The dreaded "pinwheel" obstacle

Is this out of your league?

When a friend suggested a competitive trail ride, my first reaction was, "Oh, that sounds like fun, but I don't think I'm ready for that."  Wrong! The hottest new trend to hit the horse industry is a perfect way to improve your skills, your horse's confidence, and gain friends while you're at it. 

So what is it?  As the name implies, a competitive trail ride is a ride in which you and your horse compete with other riders on various obstacles that you would typically encounter in a natural setting.  Most of these rides are hosted by a trail riding club, such as the American Competitive Trail Horse Association, and are open to members of all ages.   

Chances are, you've ridden your horse in an arena or maybe in a show.  Have you ever ridden your horse out on a trail?  Having ridden since I was a little girl, and growing up in the country, trail riding was all I had really ever done with my horse.  When I later started attending local horse shows with my teenage daughter, I was surprised to find that many people have never ridden their horse outside the bounds of an arena or a show ring.   Trail riding not only provides you with some of the  most enjoyable experiences you can have with your horse, it actually has several other benefits:

  • improve your riding skills
  • learn to communicate with your horse
  • increase your (and your horse's) confidence
  • meet new and lasting friends
  • witness great scenery not accessible any other way
  • earn great prizes and awards 
  • relax for the weekend while doing something you love

Having thrown caution to the wind, my daughter and I signed up for our first competitive ride  to be held at the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois.    This was a weekend trail ride, that started with a cowboy campfire on Friday night, and ride registration the following morning.  After saddling up, we were briefed on the rules of the ride and provided a description of six different obstacles that we would be asked to perform. Riders were to be judged at each obstacle based on specific criteria that focused on safety, communication with your horse and ability.   Natural horsemanship was encouraged and there were restrictions on the types of tack and equipment that were allowed.      

And we were off!  The group consisted of about 30 riders, and for safety, we rode out in groups of 5-8 in fifteen minute intervals.  We were provided with a map of the trail that was marked with the location of each obstacle.  The entire ride was  to cover approximately six miles and last about three hours.   

We reached our first obstacle within fifteen minutes and were greeted by the judge and two "helpers".  Our obstacle was to back our horse between two trees , pivot and back between two more trees so that we completed the back-up in the shape of an "L".  This obstacle, like all the others, had a time limit of thirty seconds.  If we did not complete the obstacle, or stepped out of bounds of the "L", we were not given a score and were asked to move on.  We were allowed to ask questions before beginning the obstacle, but not during and not after.    My daughter, being in the junior division, was given a slightly longer time to complete the task, and others, being in an self-elected advanced class, were given a shorter amount of time.  

Did we find this intimidating?  Yes!  Was it fun?  Absolutely!  To our amazement, even though this is a competition for great prizes and end of the year awards, all the riders were very supportive of each other and encouraged success.  The atmosphere was always one of fun and learning and competitors came from all levels and backgrounds. 

After completing the first obstacle, it was on to the second.  Along the way, we spotted a deer drinking out of a stream, an old cabin that seems to step out of the history books and natural fauna that is often overlooked from the road. 

The second obstacle was a log that was propped across the trail at a height of about two feet.  We had to jump the log at a walk and were judged on willingness of the horse, riding skills, and gracefulness.  One of the women riding a gaited horse was concerned about this obstacle and decided to pass, which means she simply declined and received a score of zero for the obstacle.  No harm done!  However, she was able to observe others performing the task and gained useful insight and tips on how she could work on this at her own pace.  

Each obstacle was challenging and fun and by the end of the ride, we knew most of the other riders and their horses by name and couldn't wait to find out when and where the next ride was scheduled so we could sign up.   But just because the ride was over, didn't mean we were finished!  After brushing down the horses, the group met at the chow wagon for a great meal while the judges calculated scores.  With our bellies  full, various prizes were awarded.  Each division had a first, second and third place winner and prizes included CASH, gift certificates and various other goodies, like brushes, lead ropes  and halters.  We didn't win in the top placings, but my horse did receive the "best groomed mount" award, which was a bottle of Cowboy Magic and a subscription to Western Horsemanship magazine.   

Since this ride, we attend at least one other competitive trail ride per month, sometimes two or three.  Our scores are published on the club website and we get a chance to win fantastic year-end prizes.  There is a registration fee for each ride and this can get a bit expensive.  However, I don't believe we have ever come home from a ride empty handed, and always get vendor certificates just for participating and more for winning.  These can be used just like cash and are from vendors like Cavallo,  Tucker and Ariat.

Not only do the rides give me a chance to bond with my daughter, it's a nice vacation from stresses of the week.  We have trailered our horses to state parks and horse camps that we would otherwise not know about.  Our Christmas list this year included five new people from two states away that we have met on competitive rides.   Our horses look forward to getting in the trailer, and those weekend shows in those little arenas now seem like a piece of cake!  So what are you waiting for?  Find a competitive trail ride close to you, saddle up and win!     

Junior riders are encouraged on competitive trail rides.