and any personal needs. After a preset time given at the ride brief, generally 60 to 90 minutes from their finish time, horses are again presented to the Vet Judge for a check similar to that performed at the Check-in and can be extensive, looking for any differences in condition and attitude from how the horse looked at the beginning.

If The CTR Has a Horsemanship Division

The Horsemanship Judge will score each rider's camp set up to ensure that each horse is being well cared for and note any safety issues. Judges may answer questions from competitors at these times.


Most organizations offer awards, first through sixth place in each class and/or division as well as Breed Awards. These might come from the Breed Association, donations, or other. Many times, "First Time Riders" are given special recognition. And those who had especially hard luck, or were very lost, might be recognized.

Awards include ribbons, certificates, plaques, or useful "goodies" such as hoof pick, brush, or halter. In most CTR organizations, cash prizes are not allowed. Significant awards, such as bridles, buckles, chairs, and even on occasion, saddles are given as awards to the High Point Horse, High Point Rider, Mileage, Divisions and many others, too numerous to list!

Common Scoring Criteria

Typically, condition, soundness, "trail ability" and horsemanship are all scored.

Condition includes:

  • P&R Scores
  • Mucous Membrane coloration (MM), noted by Gum Color – The normal color of gums is a light pink. A whitish, dark pink, reddish-deep pink, or blue gum color is an indication of a medical issue.
  • Muscle Tone (MT)
  • Capillary Refill Time (CRT)
  • Hydration (Hyd) – checked by a pinch test done at the base of the neck close to the shoulder
  • Gut Sounds, a check for colic, overheating, and other forms of distress.
  • Movement, Attitude and Willingness (MAW)

Chronic stumbling or forging may be penalized. A horse that develops thumps, colic, dehydration, or ties up is removed from competition so that immediate medical attention can be provided.

Soundness includes:

  • Gait (Way of Going)
  • Leg or tendon soreness – Heat and/or pain may be penalized. Blemishes are noted at check-in and are generally not penalized.
  • Withers, Back, Loin or Girth (WBLG) soreness – often influenced by tack fit rider balance.
  • Edema, rubs, or inflammation at cinch, mouth, chin groove, or legs

Horses in poor physical condition or who are unsound will be pulled from competition if they fail to pass veterinary inspections or show distress at any time of the event. Some symptoms of concern include:

  • Excessively high respiration rate: If the horse does not recover appropriately at the P&R it may be pulled.
  • Lameness
  • Dehydration
  • "Tying-up"
  • Thumps – When a horse develops constant, rhythmic ticking in the flanks. In a severe case, the whole abdomen will have this ticking motion.
  • Colic

Trail Ability and Manners includes:

  • Standing quietly for examination and when a rider mounts.
  • Attention to rider, attentiveness to the trail, sure-footed and well controlled at all times.
  • Maneuverability on obstacles. Horses are to accomplish tasks quietly and be attentive to the rider.
  • Disobedience, head tossing, buddying, or refusals are penalized.
  • Exceeding time limits for obstacles is penalized.

Horsemanship criteria includes:

Electrolyte supplementation

The use of electrolyte supplementation for horses, common in endurance riding, is controversial in CTR. The need for electrolytes tends to vary greatly from horse to horse and may also be influenced by region and climate. A horse loses body water and salts through perspiration and urination, and replenishes itself by drinking water. Normally, a horse will naturally adjust the electrolyte balance in its body if given free access to salt (sodium chloride) and water, but this is not always possible during a competition.

A horse that is dehydrated has an elevated electrolyte level in its body, which should cause thirst. If a horse does not drink, giving electrolytes (by squirting a paste in the back of the horse's mouth) can further elevate the level, hence cause greater thirst, possibly inducing a reluctant horse to drink. However, giving electrolytes to a dehydrated horse can also further disturb the electrolyte balance, resulting in serious medical problems such as thumps, muscle spasms, and tying up.

If the weather is hot and humid, or horses are moving at a faster speed, horses are more likely to need supplemental electrolytes. Usually, horses that drink regularly have little need for electrolyte supplementation. Excitable, anxious horses or horses that sweat excessively for any reason may need supplementation.

See also


External links

CTR sanctioning bodies in North America

CTR sanctioning bodies in Europe

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