Competitive Trail Rookies

Welcome to the fun and friendly sport of Competitive Trail Riding! In our region of the U.S., the sanctioning organization is the Eastern Competitive Trail Riding Association (ECTRA). Always a good place to start, their website has an up to date listing of Competitions and the Rulebook. By becoming a member of ECTRA, you can qualify for great year-end awards and lifetime mileage tracking for both you and your horse.

Competitive Trail Rookie FAQs

Contact us to find a mentor – we may know someone in your area who is actively competing in competitive trail who can help you to get started. This is nice, but not necessary. All you need to do is read the ECTRA Rulebook, condition your horse and come to a ride. A Conditioning Distance Ride or Drive (15 miles or less) is usually a good first ride to try. You will find that distance riders are a friendly and helpful bunch. Read on in this FAQ to learn more tips on how to condition and what to bring to a ride.

Competitive Trail Rides (CTRs) and Conditioning Distance Rides (CDRs) are very similar except that CDRs are shorter in distance (15 miles or less) and are intended as a starting point for new riders and green horses. Many CTRs and CDRs offered also have a driving division. There are slight differences in the rules between CTRs and CDRs which can be seen by consulting the ECTRA Rulebook but essentially CDRs are shorter and are usually run on a pass/fail basis. This means that riders have a simplified judging process and receive mileage upon completion but not points for year-end awards.  CTRs and CDRs are NOT races. Riders go out on the trail in spaced intervals and are expected to finish within a time window at a pace of about 6mph. For most horses in our terrain, this means that you will trot most of the course, walk when necessary and canter when you can. Horses are evaluated by a vet and lay judge before the ride with an extensive score sheet and vetted again at the finish. The horse is then scored based on how little he changes from start to finish. Penalties are given for going over or under time and for slow heart rate recoveries. Horsemanship is not judged. The winner of the competition is determined by the horse that has the most points at the end of the final vet check.

Endurance is a different sport. It also has a division for new horses and riders, called Limited Distance Endurance. The sanctioning body is the American Endurance Riding Conference (AERC). Many distance riders compete and enjoy both competitive trail and endurance. Endurance is a race. The first horse across the finish line wins – however, like marathon running, most folks who participate are looking to finish and achieve personal bests rather than to win. Limited Distance Endurance races are under 50 miles while Endurance races are 50 miles or more. The maximum completion time equals about a 5mph pace, but riders can, and often do, go much faster.

Both CTR and Endurance have mandatory vet checks where horses are examined by a veterinarian to ensure that they are safely recovering and sound during the competition.

Any Breed – competitive trail is open to all breeds of horses, mules and ponies. Distance horses need to be strong and healthy. They don’t need to be beautiful, but they must have a conformation free from major faults that might lead to injury or lameness when stressed. Because the sport is stressful, on a ride of 27 miles or less the horse must be at least 48 months old and on a ride of over 27 miles a horse must be at least 60 months old. Horses of all breeds have been successful in distance riding as long as they are well conditioned and sound.

One of the great things about riding distance is that riders use any and all types of equipment. While a lot of riders will eventually purchase a saddle made specifically for distance riding there is no reason to run out and buy a bunch of new equipment to start out. Stick with what is working for you and your horse for now. There are many endurance related products, including saddles, that you will see at the rides. Some of these items you will eventually want and some you won’t. You must wear a helmet. You will want to think through how you will carry certain things with you on the ride, such as a sponge, electrolytes, a snack and water for yourself, and your cell phone for safety.

Electrolytes in short are a horse’s Gatorade. You will see riders dosing electrolytes to their horses with 60cc dosing syringes throughout ride camp. Most have their own special way of mixing them but two of the most common bases are yogurt and applesauce.

Electrolytes are commonly given before, during and after the competition. Especially in hot, humid weather, significant amounts of electrolytes are lost in the sweat. Sodium, chloride and potassium are the primary ions lost, along with smaller amounts of calcium, magnesium and other trace minerals. Increasing scientific data indicates that supplementing during exercise, and thereby minimizing depletion is beneficial in possibly averting metabolic problems such as thumps, tying-up, poor gut sounds and other symptoms associated with “exhausted horse syndrome.”

The body does not store excess electrolytes against future need, therefore “pre-loading” several days before a ride will not replace supplementation during the ride itself. However, orally syringing a day or two before the ride (especially before and during transport) may help trigger a “thirst response” to encourage drinking. Likewise, supplementing throughout the day may encourage drinking as well as replacing electrolytes lost through sweating.

