Trail and recreational riders, your time has come.
If there’s one trend that characterizes the Western horse world in the new millennium, it’s a reformed regard for recreational riders. According to the American Horse Council, recreational horsemen (composed mainly of trail riders and those who don’t compete in formal show competitions) make up 42 percent of the nation’s horse owners.
Realizing the potential of this vast group, a number of individuals, clubs, organizations, and associations have stepped up to create new competitive formats and activities built around recreational—as opposed to show—competitors.
In addition, enthusiasts with interests as varied as cowboy shooting or mustang gentling have created new arena activities to capture the interest of recreational riders.
We’ve rounded up the movers and shakers who are changing the face and format of Western riding in the 21st century. If you’re searching for new activities to do with your horses, perhaps you too will find a new community among these fast-growing, rapidly evolving, new-millennium horse sports.
New horse sport: ACTHA trail riding.
What it is: a judged cross-country trail-ride course that emphasizes riding form, not speed. Judges eye riding skills as contestants negotiate water crossings, open and close gates, charge embankments, and cross bridges—the kinds of obstacles you typically encounter on the trail.
How it began: Burned out from showing yet wanting to do more than everyday trail riding, two Texas women, Carrie Scrima and Karen VanGetson, set out to create a new type of competition. They envisioned a contest in which riders would cover an outdoor course of moderate length (between 5 and 10 miles), encountering a series of judged obstacles along the way.
From this humble beginning just four years ago, the American Competitive Trail Horse Association (ACTHA) has caught fire. in 2011, the organization will sanction close to 1,000 competitive trail rides across the united states and counts roughly 11,000 members.
What it takes: ACTHA competitions don’t require a special horse or extensive training and expertise. One of the organization’s goals is “to promote the great American trail horse,” which includes grade horses and adopted horses. A portion of event proceeds go to horse rescues and horse-related charities.
Of course, registered horses are welcome, too. ACTHA is supported by numerous breed registries including those for Arabians, Appaloosas, Morgans, Paints, Quarter Horses, and Tennessee Walking Horses.
Divisions allow riders to compete against others of comparable abilities and ages. Family participation is encouraged. And producing an event is low-key, without a lot of upfront costs. Anyone with a suitable venue, such as a private ranch, equestrian center, etc., can call ACTHA for step-by-step plans, training, marketing assistance, and ride insurance (see sidebar on page 80 for contact info).
H&R sister publication The Trail Rider has teamed with ACTHA, and membership in the group includes a subscription to the trail-riding-focused publication.
New horse sport: Extreme cowboy racing.
What it is: An arena race against the clock, with obstacles that simulate typical ranch work and trail-riding conditions.
How it began: In 2005, well-known clinician, trainer, and Texas cowboy Craig Cameron was scouting for an interesting challenge for his RFD-TV show Ride Smart. What he came up with has become a phenomenon.
Initially, Craig Cameron’s extreme cowboy race was a contest in which top trainers from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines competed in a timed arena race, dashing through a series of obstacles meant to simulate real-life ranching and trail situations.
The exhibitions—and the competition—were so popular that Cameron began hosting this type of contest for the rest of us. The Extreme Cowboy Association was formed in 2008. Today, the association includes roughly 1,500 members competing in 17 regions across the U.S. and Canada, and hosts an annual world championship event each november.
What it takes: Cameron firmly believes that any horse can participate; there are no restrictions on breed, and the average show or trail horse can be competitive in extreme cowboy racing.
“You don’t have to have an ultra-expensive horse or one with tens of thousands of dollars of training,” said Bill Hull, president of the Extreme Cowboy Association. “A family can do this without it costing an arm and a leg.”
Riders are each placed in one of six divisions, including ones for youth and senior riders. Obstacles are rated by difficulty, so that less-experienced riders encounter relatively easy obstacles, while top pro riders are truly challenged while on course.
Speed is of the essence, of course, but points are also awarded or deducted based on how the rider approaches, negotiates, and exits each obstacle.