Competitive trail riding is not a
race. During the course of the competition, the judges will be watching you
and critiquing many things about you and your horse. If you want to place
well, you need to pay attention to many little things. One of the most
important aspects of the ride is the in-hand presentation and trot out.
Veterinary judges monitor the horses to see what the effects of the ride are
on the horse. Notes are made on the horse before the ride, during the ride,
and after the ride. Doing a good job of presenting the horse to the
veterinary judge is very important for a good evaluation. You will be asked
to do this at least twice during each competition.
Presenting your horse to the
judges is your opportunity to show your horse at his very best. Your horse
should be well-groomed, sweat marks brushed away, hooves cleaned out, and
dirt removed from around eyes and nostrils. Make sure your horse’s feet are
in good shape and his shoes, if he wears them, are secure and in good
condition. Check to make sure the halter is fitted well and all the ends are
tucked away. Although this is not a showmanship class, a neat and tidy
appearance will go a long way to making a good first impression.
As you approach the judge, for
safety, make sure both hands are on the lead rope. It should be figure-eighted
(not looped) in one hand. The other hand should be grasping the lead rope
close to the halter for ready control. You do NOT want to grab the halter
and accidentally slip a finger through the ring. Stand beside your horse and
pay attention to the veterinarian judge. You should always be on the same
side of your animal as the vet judge to maintain control and protect the
judge. Never stand directly in front of your horse.
Follow the directions you are given to trot out. Usually you will be
asked to trot away from the judges, circle your horse once in each
direction, then return back to the judge. Practice this at home with some
variations. Judges have been known to ask for something different. We need
to de-emphasize “gotchas.” At the ride is NOT the place to teach your horse
to trot out. Some people prefer to lunge their horses in a circle for the
judges, while other lead their animals. The Rule Book says they have to
allow either. You want to make large, smooth circles for the judge to show
your horse off to his best advantage. Regardless of which method you choose,
you need to always keep both hands on the lead rope.
The most common mistakes made during the trot out are letting the rope
drag the ground or get tangled around your feet, looking back at your horse
while you are running, getting in front of the horse and blocking the
judge's view, and in the case of gaited horses, not maintaining a constant
"gait" through the entire exercise. Practicing your presentation at home
until you and your horse are relaxed and confident will pay off handsomely
on your scorecards later. One horsemanship judge said it best... "It's not
practice that makes perfect, it's PERFECT practice that makes perfect."
The primary concern of
proper equitation is to make the horse's job of carrying a rider over
long distances as efficient as possible. The key is to ride balanced and
light in the saddle at the walk, trot, or canter. A vertical line should
pass through your center of gravity and continue through your foot.
Ideally, if the horse were to suddenly evaporate from under you, you
would land upright, on your feet. Leg contact with the horse should
support you without tension or stiffness. If you are riding light, you
will appear to be almost floating with the horse. How high you might be
off the horse’s back depends on the footing, the gait of the horse, and
the grade of the land. If you are too high, you sacrifice stability. Use
your legs and ankles as shock absorbers. Don't sacrifice proper support
from the lower legs by bracing your legs out to the side. (Hint: Riding
bareback may help you understand the benefits of proper leg position and
Much of competitive trail
riding is done at the trot. If you post, don't rise on the same diagonal
all the time or your horse will get sore on one side. Similarly, be sure
the horse doesn't always use the same lead at the canter. Don't lean so
far forward over the horse's neck that you place extra weight on its
Going Up and Down Hills
Sometime during every ride, you will be faced with doing a judged climb
or decent. Regardless of whether it is a mountain side or a creek bank,
the judges will be looking for the same things. The horse's job is
fairly simple. He should do the slope with calm deliberation at a slow
pace, carefully placing his feet and going straight up or down the trail
when asked. The veterinary judge will usually fault the horse for:
"crabbing" sideways going down, rushing the obstacle, crowding another
rider, excessive nervousness, and head tossing.
