Competitive Trail Riding – A how-to guide for new riders

Natasha Guest has provided us with this very informative guide to give you an idea of what competitive trail riding is all about. It sounds like lots of fun. See you at the next event!

Louise-1Competitive trail riding (“CTR”) is building a tidal wave of support in the lower North and South Islands with a steady ripple also forming up in the top of the north.

CTR is a timed event and should not be confused with endurance riding, which is essentially a race with the first qualifier being the winner. With CTR, horse and rider combinations head out and follow pre-marked courses with the goal to complete the course as close to the optimum time as possible. Upon returning to base, a horse’s heart rate will be taken and then it will be taken again no more than 30 minutes later. Combinations are given time faults for the variance from their ride time to the optimum time and this is then added to their two final heart rates with the lowest score being the winner. There are some do’s and don’ts however. Once on the trail, riders must remain in constant forward motion, stopping only to allow their horses to drink, or to open and shut gates. Riders depart in groups of up to three in five-minute intervals. It’s better to be slower rather than faster as the penalty for each minute over time is just 1 fault per minute compared to 2 faults per minute for coming in under the time. Horses are subject to the same strict veterinary procedures as their endurance counterparts; however, competitive trail rides generally follow shorter distances depending on the available land and the wishes of the organising committee which arranged the ride.

Sacha & MylieCTR is great option for riders without a lot of time to train horses. Most clubs start their smallest distance off at 8-10km, and most who enter this do so thinking it will be an epic adventure, but are surprised at how quickly it is over and how easily their unfit horses cope with the workload. Most horses who are ‘hacking fit’ can cope with a distance up to 10km and as any seasoned endurance rider will tell you, it’s the speed not the distance that takes the toll.

Under ESNZ rules, combinations may enter Novice (all unregistered horses or riders) Intermediate (ESNZ-registered and over 18 years) Junior (ESNZ-registered and under 18) or Open (ESNZ-registered and over 18 with a slightly faster speed).

What to expect on your first day

You want to arrive about an hour or so before the designated start time. This will leave you plenty of time to put your entry in, present your horse for pre-ride vet inspection and attend the compulsory ride briefing.

Once you have unloaded your horse, secured it and ensured it is okay (ideally with a hay net full of hay), head over to the secretary to put your entry in and collect your back number. You’ll need to complete the entry form and sign a waiver. If your horse is registered you will have a log book, but if you are not registered you can just complete a ‘day vet card’ to use for that one ride. Your back number must be worn at all times while mounted and must go into the vet ring with your horse.

Brittany - run outYou’ll need to pass a pre-ride vet check before heading out. This may seem intimidating at first but the vets aren’t there to find fault with you or your horse. They are there to make sure your horse it fit enough for the job being asked. They will take your horse’s pulse and record this in your day vet card as the “pre-ride heart rate”.  You will then need to trot your horse away from them and back on a nice long lead. Once you have passed this vet check you’ll need to attend your ride briefing. Here the organisers will explain the course, your optimum ride times and any hazards out on course.

On checking in you would have been assigned a ride-out time: this is your departure time. You’ll need to saddle up and present to the start line in enough time for the timekeeper to count you out.

Tyler & PrinceOnce on the trail, you will follow the markers advised to you at your briefing until you return to base.

As to how fast / slow you should go – well, it all depends on your horse and the course.
The set speed is usually 10kph for Novice and Intermediate. Open riders go a little faster.
A horse with a long stride or a preference for speed will go at about 12kph, so if you are riding at Intermediate level, you will have to slow down and walk in.  Mainly you will go at trot with a few canters when the trail allows (and there is nothing like a good blat up an airstrip). If your horse goes at 10kph, then you will find you trot most of it with a few steady canters and a couple of walks.

As you cross the line you will be approached by a volunteer who will take your horse’s pulse rate. You will need to dismount and allow them to do this. But don’t dismount until you are approached. If there is a build-up of horses crossing the line you will need to keep your horse moving and remain mounted until it’s your turn.

You then have half an hour to get your horse’s heart rate as low as possible. Your final heart rate will be added to your “across the line” heart rate and your time faults for your total score. Use water on your horse as necessary and get the heart rate as low as you can. The lowest score wins!

Sonia & BuzzCTR is a great way to get started with distance riding. Riders of all ages are welcome, and it’s a fun social event as well as a great way to spend some quality time with your horse! Horses of all ages and breeds enjoy getting out on the trails and it is one of the few sports that riders can compete in bitless and/or barefoot.


If you would like to try Competitive Trail please contact your nearest club for more information. ESNZ-registered clubs can be found at

Or try

Rangitikei Area Distance Riders

Wellington Area Trail Club

Photo Credits: Wild Spirit Photography