By Sarah Banks
If you love trail rides, you will love NATRC. It stands for North American Trail Ride Conference, and involves riding long distance competitive trail rides for all types of breeds and any kind of discipline. They focus on safety, sportsmanship, trail horse care, and education throughout the competitions by having evaluations and obstacles judged by a veterinarian and horsemanship judges.
Competitions are all over the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, and for 2018 they are even having free membership for 1st time riders.
What exactly is NATRC competitive trail riding?
At a competitive trail ride, riders must ride a set course within a certain time frame. Horses are judged by the veterinarian on their health and fitness level. Riders are judged by the horsemanship judge on how they work with the horse and how well they perform obstacles set up throughout the ride, along with the checks on the ground.
The competition first starts with a check-in where the horse is looked over by the vet and made sure that they are sound to compete, while the rider is judged by the horsemanship judge on their horsemanship skills. The vet looks for soundness, if your horse has any scrapes or bruises, etc, along with seeing how well-behaved your horse is and how well they move. The horsemanship judge looks at things such as how you are holding your lead rope, if you are standing on the correct side of your horse while the vet checks them over, how well you get your horse to lunge in a circle while trotting, or how you handle your horse while running alongside them at the trot. At the end of the competition, there is a final check that mirrors the first one.
The actual ride follows a marked trail throughout an area, which riders get a map for. A meeting happens the night before each day’s ride to go over the trail course, so any rivers, streams, water troughs, and other things on the trail can be pointed out. Riders need to figure out the time they have to be at each check point on the map before heading out so they can be sure to come in during the correct time window.
There are three levels of competition, Novice, Competitive/Pleasure, and the Open Division. Novice is for everyone who is new to the sport and they have the easiest obstacles and the shorter trails. Competitive/Pleasure, often known as CP, is for riders and horses who have experience in NATRC and can do the more advanced obstacles, but prefer to ride the shorter distance. The Open Division is for the most advanced riders with the most experienced horses, and the horses must be very well-conditioned. Novice and CP Divisions ride at usually 15-20 miles a day over 1 or 2 days at a pace of 3.5 to 5 mph, depending on if it is a one-day or two-day ride that the rider enters. Some rides have a one-day option, but many only have a two-day option. The Open Division has competitors riding at about 25-30 miles a day, for a total of 50-60 miles over the whole weekend, at a pace of 4-6 mph.
During the ride itself, there are a few stops called P&R stops along the way, which stands for Pulse and Respiration. At these checkpoints, riders have to dismount and line up. They let their horses cool off while waiting to get their P&R done by volunteers. Many riders will loosen their horses girths, or even take their saddles off completely, to allow them to relax fully. The more relaxed they are, the lower their numbers will be, which can mean a higher score for their horse in the competition. Many riders also bring fans for their horses when it is hot out and use these fans to help them cool down and relax. It is important to be considerate here of the other riders and show trail courtesy. Don’t talk loud or too much as it can bother the horses trying to relax, and always come in slow to the checkpoint and dismount a certain distance away, usually where someone is seated to hand out cards for the P&R scores. Afterwards, walk a distance away from the checkpoint. Usually, there will be a mounting block set up for riders to use.
At the end of each day, there is another vet check to make sure your horse is still sound and not sore anywhere on their body. If they are sore on their back but it is not too bad, you may just get an extra penalty.
Also during the ride, there are obstacles set up throughout. The type of obstacle you have depends on which level you are riding in. Some of the obstacles I have had to do before include backing up between 2 trees until the horses butt touches a ribbon tied to a branch, circling around a tree while touching it with one hand, sidestepping over a tree, mounting from the ground, and backing up a hill. I have also had to pick out my horses back hoof in the middle of the trail, and riding up and down hills. The horsemanship judges look at how well you ride these obstacles, the signals that you give, and if you should have done something differently in your riding. They look to make sure that you aren’t getting in the way and that you are riding as safely as possible and in the best way that you can for your horse.
NATRC Competitions are a great family atmosphere. Everyone is very friendly and helpful, wanting to help each other learn and be safe. The judges are very nice and easy-going, and are open to anyone asking them questions about their horse, their score, or anything else. Every night there is usually a gathering for dinner, often with a potluck and a hosted dinner that everyone contributes some money to get.
Everyone camps out with their horse, and most people bring either RV’s or have sleeping quarters in their trailers. Some people may even set up a tent. Some rides will have electric and water hook up, while others do not have any hookups so you will have to bring a generator. At the Biltmore ride, there is no hookup and no bathroom with showers, so we used a little generator and set up a shower stall in the back of the horse trailer with towels blocking the windows and a little portable shower that was run by the generator.
The location of the event depends on how your horse’s camp area will be set up. Some places, like the Biltmore, do not have enough paddocks for all of the competitors horses to be in, so horses have to be tied to a high-line. Some riders may even bring a portable corral depending on the event. Many events, though, do have stalls of some kind that can be rented, and some even have little paddocks or outdoor corrals that are permanent and can be rented.
NATRC is split up into 6 regions. I am in Region 5, in the southeastern United States, and have been to some beautiful rides. My favorite is the Biltmore, where competitors get to ride throughout the beautiful Biltmore Estate. There are a lot of good rides, including ones in Florida where the terrain is sand and dirt, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, etc. There are rides all over, so you should be able to find a few that are close to you.
NATRC is an awesome organization to be a part of, no matter what discipline you ride. There is not a set type of saddle that you have to use, as long as it properly fits, so you can ride however you are comfortable. I have learned a lot from these rides that I did not know before involving horsemanship and horse health, while getting to enjoy being out in nature and riding some beautiful trails in the Southeastern U.S. The environment at the competitions is great, no drama and everyone is really friendly and just wants to help you learn along the way. The judges are some of the nicest I’ve ever met at any type of competition and are very open so it is easy to learn and get feedback.
Check out their website for more information- http://www.natrc.org/