For the rider, the ascents and descents present a multitude of ways to
shine. Going uphills, there is a “window” of good upper body position.
If you lean too far back or are too far forward over the neck, you will
make the horse’s job more difficult. If you are too far out of the
saddle, you sacrifice stability and safety. You should fold slightly
forward from the hips in an amount appropriate for the slope of the hill
and the speed of the horse. Support yourself by rolling up onto your
inner thighs so you can have your seat lightly off the saddle to make it
easier for the horse to get its rear legs under him for upward push. It
is all right to take a handful of mane to steady yourself as long as it
doesn’t interfere with the rein control. The reins should be short
enough to guide your horse easily, but long enough that he can get his
head down for balance on the climb. Maintain your form and control to
the top of the hill. It takes muscles and coordination that come only
with practice. The judge will interpret how well you’re moving with your
Maintain your balance going down hills. Don’t lean back; this makes it
harder for the horse to use his hindquarters to “brake” himself. Don’t
grab the back of the saddle to stabilize yourself. Doing so puts you off
balance and twists you in the saddle. One of the most common faults is
“body sway” which is the rolling of your upper body from side to side as
the horse descends. This not only makes it very difficult for the horse
to stay in balance, it can cause saddle rubs. Imagine going down a
flight of stairs with a small child on your shoulders while the child is
rocking side to side, attempting to touch the stair walls. This is a
very hard habit to correct by yourself as you really need a spotter
riding behind you critiquing you until you have it under control.
Whenever you have an uphill/downhill combination obstacle, you can bet
the judge is watching your transition. If you are balanced and moving as
one with you horse, you should not get thrown off-balance or put behind
the action of the horse as he makes the transition. If possible, take a
moment in the middle to collect yourself and gather up your horse. Make
sure you allow the rider ahead of you enough time to clear the obstacle
before proceeding. As with any other NATRC obstacle, you will be heavily
penalized for crowding another rider. Practicing this skill can only be
done on the trail as few arenas are so unlevel as to allow for real hill
work. Ups and downs are best done with a buddy, taking turns going first
while the other waits and critiques. This lets the first rider know what
they are doing right/wrong and the second horse gets practice waiting
its turn. Don't expect instant perfection; this requires excellent
muscle control for both horse and rider.
In the drawing, the rider going uphill is doing one of the most common
mistakes: flanking her horse. Her lower body has pivoted around her
hips, and her heels will be in the horse's flanks as he reaches forwards
with his hind feet. If her horse disappeared, she would land on her
hands and knees.
The rider in
the downhill drawing is leaning too far back which interferes with the horse
efficiently using its hindquarters. Also, the right elbow sticking out
behind her seems to indicate she is twisting in the saddle and her reins
could show a little slack.
One of the judges' favorite obstacles seems to be the mount. Rarely a
ride goes by where you aren't asked to demonstrate your abilities (or lack
of), in front on the judges.
have really been trying to educate the judges that it’s better for the horse
– puts less torque on the back – to use some sort of terrain to mount. We
are really trying to discourage flat-ground mounts.
The horse's job in performing this task is easy:
stand perfectly still and not walk off until the rider has asked him to. This means no reaching down to snatch grass or bushes; no side-passing
to get under the rider; and certainly no moving off until the rider is secure in the saddle and
has given the command. The rider's task is equally as straightforward: get yourself up in the
saddle, quickly and cleanly. Sounds pretty easy doesn't it?
As with the other challenges the
judges present to you, this one has lots of ways for you to do your best. One of
the most common mistakes riders make is dwelling in the stirrup too long. Each judge refers to
this in their own particular way, but it boils down to a couple of
things. One - the rider has stuck a foot in the
stirrup, then gathered up the reins, jerked the horse and grumbled "whoa" then proceeded to
bounce 7-10 times on one foot before heaving themselves up and into the saddle.
