Trail riding is riding outdoors on trails and dirt roads as opposed to riding in an enclosed area such as an arena. Trail rides may be informal pleasure activities of an individual or small group of people, larger events organized by a club, directed by professional guides or outfitters (particularly at guest ranches), or judged competitions of varying length and speed.
Competitive trail rides test the horse and rider’s ability to cover a good distance over a marked trail within a specified time and to navigate obstacles commonly found on the trail such gates, streams, etc.
A good trail horse is a willing partner who can calmly maneuver through obstacles with physical skill and confidence as well as be conditioned to soundly carry its rider over a distance.
The level of difficulty and distance covered at a competitive ride will vary by division within the sponsoring organization, terrain and weather conditions. The sport emphasizes safety, horse care, and teamwork between horse and rider in a supportive, fun atmosphere. Like recreational trail riding (which is without speed, form and time constraints), competitive riding is about having fun and enjoying time spent with one’s horse in nature.
Depending upon the sponsoring organization, competitive trail rides vary in length and may be single to multiple-day events. The lengths vary from 10 to 90 miles. For young horses (at least four years old) and for riders new to the sport, divisions are offered at the shorter distances and can be covered mostly at a walk (three to five miles per hour). Teams at the top levels travel at a faster pace (four to seven miles per hour) over the longer distances. Some organizations judge the horse only; some judge the performance of the team with one score, and one (the North American Trail Ride Conference) judges both the horse’s performance and the rider’s horsemanship.
All ages of riders (minimum six to 10 years old, accompanied by an adult), any breed of equine (horses, mules, donkeys), gaited or non-gaited, and any type of tack (saddle and head control required) are allowed. Separate junior divisions are offered. Many types of trail rides supply the rider with a copy of their score cards, enabling riders to identify where their team needs to improve.
Trail riding and other trail activities (such as mountain biking, four wheeling) are criticized when excess or improper use of trails leads to erosion, introduction of weed seeds, conflict with other trail users or harassment of wildlife.
However, many responsible equestrians, especially those who get involved in these sports by joining an organized club, perform hours of trail maintenance every year. Many organizations also sponsor educational events to teach newcomers about safety, responsible land stewardship, how to improve riding techniques and the sport itself.
Discipline Association: North American Trail Ride Conference
Information provided by Beverly Roberts, (NATRC) and the U.S. Equestrian Federation