No need for speed
Conditioning, horsemanship key to competitive trail riding
About 50 horses and riders took off for lengthy trail rides on Grand Mesa National Forest on Saturday and again this morning. They are competing, but not racing.
All are participants in the Island in the Sky Competitive Trail Ride, an event sanctioned by the North American Trail Ride Conference.
The two-day event under way on Grand Mesa is one of a half-dozen in Colorado and New Mexico this year. Another is scheduled Oct. 6 and 7 for Rabbit Valley in the Bureau of Land Management’s McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area.
Competitive trail riding is about riding safely and riders caring for their horses. As the Region 3 trial ride book puts it, “NATRC uses time distance and stress, not speed, as judging criteria.”
Depending on their level, horses and riders will cover from under 40 miles in two days, up to as many as 60 miles. That will include riding up and down steep hills, crossing creeks and dealing with a number of different obstacles. Veterinarians and judges check the horses’ conditions along the way, their soundness and how the riders care for and ride their horses.
“It encourages you to go out and do things with your horses you wouldn’t do all the time,” said Judy Wise Mason of Cedaredge, who is co-chairwoman for the Island in the Sky trail ride. “Things like practicing backing up and side-passing with your horse.”
Mason has been involved with competitive trail riding since 1984.
“I like it because it makes me ride,” she said.
To prepare and get a horse in shape, one needs to ride at least three times a week. Also she said, “I go all over the country and see some beautiful trails.”
“I learn something every time I go up on a trail ride,” said Sharon Roper, who is the manager for the Rabbit Valley Competitive Trail Ride in October. “I’ve been riding since I was very little, but I used to just get on my horse and ride.”
Competitive trail riding has required her to learn more about riding technique and about looking after horses, both when in the saddle and on the ground, Roper said.
“I always felt I tried to ride safely, but horsemanship is such a big part of competitive trail riding that you learn a lot more.”
There are no breed requirements and no mandated tack except that the saddle must fit well. Most of those who compete regularly tend to use light trail saddles much like those used by endurance riders.
As for breeds, Arabians, which are known for their endurance and intelligence, are among the dominant ones. Mason’s long-time trail horse, an Arabian named Woody, is in the NATRC Hall of Fame, she said.
Quarter horses and Missouri fox trotters are also popular. But representatives of about every breed have joined in competitive trail riding, and even breeds that one wouldn’t expect to do well can do so with proper conditioning.
For the novice level, that mostly means a lot of walking.
“The pace is slow, basically a walk,” Roper said. “Novice riders ride less than 40 miles in two days, and no more than 24 miles in one day.” Exact mileage can vary, depending on the course.
Open-class riders cover 50 to 60 miles in two days, and no more than 36 miles in one day.
That’s a faster pace and requires more trotting or cantering, both during competition and in the conditioning leading up to a competition.
Even so, Mason stressed, “It’s not a race. The goal is to bring your horse in in the best condition.”
“The horse is judged on his way of going and his manners,” Mason added.
“The rider is checked for safety on and off the trail,” including care and safety when the horse is at its horse trailer. Riders are also judged on horsemanship in the saddle: “Are you helping your horse along the trail?” Roper explained.
“I suspect a lot of it came from the military,” Mason said, “Because in the cavalry, the horse always came first.”
NATRC has been around since 1961. The Island in the Sky ride began in 2000. Members of the Surface Creek Women’s Saddle Club, of which Mason is a member, make up most of the volunteers who stage the event. The Rabbit Valley ride is older, but it went through a hiatus. This year’s will be the first one in about five years, Roper said.