A Day in the Life of a NATRC Ride

by Laura Harvey

Photo by Donna Stidolph

NATRC rides are wonderful opportunities to make new friends, spend time with your horse, improve your horsemanship, and have fun--all while enjoying beautiful scenery. But what is a ride actually like? What should you expect? Welcome to a "Day in the Life of a NATRC Ride!"

Before the Ride:

Rides are held across the USA and hosted by individual NATRC regions. Rides are open to NATRC members and non-members alike. You can find a ride near you by visiting the national NATRC website, and/or the websites of individual regions. Finding the yearly "Ride Schedule" should be easy. Links from the calendar/schedule will direct you to contact information to enter a specific ride. You must register for each ride individually. It is extremely helpful to ride management if you register as early as possible.

What should you bring? Besides the obvious (horse, horse trailer, truck, and yourself!), this helpful packing list will get you started.

Tack:

You don't need any special tack to compete in a NATRC ride. The only requirement is that you use a saddle (any kind), and your tack is within the bounds of good horsemanship. Competitors ride with all different kinds of saddles, headstalls, bits, etc. As long as your gear fits you and your equine, it's fine. Do take the time to double-check the fit and condition of your tack--just like people, horses can change shape over time, so what used to fit might not fit now. Twenty miles with a shoulder-pinching saddle can really put a damper on your equine's day. Also make sure your tack is in good condition. You don't want a girth, latigo, breast collar, cheek strap or any other important piece of equipment to break on the trail, especially at a bad moment.

Photo by Bob Dorsey

Junior riders (any rider under the age of 18) are required to wear an ASTM/SEI, Snell, or approved equal equestrian riding helmet. Adult riders are not required to wear helmets, but it is strongly encouraged. Many kinds of head-gear provide useful sun-shade, but only a proper helmet has a chance of protecting your tender brain. Give your loved ones a break and protect your noggin. (Decorating your helmet is optional.)

One of NATRC's goals is to promote the soundness and health of trail horses. In light of this and the spirit of fair competition, each horse must prove itself sound by the same means--that is, all by itself. In order to provide a level "playing field" for all horses, no medications, ointments, leg wraps, leg boots, or other "artificial" items/means are allowed during competition. This is especially true of anti-inflammatory and/or pain muffling drugs. A horse must look sound because it is sound, not because it cannot feel pain/discomfort or relies upon supportive/protective equipment.

Hoof boots designed for sole protection are allowed as long as any attached strap, keeper, or gaiter does not extend above the pastern.

Electrolytes (both powder and paste) are allowed, as are things like fly spray. If you have a question, feel free to ask someone. More than likely they'll be happy to help, and if they don't know the answer, they can probably direct you to someone who does.

Arrival:

Photo by Bob Dorsey

Many rides take place on Saturday. Participants usually arrive on Friday, excepting those that come long distances, who often arrive earlier in the week. When you register for a ride, you will be given information about the ride: when the camping area is open for arrivals, how to get there, how long the ride lasts, and other important details. When you arrive you will be met by a member of ride management who will direct you to a suitable camping site and answer questions. If this is your first ride, please tell them! They will be happy to help.

Rides are located in a variety of surroundings--some are based at posh equine centers equipped with real bathrooms, running water, hot showers, and manure removal. Some rides are based in field-like staging areas with portable toilets, no potable water, and asks that manure be bagged and taken home for disposal. Don't worry--whatever the situation, there will be people to help!

Competitors camp in a variety of ways. You'll see motor homes, camper shells, tents, and cots in the back of horse trailers. You're free to camp however you wish.

Setting Up Camp:

Photo by Kathi Bruns Photo by Kathi Bruns

Horses are usually required to be tied to the trailer while not on the trail or being held by a person. This is to make the competition fair. While not everyone has portable corrals, handy trees to create a tie-line, or hobble-broke horses, every horse did arrive in a trailer. For those who have never tied horses to their trailer for any length of time, this might sound a little off-putting. However, it is actually very safe. (But do practice at home if your horse has never done it before!) When setting up your horse's temporary "home away from home," these are a few things you should do:

