Competitive trail riding is a sport of endurance and skill in which horse and take part in a long-distance journey, traveling anywhere from 15 to 40 miles in a given day. Trail rides are organized in day trips or even multiple day journeys. The main difference between competitive trail riding and endurance riding is that competitive trail riding is not primarily a speed race, but has multiple aspects that going in to the race. In competitive trail riding, the first team to cross the finish line is not necessarily the winner.

Race Outline

Many competitive trail rides take place over a span of two or three days. Usually the riders will arrive a full day before the event begins for check-in. At the outset of the race, expert veterinarians inspect all of the horses. The veterinarians ensure that the horse is physically fit and able to go on the ride.

Before the race begins, all of the competitors are informed as to what the veterinary criteria will be for the duration of the race. The course is always mapped out before the race begins, and the maps are given out the night before the race. Some races have specific paces, which are given at this time. In some paced races, teams are penalized for coming in too late or even too early. The teams that keep pace are the teams that will win the ride.

Competitive trial rides begin in the morning. Depending on the size and type of the race, the beginning of the race can be a collective event, or have staggered starts. Like endurance riding, there are frequent veterinary stops along the course on a competitive trail ride. During these mandatory stops, the horse’s vitals are checked. The horses must remain at these stops for 10 to 20 minutes to provide rest for horse and rider. The horse is offered food and water during the stops as well.

At the stop at the end of the day, the riders will set up camp. During the final stretch, timing adjustments can be made so that the proper pace can be maintained. At the final stop before camp, riders will need to quicken the pace if they are behind or rest at the camp for a longer period of time if they are ahead of time. In a paced race, this is the most important step as it can make or break the pacing. At the end of the race, awards are given after the horses are inspected one final time.

Training and Strategy

Like any competitive equestrian discipline, competitive trail riding requires plenty of training. Endurance training is the most important training for trail riding. Conditioning is the practice of training, while over time building up distance and speed. If a horse is forced to travel too far too fast, the horse will be stressed too far, both physically and mentally. A horse that is mentally stressed will often refuse to perform and any training will be set back considerably.

Most conditioning should take place across hills, grass, rock and other natural trail occurrences. The horse should experience trail riding on the most accurate landscape so the competitive trail riding will not feel out of the norm.

A good training schedule will have the horse working vigorously three times per week. While a faster paced, quick workout will help build endurance, a longer ride will better condition the horse for competitive trail riding. As the horse builds endurance week by week, the longer riders will become easier. The rider must have intimate knowledge with the heart rate of the horse, both exercising and resting, to avoid over-stressing but ensuring a good workout is achieved.

Another important aspect in training for competitive trail riding is learning how to pace a ride. Pacing is achieved through time and practice. Once a race is paced out, the rider must practice with the horse to ensure accurate pacing. Paces are generally calculated using the time of the entire race divided by distance between markers. The rider can then determine what time he/she should arrive at a marker. If the rider is ahead of pace by the landmark, a longer rest can be taken. If the rider is behind pace, more trotting should be incorporated before the next marker. Some riders choose to trot for a selected amount of minutes and then walk again, repeating the pattern throughout the course of the race.


Depending on the race organizers, some competitive trail rides incorporate obstacles along the path. Each rider must complete the obstacle while the judges observe. The handling of the obstacles is incorporated into the final score. Some of these obstacles test the skills of the horse, while others test the skills of the rider. Due to the nature of competitive trail rides, riders will sometimes arrive at an obstacle at the same time. The time riders wait to complete an obstacle is calculated and subtracted from the final time to ensure fairness.

Obstacles along the path include natural elements. A fallen log across the path is a natural obstacle a rider might encounter across a trail. The rider will cross the fallen log on horseback while the judges watch and determine how the horse and rider handle the obstacle. Other natural obstacles include creeks, dips, gates or bridges. Other obstacles are challenges presented by the judges. Judges may want to watch the horse perform athletic movements, such as a sliding stop from a cantering speed. Horses may also need to do a side stepping motion, back up or climb a hill. All of these obstacles are incorporating in the final scoring of the event.

Competitive trail riding scoring is complex and thorough. Each aspect of the competition is incorporated into the score. Specific scoring criteria varies by the organizer. The physical condition of the horse is the most important judging criteria as the mutual relationship between horse and rider is central to competitive trail riding. The soundness of the horse measures the gait as well as other physical characteristics of the horse. The trail ability and manners measures the temperament of the horse, including willingness to respond to the rider and attempt the obstacles without hesitation. The relationship between horse and rider is the central aspect to this and the best team in competitive trail riding is the team with the best relationship.

Veterinary Surgeon, London at Blue Cross UK | + posts

A London based Veterinary surgeon, Sanja is also an avid writer and pet advocate.