As with every other feed supplied throughout an endurance ride, small and frequent amounts are usually preferable to large and infrequent amounts. Electrolytes are often added to feed or water, but some horses may refuse the too salty flavor, and therefore also refuse much needed food and water. Although horses do develop an appetite for needed salt to replace depleted storage, this is not an instantaneous response. Don’t rely on this mechanism during a ride! Oral syringing is a good alternative that has worked well for many horses and riders.

Be sure to review the ride flyer first for pre-entry, camping and horse requirements. At all rides your horse will need a current Negative Coggins (GMHA requires a Rabies Certificate as well), so bring the original and a copy to leave with the ride manager. The ride flyer will also indicate if a dinner meal is provided or if there is a potluck.

We believe that as you start riding more distance rides and camping longer nights with your horse your list will grow, and grow but these items are a few essentials that we wouldn’t want to be caught without:

For the Rider:

  • Bottled Water
  • Electrolyte such as Gatorade
  • Your riding attire and helmet
  • Bring a variety of Sweatshirts, T-shirts and Tank Tops. You never know when the weather will turn, and its better to be prepared than standing freezing in the rain!
  • Snacks – Fruit, Nuts, etc… 9 Advil – Tylenol – Aleve
  • Rain Gear
  • Personal Items
  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses
  • Chapstick
  • Bug Spray
  • Lantern and/or Flashlight

For the Horse:

  • Hay, Grain other horse feeds and supplements (whatever is typically fed at home; don’t try any new feeds at the ride)
  • Water and Feed Buckets – if you have a way to haul water that is great; otherwise, there is water provided at all rides.
  • Blankets, Coolers and Fly sheets/masks.
  • Saddle, Bridle and, if used, Breastcollar, Martingale, Crupper, Leg boots (allowed in CDR but not CTR), Hoof boots (allowed in all distances)
  • Electrolytes and Syringes

At GMHA, we provide stalls to all riders and they must be used for overnight containment. For riders who don’t need to stable overnight, we provide stalls for use during the day. Riders may camp overnight in their trailers or stay elsewhere off the grounds. We provide a night check service as part of your entry. At other rides, the setup is usually a bit more rustic. Options range from swing-out trailer ties to various portable corrals, both electric and pipe or PVC. There is no foolproof way to contain a horse, especially in a strange environment. Sleep in your clothes and have your boots and a flashlight near the bed! It is a good idea to make an anklet, neck collar or halter tag with your contact information just in case your horse escapes.

For a CDR, if you have been doing 8-10 mile trail rides 3 or more times a week incorporating some trotting and walking intervals, you can probably complete a CDR in native terrain. If you are planning on riding 25 miles, you should be riding at least 3 days a week at distances between 5 and 15 miles each ride. You should be trotting most of the training ride only walking when the footing or terrain requires a walk. A medium to slow trot is fine. Other things to work on at home are your horse’s manners. The horse needs to be able to be examined by a Vet and not be a danger to the Vet or anyone else, be able to trot in hand in a circle in both directions as well as a straight line, and also behave safely on the trail with other riders and horses. This also should not be your horse’s first camping trip! You should know what type of containment system your horse can be left in or on safely and comfortably throughout the night. Getting your horse used to camping prior to the event also helps them to relax and eat and drink properly which is of utmost importance.

There are several ways to take your horse’s pulse. The most basic way is with a stethoscope. Position the ear pieces of your stethoscope so they point slightly towards the front of your head. Position the diaphragm of the stethoscope on the left side of the horse just behind the elbow where the girth rests. Move it around in that area until you can hear the beating of the heart. At rest, the horse’s heart has a slow, regular rhythm that sounds like “ker-plunk, ker-plunk”. Each “ker-plunk” is counted as one beat, not two. Once you have established the rhythm, look at your watch. You can count the beats for 15 seconds and multiply by 4 or take the pulse for 30 seconds and multiply by 2. A quick way to get a general idea of the pulse is to take it for 6 seconds and add a zero. However you take it, your intent is to establish how many times your horse’s heart beats in one minute. Take his pulse often. Learn what his resting heart rate is. Take it directly after a work out. Take it 10 minutes after a work out. Take it at different times of the day. Take it in different situations/locations. Your horse’s heart rate will fluctuate under different conditions. Both physical and emotional stress can elevate the heart rate. Find out what is normal for your horse. If you don’t have a stethoscope it is possible to take the pulse with your fingers. Find a vein, feel the pulse and start counting. I have even seen people place their hand in the girth area near the heart and count the pulse that way. Experiment and find out what works best for you. While a horse may come into the vet check with a high heart rate, the rider can lower the heart rate in a number of ways. A conditioned horse’s heart rate will lower on its own with little help of the rider. The rider can facilitate the lowering of the heart rate by cooling the horse, through water on the neck and legs of the horse, or even by icing the horse down. As the temperature of the horse declines, the heart rate will also decline. However, if the horse has been over stressed, even after the heart rate has come down, if the horse is stressed again, the heart rate will jump up again. When the horse is presented to the vet, the heart rate should be lower than pulse criteria set by the Vet before the ride (e.g., 60, 64). If the heart rate is above criteria, you will have to return to the crewing area to get his heart rate down and re-present to the vet when he has reached criteria. He will be eliminated if he doesn’t reach criteria within the time specified by the rules. As always, there are some tricks you can play to lower the heart rate even while the vet is checking.