  1. Be sure the area where you will be tying your horse is free from debris and hazards, including fire pits, picnic tables, fences, etc.
  2. There are several ways to tie your horse to a trailer. You can use a lead rope, a trailer tie, or a "sky hook/hi-tie." (Sky hooks/hi-ties extend from the top of the trailer.) Any of these methods are perfectly legal. Whatever you use, tie your horse so that the end of the lead hangs two or three inches off the ground. This gives your horse plenty of room, even to lie down, without stepping over or getting tangled in the rope.
  3. Tie the lead to the trailer with a quick release knot of some kind or a panic snap. (When using a panic snap, always attach it to the stationary object, as it can be difficult to get close enough to a thrashing horse to pull the release.) If using a lead rope, thread the end through the quick release knot in order to "lock it down" and ensure your horse doesn't free himself if he gets mouthy with the rope.
  4. Make sure your horse has plenty of fresh water available at all times. Many competitors mount brackets on their trailers to hold water buckets, which gets the buckets off the ground so the horse doesn't kick, knock over, step in, or otherwise get tangled up in the bucket. Technically, water buckets can be placed on the ground, but this is neither the safest nor most efficient option (after your horse has knocked over his bucket for the tenth time you'll begin to see what I mean). Buckets holders/brackets are available at many feed stores and on-line horse supplies. (Jonni Jewell's Trailer Set-Up provides detailed examples of useful ways to set-up your trailer.)
  5. Cover any protrusions where your horse could hook a lead rope, halter, or hoof. This includes brackets on the rear trailer door, license plates, and wheel wells. Take a look at your trailer from a horse's point of view. Remember, if a horse CAN get into trouble, he probably will.
  6. Offer your horse something to nibble on. Many people use hay bags, which slow a horse's eating, but allow plenty of slow, continuous "grazing." If you use a hay bag/net, make sure it's located high enough so that your horse can't get a hoof caught in it if he starts pawing. Remember that an empty hay net hangs lower than a full one. Some horses prefer their hay on the ground. If your horse prefers to dine off fine china, so be it. Whatever works for you and your horse.
  7. Keep your horse's area clean. Scatter, bag, or otherwise dispose of manure often.

Don't neglect your horse's stabling! It is part of your over-all score for the ride and will be checked by the judges during the competition.

Checking In (Riders and Horses):

Once you've situated your horse, check-in with ride management. If you are in the Novice or Open division, you will need to be weighed with all your tack, since Novice and Open divisions are divided into Lightweight and Heavyweight classes (this is for scoring and awards only). "Lightweights" are riders who weigh less than 190 pounds with all their tack. Tack includes saddle, saddle pad, chest collar, bridle, halter, saddle bags, etc; if it goes on the horse during the ride, it gets weighed. "Heavyweights" are all those who weigh more than 190 pounds with tack. (The Competitive Pleasure division is not divided into Lightweight and Heavyweight classes, so riders in Competitive Pleasure do not weigh-in.)

After weighing in, you'll receive a rider's packet which includes your ride bib (number), tie on numbers for your horse, number card for your trailer, and ride map. Put on your ride bib. You are expected to wear it at all times for the duration of the competition. It identifies you in camp and on the trail to the judges and other officials. Next, attach one of the tie-on numbers to your horse's halter (tie the other to his bridle/headstall). This is so if your horse gets loose (or you fall off), it can be identified, returned to you, or the search party formed. Finally, attach the number card you are given to your trailer close to where your horse is tied. This identifies your horse to the judges when your stabling is checked later in the evening.

Check-in (Horses & Riders):

Photo by Donna Stidolph Photo by Donna Stidolph Photo by Baylee Dorsey Photo by Donna Stidolph

After you and your horse are situated, you will need to be "vetted-in." The start of this is usually announced, although not always, so keep an eye out. If you see horses and riders lining up, head over. You don't need anything except your horse and a lunge line. You may use a lunge whip or crop if you wish, but it is not required.

At check-in, you and your horse will be evaluated by the horsemanship judge, and your horse will be evaluated by the veterinary judge. The horsemanship judge will look to see if your horse is well-mannered, easy to handle, well-groomed, and responsive to your cues. You will also be evaluated on how you handle your horse. The veterinary judge will check your horse for health and soundness.

First, you will present your horse to the judges. This just means you walk up to where the exam is being done. Exams differ, but the vet will probably check your horse's gums, listen to its heart, lungs, and gut, check muscle tone, check hydration, possibly pick up a hoof, and generally check all over for soreness or injury. Next, the vet will ask you to trot your horse in-hand directly away, stop at a designated distance, trot your horse in a circle once in each direction, and trot back. You may trot your horse in-hand, or you may lunge him. If the vet finds your horse fit for the ride, you are excused and may take your horse back to your trailer. You are now officially in competition.