Or the rider has gotten half-way on and stands with one foot in the stirrup
on one side of the horse for a long time. You need to settle your horse
before committing your foot to the stirrup. Once it is in place, bounce once
or twice to get up, then swing your leg over the saddle and lightly settle.
Each judge has their own favorite way they like to see riders mount, but
you will not lose points under any of them if you do it as described below. It is not the way
most people normally do it and feels awkward at first, but as with most things, gets easier
with practice. Make sure your reins are even and have a just bit of slack in them. Grasp them
and some mane in your left hand about two-thirds of the way down your horse's neck. With your
right hand steadying the stirrup, put your left foot in place. Take your right hand and place
it over the saddle and on the pommel on the side opposite you are standing. (Note: this might
be difficult or impossible for small children depending on the size of the animal.) The reason
for grabbing the saddle there and not on the horn or cantle is you are much less likely to pull
the saddle over while you mount. Instead, you are pressing it against the horse's withers;
where it is much less apt to shift. If you always have to "shift your saddle back" once you
get mounted, you will find this technique a great help.
Once you are in position, bounce once
or twice and lift yourself up, swinging the right leg cleanly over the horse's butt. Kicking
him in the flanks or dragging your leg over his rump will cost you points in horsemanship even
if your horse doesn't move. Settle lightly in the saddle; lowering yourself down instead of
just dropping. If you see "heavy in saddle" you know you need to work on improving.
Sometimes judges have you perform your mount with a nearby ditch, stump or rock. Do not be
shy about using the terrain to assist your mount. It is better for
the horse. If you have any questions, simply ask the
judge "May I use that rock/stump/ditch to mount?" and follow their instructions. It is not uncommon for the judge to ask you to step your
horse's front legs over a log and for you to mount off the log. You may also be asked to
position your horse next to a rock or stump and mount off of that.
Open riders (and occasionally Novice riders) may be asked to do an "offside mount". In this case,
you need to do everything as described above but as a mirror image: right hand on reins/mane,
right foot in stirrup, left hand on pommel. Don't be surprised if the first time you try to do
it, you feel like you are trying to rub your stomach and pat your head. After a few attempts,
your body will be much better coordinated.
Another part of this skill that riders may loose points on is preparation.
If you are told to "take your horse in-hand to the judge" while you are on trail (usually after
a P&R stop), you can be pretty sure you are about to be asked to mount. While you are waiting your
turn, make sure your girth is snug, breast collar and crupper are reattached, saddle packs are snugged down
and the reins are attached to the bit (if you use a halter bridle). Lead your horse up to the
judge when it is your turn, and when instructed, put the reins back over his neck and mount.
Do not make the judge wait while you fiddle with equipment and do last minute tack adjustments.
Some people train their horses to "park out" while they mount. This not only gets the horse
in a position when he is less likely to move/walk off during the mount, but also usually lowers
the stirrup and makes it easier for the rider to get mounted.
Since horseback riding always entails getting on your horse, this particular obstacle should be
practiced at every opportunity and can be mastered in front of the barn, in the arena, and
definitely on trail. You never know when you will be called to get off your horse and then get
back in the saddle... or who may be watching and scoring you. Do it right every time!
Water and Log Crossing
Next to the "dreaded judged mount," crossing logs and water seem to be
the favorite thing for judges to critique, and our trails give them
endless possibilities and combinations. Judging is by nature subjective, and
nowhere will you find that more evident than on your scorecards over this
type of obstacle. It is a source of frustration for new riders to try and
figure out exactly what each different judge is looking for. Most
experienced NATRC riders soon learn what works best for them and their horse
and stay close to that ideal.