  • First, if another horse walks by, particularly a best buddy, then the horse’s rate is sure to go up. Stand such that you block the horse’s view of whatever might excite him.
  • Do not let the horse eat while the vet is taking the pulse.
  • Do not let the horse throw his head way up. Preferably, have the horse hold his head in a “neutral” position.
  • If you have a calming technique, such as gently rubbing the horse, do so.
  • For yourself, take a deep breath and try to relax to show your horse that the excitement is over, no more trotting right now.
  • All competitive trail rides begin with the vet in. This is either done the evening before the ride or the morning of the ride, depending on the ride distance and number of entries. Your ride flyer will tell you when to show up. Be sure to show up with a clean horse outfitted with a halter and a long lead rope.
  • After the vetting, ride times will be assigned and posted on a board. Usually, you can choose who to ride with or to ride alone. Riders are typically sent out in 2 or 3 minute intervals, in groups of 2-3. Always show up a few minutes before your start time with a well warmed up horse.
  • Once you know your ride time, set up your cooling out area with buckets, scrapers, hay, and whatever else you’ll need to get your horse cooled down and cleaned up after the ride. There will be a pre-ride briefing given by management before the ride describing the trail, the time window and other details. Always go to that meeting and pay attention!
  • At the start, your number will be called and you will head out on trail. Feel free to ride at your own pace, asking politely to pass if necessary (never faster than a trot) and allowing others to pass. Keep an eye on your time. You want to be at a pace where you complete 5 miles in 45 minutes. There will be mileage markers on the trail every 5 miles and each mile for the last 5 miles so you will know where you are during the ride. Depending on your distance, you may have a mandatory halfway hold where you will cool and rest your horse and his heart rate and soundness will be checked. You can send supplies to the hold in a truck provided by Ride Management but water will be provided. As you near the finish, make note of your time. If you have extra time before you reach the minimum, stop and graze your horse. If you need to move along, remember that you will lose some points by going over the maximum but the horse’s welfare is far more important. You will only be eliminated if you are 30 minutes over the maximum time. Take care of your horse!
  • At the finish, you will be given a time slip. Try not to get it wet! Go and cool your horse and be ready for his pulse to be taken by a volunteer in 20 minutes. If a pulse taker isn’t nearby, call out “P&R” – it is your responsibility to make your need known. The pulse taker will take and record pulse and respiration on your time slip.
  • You will then take the slip and your horse up to the vetting area for your final exam. You will be examined in the order of finish. Once that is done, have lunch, take a rest and thank your horse for a job well done. Ride management will score the competition and let you know when it is time for awards.

The sounds of the intestinal system (random gurgling noises). Often diminishing with fatigue, their total absence can indicate a serious metabolic problem with the horse. The vet will check them before and after your ride.

A test for dehydration; pinch a fold of skin between your fingers and note the number of seconds it takes to flatten back out. The longer the time, the greater the dehydration of the horse. Over three to four seconds indicates potentially serious dehydration. This test should be applied at the point of the shoulder, not up on the neck. It will be part of the judging process.

The muscle tone of the anus; loss of anal tone is a sign of fatigue and will be noted on your card.

Another indicator of dehydration, the vet presses a finder onto the horse’s gums and notes the amount of time it takes for the pink color to return.

During the initial exam (vet in), the safety check at the midpoint hold and the final exam (vet out), the horse is trotted (or gaited) in hand so that the judges can evaluate soundness and fatigue factors. Usually, the horse is trotted straight away from the judges, circled in both directions and then trotted (or gaited) straight back. It makes sense to practice trotting out before the ride, making sure your horse is consistent, obedient, and steady on a loose lead so that his gait can be presented in its best light.

Each CTR is different, but most offer something as a completion award and then provide ribbons and prizes for the top placings in each division (Adult, Junior, Driver). Many also offer Rookie Horse and Rookie Rider awards. ECTRA has a whole series of year-end and cumulative mileage awards that you can aspire to. See their website for more information.

On Facebook, search for Eastern Competitive Trail Ride Association and join the page. Also, join GMHA Distance Days and Trail Riding Community on Facebook. These are a good place to start, but a search for ‘Distance Riding’ will yield lots more options.