Ride Briefing:

After everyone has "vetted-in," a ride briefing will be held. (This is sometimes held a few hours later.) Take your map, a highlighter, and a pen or pencil with you. Ride management will go over the map with the riders. You will be told what kind of trail markers to look for (usually ribbons), important trail intersections, trail hazards, and given a general overview of the trail itself.

Timing: You will also learn the length and time limits of the ride. NATRC rides are not races. Each division is timed and paced at an appropiate level; Novice classes are the slowest-paced and shortest ride. Open classes are the fastest-paced and longest ride.

The Novice trail is timed and paced so that a horse can complete the ride at a walk. (This is about 3.5 to 5 mph, depending on how fast your horse walks.) The Competitive Pleasure trail is timed and paced so that a horse can complete the ride at a fast walk. The Open trail is timed and paced so that a horse can complete the ride with some trotting and some fast walking.

The total mileage of the ride will be listed on your map (somewhere between 18 and 24 miles for Novices). The total allowed time will also be listed. Each rider has a set period of time to complete the ride that includes a 30 minute "window" of lee-way. For example, if total ride time is given as 7 hours, this means that 7 hours is the minimum amount of time in which a rider may finish without penalty. Points will be deducted if a rider completes the trail in less than 7 hours. Points will also be deducted if a rider completes the trail in more than 7.5 hours. A rider may finish the ride any time between 7 and 7.5 hours without penalty.

You will make at least three designated stops during the ride. Two stops will be to check the condition of your horse (these are called "P&Rs"). One stop will be for lunch. Each of these stops are timed and have been added into your total ride time. P&Rs usually take 15 minutes. Lunch takes 45 minutes. Thus, if your total ride time is listed as 7 hours, it actually breaks down like this: 15 minutes for the first P&R, 15 minutes for the second P&R, 45 minutes for lunch, 5 hours and 45 minutes to complete the trail.

Keep in mind that this is your minimum time (that is, you cannot finish the trail any earlier without penalty). You have an additional 30 minutes to finish the ride without penalty (this is called maximum time).

Specific points on your map and along the trail will be marked with an approximate arrival time. This is to help you pace your horse. If you arrive at a designated point too early, you know you need to slow down. Stop your horse, dismount, and relax for a little while if necessary. If you arrive at a designated point too late, you know you need to pick up the pace a little.

Don't worry if you get confused--briefings can sound incomprehensible the first time around. Relax. If you have told the ride management that this is your first ride, they will make sure you have an experienced rider with you on the trail so you don't get lost. You will also be told what time to be at the designated start of the ride in the morning.

The Ride:

Photo by Donna Stidolph

In the morning, riders and horses will gather at the start at the designated time. Your horse should be completely tacked-up and ready to go. You may or may not see two or more riders not wearing numbers leave early--these are "point riders." They ride ahead of the competitors to deal with any over-night hazards on the trail (fallen tree, missing ribbons or trail markers, etc). Each competitor begins the trail individually, and the exact time they leave is recorded. Riders are "timed out" in thirty-second intervals. If you wish to ride with someone, or a group, it is perfectly acceptable to acknowledge that you have been timed out and wait for your riding buddy/group to be timed-out as well. Since Open riders have the farthest to go (and travel at the fastest speed), they will leave first. Competitive Pleasure riders leave next. Novice riders leave last. Since each rider has the same amount of time to finish the ride regardless of when they leave, it does not matter if you leave first or last.

Point Riders

More riders you may or may not ever see on the trail are "safety riders." They ride behind the competitors to help deal with any emergencies on the trail (they often carry horse and human first aid).

Since the ride is a timed event, you should wear a watch. Set it to 12:00 when you are timed out so you can keep track of your time. Very often your map will have designated points on it and an approximate time at which you should reach them. Don't worry if you're not exactly on time; remember, you have a thirty minute "window."

During the ride you will be following trail markers such as ribbons. At the ride briefing you will have been told what color/pattern ribbons to follow, and they are often attached to tree branches with wooden clothespins. A single ribbon means you are on the right path. A triple ribbon usually signals a turn.

Safety Rider Photo by Donna Stidolph

The trail itself will differ from ride to ride and region to region. Unlike endurance riding, you cannot dismount and lead your horse while continuing to advance on the trail. All "forward motion" must be while mounted. However, you are free to stop, dismount, and rest your horse at any time, unless you are in a mandatory forward motion portion of the trail. Mandatory forward motions are always clearly posted, and you are free to rest your horse before beginning these portions of the trail.