Under most circumstances, crossing logs and crossing water is pretty much
the same. The horse should cross both without hesitation, paying attention
to where he puts his feet and the rider's aids. If there have been
instructions, follow them as closely as possible. Do not be afraid to ask
questions. Some judges will permit a horse to stop and drink when crossing
water. Other times it will hold up the other riders, so they ask that you
complete the obstacle first, and then move to a different spot to let your horse
Most veterinary judges like to see a horse cross logs without touching
them. It shows that the animal is focused and aware of its surroundings. The
horsemanship judges are looking for riders to be attentive, balanced in the
saddle and guiding their horses over the safest route. To stay balanced,
do not look down as you cross the obstacle. This will move your weight over
to the side you looked down and can cause your horse to stumble. Size up the
obstacle BEFORE you begin, then keep your eyes focused ahead as you proceed
through. This follows the same concept as jumping. Never look down at the
jump as you go over.
| Photo by Ric Tinker
Fortunately for most of us, Mother Nature has given us lots of
material with which to practice these obstacles at home. Ice storms,
snow storms and high winds provide plenty of downed trees and branches on
Instead of looking at them as a nuisance, consider them opportunities to
practice your NATRC trail skills. For times when you can't get out on trail, use
logs or small jumps set up in a pasture or arena to train your horse. Be
creative... the judges certainly are!
Backup and Sidepass
A good trail horse is much more than one who will go forward over obstacles, willingly; a good
trail horse needs to be able to backup and move over just as easily as he goes forward. Along
with exhibiting your horse's willingness to obey, these types of obstacles demonstrate your
ability to control and direct your horse's hindquarters. Needless to say, backup obstacles are
one of the most common for NATRC judges to request you to perform.
Since backing up does not require any special props, such as logs or water, the judges may ask
it anywhere. The simplest approach to this obstacle is for the judge to stop you on trail
and request you back your horse a designated number of steps. Collect your horse, glance back to make sure the space
is clear, take a deep breath and ask your horse to back. Back ONLY the number of steps
requested; do not make the mistake of thinking more is better! It is a good idea to count the
steps out loud so both you and the judge are in synch.
There can be lots of variations on the backup obstacle. Depending on what is available, the
judge might ask you to back between two trees, back between two logs laid on the
ground, back OVER a log on the ground, back through some water, back up an incline or even
back in an L-shaped pattern. Regardless of what you are asked to back through or over, the
judges will be looking for an animal that backs straightly, smoothly, and willingly. These
types of obstacles highlight your horse's trust in you and your ability to guide him using
your seat and legs.
| Photo by Peggy Johnson
Photo by Linda McGrath
While Novice riders are rarely asked to sidepass (leg yield), knowing how to do so can really make a
difference on your score cards. This move comes in very handy if you are asked to open/close a
gate, tie a ribbon, or pick up something lying over a fence. One of the most basic sidepass
obstacles is sidepassing down a log. You will be asked to step your animal's front legs over a
log and then sidepass left (or right), then back off or ride forward. Another common request
would be to take a ribbon from the judge, then move over several steps to a tree and tie the
ribbon. This last can often be done without sidepassing, but you can be sure you'll earn a
better score if your horse sidepasses smoothly.
Be sure in practicing these types of obstacle at home that you don't forget to do them from
the ground as well. Most of the time, you will be asked to perform these moves from the saddle,
but occasionally you will be asked to do them while leading your horse. Luckily these obstacles
require no special equipment and can be easily practiced anywhere, even
in an arena. Once your
horse backs up and sidepasses willingly for you, you will find more and more occasions to use
these new abilities. Saddle up and Ride!
Since an important part of NATRC is camping
safely with your horse; most horsemanship judges take the trailer check
very seriously. They want to make sure that you have safe and
comfortable stabling for your horse during the competition weekend. How
you will secure your horse and care for his needs should be thought of
before you ever leave home. Rings, bucket brackets and other
modifications may be needed to make the trailer your horse's "home away
At most NATRC rides, your horse will be tied to the trailer while not
being ridden or walked. He should have water available to him at all
times. In the summer months, some competitors even hang two water
buckets to insure their horse never gets thirsty. It is a good idea to
mount the buckets up over the wheels or at chest level on the trailer
side, to prevent a horse from pawing and accidentally catching his foot
in the bucket. You will also need to devise a way to hang a hay bag
within your horse's reach. Make sure it is tied up high and in such a
way it will not droop too low when it gets empty and entangle your horse
if he were to paw at it. Most horses will stand quietly tied to the
trailer if they have a constant supply of hay and ample water.
