Competitive trail riders: A little planning can go a long way toward increasing your score over a judged course. Get an edge on the competition with these eight ride-prep do's and don'ts from North American Trail Ride Conference judge Jamie Dieterich. (For Jamie's tips on crossing a judged water obstacle, see "Trailwise," Horseman's Handbook, Horse & Rider, March 2002.)
Don't make feed changes just before a ride, or on ride day. Gradually introduce any changes in your feeding routine--and introduce new feed and/or supplements--at least 2 weeks before a competition, so your horse has time to adjust. Otherwise, he'll be at risk for a colic episode.
Do condition your horse in the tack you'll use in competition, beginning at least 3 weeks prior to the ride, to check fit and make any necessary adjustments. This tactic will also give any sores caused by rubbing a chance to heal before competition day.
Don't make any drastic shoeing changes close to ride time. Shoe your horse at least a week before your ride, so he'll have time to adjust to new shoes. This will also give you time to consult your regular farrier (rather than an unfamiliar one on ride day) should any shoeing problems arise.
Do perform a safety check on your trailer several days before your departure, so you'll have time to repair anything that needs attention. The day before a ride isn't the time to realize your brake lights don't work.
Don't upset your horse's daily routine while making travel preparations. Feed him at the same time as you normally do. His gut needs time to adjust to any changes in his feeding schedule; sudden changes can put him at risk for a colic episode. If he's used to being in a pasture overnight, leave him there the night before you leave. That way, he can continue to eat the moist, dew-covered pasture grass he's used to, which will help him to stay hydrated during travel. Conversely, locking him in a stall and switching him to dry hay can contribute to dehydration. And dehydration can lead to impaction colic.
Do bathe your horse the day before or the day of your ride. Not only will he look better, but you'll be better able to keep him (and your saddle pads) clean and comfortable during the ride weekend.
Do take feed and water from home. Many horses, especially those away from home, will reject hay or water that smells or tastes unfamiliar. Your horse needs to be well-fed and hydrated to avoid any health complications and perform well in competition.
Do allow plenty of time to travel to the ride. If you'll be driving for several hours or more, unload your horse for short rest breaks along the way. Give him a chance to stretch his legs and relieve himself--he may be reluctant to do so in the trailer. Offer him water so he'll stay hydrated. Once you reach the ride site, give him time to settle in before the presentation to the judges.
As a NATRC horsemanship judge for 19 years, Jamie Dieterich knows the best way to prepare a horse for competitive trail rides. She and her husband, Robert, a NATRC veterinary judge, reside in Cromberg, California, with their three horses. The Dieterichs preside at three to 10 NATRC rides per year.
This article originally appeared in the March, 2002 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.