Judges will observe you on the trail--you may not always see them (although your horse probably will). Judges will evaluate how you and your horse work as a team. At certain points during the ride you could be asked to do a judged mount, trot your horse for a certain distance, stop, and back up, or navigate some kind of obstacle. Most of these obstacles will be common things you might encounter on an everyday trail ride and suited to your division (Novice, Competitive Pleasure, Open). However, if you think you or your horse is not ready for a particular obstacle, you have every right to "pass" on it.

Judges will also be looking for the following...

Do you help your horse work uphill by being light in the saddle?
Photo by Bob Dorsey.  Bob Dorsey 2010 Do you help your horse balance going downhill?
How do you and your horse handle gates...
...water crossings...
...logs, and other common trail obstacles?

Pulse and Respiration Stops ( P&Rs):

On at least two occasions during the ride your horse's physical condition will be checked at a "P&R" stop. When you arrive, you will dismount and line your horse up as instructed. You will be given a card with the time you arrived written on it. Your horse will have 10 minutes to rest, after which time his pulse and respiration will be checked. Each horse will be checked by a pair of P&R workers: one person will take your horse's pulse with a stethoscope, while the other counts your horse's breaths. This is usually is done on a 15 second count.

A typical acceptable threshold for continuing the ride is 16 heartbeats in 15 seconds. If your horse's pulse is 17 beats or more in 15 seconds, your horse is working too hard and needs more time to recover. Your horse will be given another 10 minutes to rest and then be re-checked. If your horse's pulse is still 17 beats or more, you will receive another 10 minutes to rest. If your horse's pulse is still too high at the re-check, you will not be allowed to continue the ride out of concern for your horse's health and safety. The number of breaths allowed is somewhat more flexible, as long as it is not "inverted" (respiration higher than pulse). For example, if your horse's pulse is 12 beats in 15 seconds, and its respiration is 13 breaths in 15 seconds, your horse's scores are inverted. The respiration count should be less than the pulse. If your horse is inverted you may or may not be held, depending on the opinion of the veterinary judge.

If you suspect your horse's P&R score is inaccurate or questionable, you may ask that it be re-checked. The re-check is always done by a different team than the first. However, keep in mind that the re-check score is final, even if it is not as good as the first score.

After your horse's P&R has been taken, it is not uncommon for the vet to check your horse's condition before you continue.

Timing: The time taken at P&Rs is already figured into your over-all ride time. The time you have been given to complete the ride includes time to complete the trail, time to stop at all the P&Rs, and time to stop at lunch. If you are held at a P&R, more time will be added to your total allowed time. For example, if your total ride time is given as 7 hours, and you are held an additional 10 minutes at a P&R, your new total ride time becomes 7 hours and 10 minutes.

P&R tips: You want your horse to relax and rest at a P&R. There are several ways to accomplish this. First, you should always loosen your cinch; it relaxes your horse and allows him to take deeper, slower breaths. If it's hot, some riders carry fans to cool their horses. Others carry water and a home-made scoop to give their horses a drink. Some riders remove their saddles. You can try any, all, or none of these things. Find out what works best for you and your horse.

Water:

Water for horses is available at various points along the trail and takes a variety of forms, depending on where the ride is held. Water is sometimes available at troughs and/or buckets hauled-in specifically for the ride. Sometimes the trail skirts natural water sources (creeks, rivers, lakes, etc) often enough to make hauling water unnecessary. However, large portions of the trail are sometimes inaccessible by motor vehicles and thus limits the availability of water if there is not a natural source or if a previous source is unexpectedly dry. It is therefore a good idea to carry at least some water with you. Many riders carry water bottles, collapsible buckets or home-made scoops to water their horses on the trail. Collapsible buckets/scoops are particularly useful if you encounter a water source that is easily accessible for a person, but less so for a horse. This way you can fetch water for your thirsty equine without putting him in a potentially dangerous situation. Buckets and scoops are also useful for cooling your horse via a good splashing. Many riders carry a sponge specifically for this purpose. Buckets/scoops can be used to hold water for sponging so the main water source isn't fouled by salty horse sweat. (Dunking a sweaty, icky sponge into a common water source is considered very bad etiquette.)

It is good practice to stop your horse at all water crossings and offer her a drink. Your horse may or may not be thirsty, but the offer of water shows good horsemanship and care for your equine. It is one of the things your horsemanship judge is probably watching for.