The next thing you need to check for is any protrusions, hooks or
latches where the horse could catch or cut himself. The most common one
is the back door latch on most 2-horse bumper pulls. Unless your horse
is tied at midpoint on those trailers, they can usually stretch around
and get their halter caught under the door latch while scratching their
faces. You can take a tennis ball and wedge it under, securing it with
some duct tape for the duration of the ride. You will also need to fill
up the V-shaped well where the fenders curve down to meet the frame (by
the taillights). The angle iron usually found there makes it possible
for a horse to snag a hoof in the pocket. Another common problem is
protruding license plates. Ideally they should be relocated permanently,
but you can always wrap a towel around it and again, secure with duct
tape for the duration of the ride.
If you have unhitched your trailer for the weekend while you are
competing, you should always have the wheels chocked so your horse
cannot move it if he were to pull back. A panicked horse can drag a
trailer a lot farther than you would think, if it is unhitched. Make
sure the blocks are back under the tires and don't stick out where the
horse will be standing.
Since an important part of NATRC is camping safely with your horse, most horsemanship judges
take the trailer check very seriously. They want to make sure that you have safe and
comfortable stabling for your horse during the competition weekend. How you will secure your
horse and care for his needs should be thought of before you ever leave home. Rings, bucket
brackets and other modifications may be needed to make the trailer your horse's "home away from
At most NATRC rides, your horse will be tied to the trailer while not being ridden or
walked. He should have water available to him at all times. In the summer months, some
competitors even hang two water buckets to insure their horse never gets thirsty. It is a good
idea to mount the buckets up over the wheels or at chest level on the trailer side, to prevent
a horse from pawing and accidentally catching his foot in the bucket. You will also need to
devise a way to hang a hay bag within your horse's reach. Make sure it is tied up high and in
such a way it will not droop too low when it gets empty and entangle your horse if he were to
paw at it. Most horses will stand quietly tied to the trailer if they have a constant supply
of hay and ample water.
The horse should be tied with a panic snap or with a "NATRC knot." The knot is a slip knot
with the tail pulled back thru the loop to "lock it down" in case the horse grabs it with its
teeth and pulls. It is a good investment to get a nylon adjustable cross-tie and keep it in
your trailer specifically for your trailer tie. Clip it to the ring where you intend to tie
your horse and adjust it so the clip dangles 3-4 inches from the ground. If you tie with an
extra lead rope, check the length during the weekend as they will tend to stretch and get too
long. The halter should fit fairly snug and
should not be loose enough for the horse to peel off over his head in a panic. If he is
blanketed, check to make sure the leg straps are adjusted correctly.
If, you bring more than one horse, make sure they are not tied too close together.
Ideally they should be on opposite sides of the trailer, but some people carry portable panels
to divide horses that must be tied on the same side of the trailer.
Stallions will need to be
double tied to two different rings. Check the NATRC rule book if you plan to bring a stallion
for more details on how stallions should be tied.
As with any sort of stabling, keeping it
cleaned and picked up is expected. Do not leave brushes, rakes or tack lying within your
horse's reach. Follow the ride manager's orders on manure and hay disposal. At some rides
you may scatter it neatly away from the horses and others demand you bag it for hauling out.
Make sure your rider number is taped to the trailer over where your horse is tied and your
horse has his halter tag number securely fastened.
Once you are at a ride, take a break and walk about; inspect other people's rigs and ask
questions. Most NATRC people will be happy to share their knowledge with you and give you
ideas for improving your set up. You will find that you become a lot more confident and
safety conscious while camping with your horse. That is what NATRC is all about... fun and
safety! Come Ride with Us.
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