Saving Equestrian Track Sports – Horse Illustrated

Photo courtesy of the North American Trail Ride Conference

Track riding is one of the most popular equestrian pastimes, and track competition was once something that many riders enjoyed. But due to various factors, two organizations that sanction trail competition have seen sharp declines in both membership and ride participation: the North American Trail Ride Conference (NATRC) and the American Endurance Ride Conference ( AERC) have seen a significant decrease in interest in equestrian sports in recent years.

Without enough members and participating riders to support the events, the very existence of both organizations was in jeopardy. Fortunately for those who love to compete on the trails, the NATRC and AERC are actively working to save their sport.

Competitive trail

NATRC, a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit, is the oldest running competition organization in the United States. The group started in 1961 with the aim of generating interest in developing both good track horses and good track riding.

North American Trail Ride Conference - Horse Trail Sports
Both horse riding and vet scores need to be high to perform well on the track. Photo courtesy of the North American Trail Ride Conference

NATRC rides are not races; these are competitions judged by veterinarians and equestrian judges. NATRC-sanctioned rides are held in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and run at distances of 8 to 90 miles, depending on the division.

In the three divisions that have existed at NATRC for decades — Novice, Competitive Pleasure and Open — horse and rider are judged separately by different judges. The hikes vary from one to three days and require horses and riders to camp overnight.

During competition, the horse is evaluated by a veterinary judge, who examines the horse for strength and basic vital signs – temperature, pulse and respiration – before the ride and then again after the ride.

The vet evaluates these same statistics at different points in the journey, in addition to the horse’s manners and the partnership with the rider. The horse’s vital signs are taken in order to determine its condition and its ability to continue. At the same time, a riding judge assesses the safety, handling and conduct of the rider during check-in, departure and during the ride.

The horse from each division with the highest score is the winner in this sport of trekking. A separate victory goes to the rider with the most points in each division.

Twenty years ago, NATRC rides had so many registrations that participants had to be turned down. More recently, the sport has struggled to find enough people and horses to even host an event.

North American Trail Ride Conference - Horse Trail Sports
Photo courtesy of the North American Trail Ride Conference

According to Sarah Rinne, executive director of NATRC, this 30 percent drop in attendance over the past few years has several reasons. Some of the main factors include a decrease in free time, age-related barriers for the main demographic of NATRC cyclists, and general finances.

“Society is busier than ever, and our sport [requires] plenty of time for the proper care and conditioning of a distance horse, ”she says. “It’s not just the time it takes to travel and compete. “

Rinne adds that it is exceptionally difficult to attract young riders these days.

“Sport competes for a substantial amount of time and disposable income of those who may not have it while starting their careers and families,” she said.
Realizing that the sport was in trouble, the NATRC National Board of Directors conducted a survey to determine the types of changes they should make.

“We conducted a survey in 2018 that was open to current members, former members and those who have not been members,” says Rinne. “This was to capture a better picture of what we were doing well, where we needed to adjust and the barriers that exist for current or potential runners. Additionally, we have been working to assess other organizations and the market in its area. together to develop strategies for the future.

North American Trail Ride Conference - Horse Trail Sports
Photo courtesy of the North American Trail Ride Conference

As a result, a number of new concepts designed to increase participation in sport were implemented in 2019.

“NATRC has responded to these barriers by offering more membership levels that suit our members at different stages of life, as well as introducing a new competitive option called the Leisure Division,” said Rinne. “Our new division is designed to be a one-day format where competitors can arrive on site that morning, register for the competition, run the designated 8 to 12 mile course and check out. There is a quick turnaround time for rewards, allowing contestants to return home that day.

Rinne points out that the Leisure division embraces the philosophies of NATRC while adapting to the hectic life of cyclists. So far, the addition of this division is promising.

“We noticed an increase in ridership due to the addition of the Leisure division format,” says Rinne. “In some cases, this division has allowed our rides to be financially successful or, at a minimum, not incur losses.”


The AERC, also a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit, started in 1972 as a group of local runners in California, and eventually grew to be a national organization. Endurance races in the United States and Canada are AERC sanctioned and span 50 miles or more.

American Endurance Ride Conference
The AERC philosophy is “to finish is to win”. Photo by Bob Zimmerman

The organization also sanctions limited distance trips of 25 to 35 miles. AERC treks take participants through scenic trails made up of all kinds of terrain and have been the most popular type of trail competition for decades.

In AERC endurance rides, participating horses are tested for strength before starting on the track. Throughout the journey, they are periodically checked to ensure their strength and normal physical and metabolic parameters.

Horses that appear lame are exempt from competition, while those whose pulse and respiration remain elevated after a 30-minute rest are maintained until their vital signs return to normal.

After the ride is complete, the horse is checked again for normal health and vital signs. Horses that pass this final check receive completion status.

The rider-horse team that finishes first is the winner. However, the AERC philosophy is “to finish is to win”. Many runners participate with no intention of winning, but simply to enjoy the sport. A prize for the best conditioned horse is awarded by the tour veterinarian, depending on the health and metabolic state of the horse at the end of the tour.

For decades, the AERC rides have been huge events. It was not uncommon to see 100 or more attendees at a CREA event. However, the 2008 recession was a game-changer, resulting in the lowest participation of cyclists in the history of the sport.

“2007 was the highlight of Ride registrations for AERC,” said AERC President Monica Chapman. “Since then, there has been a downward trend until 2018.”

By 2018, the AERC had grown from 20,972 to 14,939 runners over an eight-year period.

The 2008 economic downturn paved the way for a drop in attendance, but Chapman attributes the continued decline to more horse owners and riders getting older, while new riders have neither the time nor the money. to participate in as many events. It also highlights the overall increase in the costs of keeping a horse.

American Endurance Ride Conference
Endurance is a real race, with the fastest horse to finish and pass the veterinary checks declared the winner. Photo by Bob Zimmerman

Faced with this reality, the AERC began an effort to increase the membership and participation of riders.

“Last year we ran a campaign called Ride One More,” says Chapman. “Anyone who did one more lap than the previous year received a special award. “

For 2020, the AERC is running another campaign called Step it Up. “Step It Up rewards members for [things like] try a new distance, become a ride manager and volunteer for a ride, ”she says. “We also have mentoring programs, educational clinics, webinars and the Green Beans Endurance Challenge program for newcomers to the sport. “

These new programs seem to do the trick. In 2019, the number of AERC participants increased, as well as the number of members.

“In 2019, our numbers rebounded slightly, despite many event cancellations due to the weather,” says Chapman.

Effects of a pandemic on horse trekking sports

While the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted NATRC and AERC to cancel many of their outings scheduled for 2020, the hope is that both sports will continue to see an increase in participation once events can be completed. reprogrammed.

“All organizations will experience the financial and societal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Rinne said. “While it’s not entirely clear how affected NATRC will be, we’ve taken steps to reverse what we can by implementing additional participation options to keep members active with their horses and NATRC, while respecting the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control. “

One thing is clear: If the new impulses from these two organizations are successful, equestrian sports will continue to thrive for years to come.

This article on equestrian sports appeared in the August 2020 issue of Illustrated horse magazine. Click here to subscribe !

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