Lunch:

If a ride lasts more than six hours (and it probably will), a 45 minute lunch stop is required. The lunch stop may be out on the trail or may be in camp, depending on the trail. Timers will note the time you arrive. However, you should keep track of your own time so you can judge when to start getting ready to leave. Many riders untack their horses, especially if the weather is hot. You should carry a halter and lead rope with you so you can remove your horse's headstall. (Never tie a horse by the reins if a bit is in its mouth.) Some riders carry "lunch" for their horses as well (grain, beet pulp, etc), while others let their horses graze on whatever is handy. Hay is sometimes provided by ride management.

Riders usually prepare their own lunches and bring them to a designated spot to be transported to the lunch stop by ride volunteers. It is useful to bring a small cooler or lunch bag with you to the ride for this purpose.

The veterinary judge is often present at lunch and will check your horse's condition (hydration, metabolics, muscle tone, etc).

The horsemanship judge is also often present and will watch how you care for your equine. You may be asked questions and/or to produce the following items: halter, lead rope, hoof-pick, knife, and rider ID. The knife and ID should be carried on your person, not on your saddle/saddlebag. This is so that in the event you are seperated from your horse, or need to get to your knife in a hurry (say, to free a thrashing horse), both ID and knife are at hand.

The Judged Mount:

At some time during the ride you will probably be asked to do a judged mount. This is exactly what it sounds like: the judge will watch (and evaluate) how you get onto your horse. It is not only legal but highly encouraged to use any handy object to help you mount--rocks, tree stumps, embankments, picnic tables, truck tail-gates, whatever. This is considered good horsemanship, not "cheating." Using an object to help you mount puts less strain and stress on your horse's back, shows the judge that your horse will stand quietly, and that you can maneuver your horse to make mounting easier. Judges know that most of us can do things the "hard way;" they want to know if we can do things the right (easy-on-your-horse) way. You may also be asked to mount (or dismount) on the "off" side, which can be a critical trail skill. If you've never done this, practice at home.

In particular, the horsemanship judge will be looking for some of the following: does your horse stand quietly while you mount? Does your horse wait for your cue to move forward, or does it walk off while you're still getting into the saddle? Do you land lightly in the saddle, or plunk down hard on your horse's back?

2-Mile Point:

The 2-mile point is a marker indicating that you are approximately 2 miles from the end of the ride. It should be clearly marked on both your map and on the trail. Once you pass the 2-mile point, you cannot stop until you have finished the ride unless an emergency or good horsemanship demand it. As with other mandatory forward motion portions of the trail, you are welcome to rest your horse before passing this point.

Finish & Check-out:

The official "finish line" of the ride is usually the same as the starting point, and always at camp. When you arrive back at camp your total time will be noted (to ensure you are neither early or late), and you will be given a number. Check your watch: you usually have about 30 minutes to cool-off, untack, groom and present your horse for the final check-out exam. However, it is not unusual for check-out to begin an hour or more later than planned, depending on how far apart the riders were spaced and how far away the judges were at the last observation point. The beginning of check-out is usually announced, but not always, so keep an eye out. The number you were given when you came back into camp is the order in which horses should check-out. That is, if you received a number 7, you will be the 7th rider to present your horse to the judges at check out. This is to ensure than all horses have the same amount of time to rest before the exam. However, if a significant amount of time has passed before check-out begins, number order may not be followed. If riders are going in order, find your place in line. If not, don't worry about it.

Just as with check-in, you will present your horse to the judges. The veterinary judge will check your horse for lameness, sore muscles, sore back, hydration, general metabolics, etc. The horsemanship judge will evaluate how you handle your equine. You will be asked to trot your horse away from the judges, lunge or trot in-hand a circle in each direction, and trot back. When you are dismissed, return your ride bib to ride management, and take your horse back to your trailer. You are officially finished with the competition.

End of the Trail & Awards:

Now that you are out of competition, you may care for your horse any way you please. Some people set up portable corrals. Some people toss magnetic blankets on their horses. Many riders use some kind of lineament and then wrap their horse's legs with polo or standing wraps. None of these things are legal while you are in competition, but are allowed afterward.

Now is your time to relax. Settle your horse, settle yourself, and put your feet up. Congratulations! You've just finished your first NATRC ride! After everyone has checked-out and settled, a group dinner is usually served, and awards follow. Awards are given for the highest scoring horse and highest scoring rider in each division. Placings are given 1st - 6th. You will receive two cards after awards: one is your horse's score card, the other is your horsemanship score card. You will discover things you did well, things that need improvement, and probably something you don't understand. Ask other riders and/or the judges for explanations. You will become more adept at reading/understanding these cards with practice.

Now that you have a general overview, what are you waiting for? Come ride with us!