July 3, 2021
October 5, 2021

Discipline Spotlight : Competitive Trail Riding

Trail riding is the most popular activity among horse owners, and it’s easy to see why. It’s fun, relaxing, and a great way to bond with your horse.

Audrey Pavia

If you enjoy trail riding but also like the idea of competing on your horse, competitive trail riding might be the sport for you. In competitive trail riding, you and your horse are judged while you also take in the beauty of the trail.

Different regions of the U.S. have competitive trail riding organizations that put on local events. These include the Eastern Competitive Trail Ride Association, Equestrian Trails, Inc., and the Upper Midwest Endurance & Competitive Riders Association. However, only one national competitive trail riding organization exists in the U.S.: North American Trail Riding Conference, or NATRC.

NATRC has regions in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and each regional club puts on several competitive riding events each year. Riders in each region are eligible for local awards as well as national honors. 

How It Works

The most important aspect of NATRC events is that anyone can do it. You don’t need a fancy horse, expensive tack or show clothes. As long as the saddle and bridle fit, and the horse is sound, you are good to go.

NATRC has four different divisions: Leisure, Novice, Competitive Pleasure and Open. Most people start in NATRC’s newest division, Leisure. Designed for riders who don’t have a lot of time to condition their horses for the higher divisions, which involve riding more rides, Leisure rides run anywhere from 8 to 12 miles in length. They are usually paced at around 3.5 mph, which is a brisk walk for most horses. 

In the Leisure division, horses and riders are judged as a team. A single judge evaluates the rider for horsemanship and the horse for good behavior. The judge stops you along the trail and watches while you negotiate obstacles upon request, like backing up between two logs, or crossing a stream. In NATRC, all obstacles are natural; no “car washes” made of crepe paper, or blue tarps!

As with all NATRC divisions, horses in Leisure are checked for pulse and respiration (P&R) along the ride. The results of the P&R are considered in the horse’s score, and also help both rider and judge determine whether the horse is physically capable of continuing the ride. 

You can stay in the Leisure division forever as a NATRC competitor, or you can move to the longer mileage divisions of Novice, CP or Open. Novice and CP range from 20 to 25 miles, while Open can be 30 miles or more. All divisions can be held as one or two-day rides. 

In the longer mileage divisions, horse and rider are judged separately by two different judges. A veterinary judge exams the horse before the ride for a baseline of the horse’s conditioning, checking his soundness, hydration and gut sounds. Throughout the ride, this judge checks the same criteria, taking into account the horse’s baselines readings. If hydration and gut sounds are reduced during the ride, the horse loses points. Horses that become unsound are pulled from the ride. Any horse that is having a hard time completing the ride, as evidenced by the scores at a P&R, are held back to rest. If the rest doesn’t improve the P&R results, the horse is pulled from the ride. 

Horses are also judged on their trail manners, willingness and attitude. Obedience to the handler on the ground during the vet exam, and to the rider in the saddle are important criteria when judging.

While the horse is being judged by a veterinarian, the rider is being evaluated by a horsemanship judge. This judge is looking for a variety of skills, including lightness in the saddle, good communication with the horse, and safety on the trail. 

While Leisure division rides usually last around 3 hours, the longer mileage division rides go about 6 to 7 hours (including two P&R stops and a break for lunch). After all the riders have come in at the end of the day, scores are tallied and awards are given.

Although NATRC competitive trail riding is a sport where horses and riders vie for awards, it is first and foremost an educational sport. The goal of NATRC is to teach horse owners to be better trail riders. Learning to care for your horse on the trail is probably the most valuable reward you will receive if you compete in NATRC.


Although competing in the Leisure division doesn’t require an overnight stay if you live within a couple hours of the venue, the other divisions dictate that you camp out the night before the ride. The safety of your campsite will factor into your rider score. Each competitor is expected to provide a good place for the horse to spend the night. Some ride venues provide stalls for overnight, but in most cases, horses must spend the night tied to the trailer. 

All the time you spend in camp and then out on the trail at a NATRC ride breeds camaraderie with the other riders, judges and volunteers. After the ride, most regional clubs hold a potluck dinner just before awards are handed out. Friends are made, and those friendships can last a lifetime.

For more information on NATRC and to find out what rides are being held in your area, visit www.natrc.org.

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