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Curlies in Competitive Trail Riding

By Denise Conroy & *Prairie Espresso Dream, Aka Reese

What is a Competitive Trail Riding?

Competitive Trail Riding measures the fitness of a horse as they travel over a marked trail of 20 to 120 miles. Horses are examined thoroughly before, on trail and after finishing, by qualified judges and veterinarians. The events are strictly timed and penalties are given for finishing too early or too late. Penalties are also given for soreness, fluid in legs, fatigue, and a elevated Pulse & Respiration. Horses are judged by how quickly their heart rates drop and other physical and metabolic measurements. The horses who show the highest level of physical fitness win.

What Is the Goal?

The goal is to condition your horse to the highest level of fitness and take care of it so that the horse completes the ride with as little stress as possible.

My CTR Experience:

The purpose of this article is to introduce curly owners to a sport that is not only great fun but can teach and motivate us. I have included some of my favorite reference websites throughout the article and also some great video and photos to the right. I am writing from limited personal experience, but hopefully it will inspire you to try it with your Curly!

I first learned the concept of Competitive Trail Riding (CTR) last fall while camping with some friends near my home. I am not a competitive person but the education aspect of the sport sounded intriguing. The more I learned, the more I felt it would be a fun way to challenge myself and Reese, my 7 year old Curly/Draft gelding. I already loved distance riding and CTR would help me learn how to condition my horse safely while increasing speed and also require me to evaluate my horse’s nutrition, warning signs of stress and fatigue, assess my tack and so much more.

I came home cautiously optimistic that we could do this. I began my research by emailing a few people that I knew had experience in the sport. Sara Matthews of Kestrel Farms in Michigan and Verlin Rau of Rosebud River Curly Horses in Alberta. Both were very supportive and helpful, offering great tips & suggestions. Sara even took Reese and I on a mock 2 hour CTR ride near her home in October 2007 so I could get a feel for the entire experience. Ie. speed, vet checks etc. In order to complete a CTR on time, you must go at least 6 mph, or basically a nice forward trot 90% of the time. (something I had no concept of doing! lol) We managed to complete the ride, but Reese was exhausted. I knew I would have a lot of work to do to condition him properly for the ‘real thing.’ Verlin explained in detail many of the things he learned and also added the curly perspective, since he has competed on his curly horses.

Some of the wise council Verlin gave me was:

“The Motto is: To Finish is To Win. Enjoyment for horse and ride is the number one priority. Do not go for ribbons; go for completing the ride, enjoying and being safe. Chances are, your horse will really enjoy this thing, because horses like new terrain, and they enjoy the social aspect of meeting other horses and jogging along beside a new buddy. As long as your horse has been ridden as you have been doing, and is not lame or sore, he should enjoy this. IF you don't like it, you don't have to do it again, but you may as well give it a try. You might love it.”

With that, I set my course to do my first CTR in September of 2008.

Vet Evaluation on Reese: In May, I had Reese evaluated by my vet (who is also an endurance person and owns 2 Al Marah Curly Arabs.) I just wanted to be sure I wasn’t pushing Reese in a sport that was unsuitable. Remember, he has quite a bit of Draft blood in him, with no hint of Arab! ;-) My vet said because he had a nice deep narrow chest he could do 25 miles just fine. His flexion test confirmed no physical limitations or issues, so he was cleared to go! I came home excited and ready to begin our training.

Curlies in CTR
Verlin & Jody Rau
CTR ride
Rosebud River Curlies

Mark Wheeler & Sakary
CTR ride

Denise Conroy & Reese
25 CTR
Helpful Links
Great video of CTR
50 mile endurance video
37 Year Old Arab sets new mileage Record

Gathering information: I joined a CTR chat group to get daily support and help in answering all the annoying questions any newbie would have. They were great and very patient! A special thanks to three special women, Debbie Murphy, Kathy Macki and Marcia Nelson for their awesome support and long distance encouragement! The closest CTR ride was 3 hours from home. I wasn’t able to train or consult with anyone locally, so much of what I learned depended on research, connecting with others via internet and reading recommended books such as “Go the Distance” by Nancy S. Loving, DVM. I was like a sponge, soaking up everything I could get my hands on.

Conditioning schedule: I started blogging almost every day, documenting miles, speed, training tips I was working on and anything I felt was important. I wanted this to be a growing and learning experience for both of us and I wanted to do it right. Most of all I wanted Reese happy! I didn’t want to undo all the great memories we had had up until now. Reese and I love the trail, logging more than 2,500 miles in the last 3 years since we found each other. ;-) He is always at the gate waiting for me, and I didn’t want that to change. Putting miles on the trail was just part of the commitment. I had to learn & pay close attention to a few others things such as:

Nutrition: I am not a big fan of grain for my curlies but Reese needed added fat and supplements so I worked him up to 2-4 cups of grain per day (whole grains) with 1/2 cup coca Soya oil and required Selenium & E as well as Magnesium. He was on simple pasture, supplemented with some hay. I watched his weight closely. He did great on that, felt wonderful and maintained his weight perfectly.

Hooves: Reese is barefoot (Pete Ramey’s barefoot trim) so I made sure to keep his hooves manicured every 2 weeks to prevent any chips, cracks or problems. Just 2 years ago, my farrier said Reese would always need shoes on all 4 hooves. Doing 25 miles barefoot would be quite remarkable and I was determined to set him up to succeed! Which he did! ;-) More on that journey here: Barefoot Curly

Tack: Eight (8) weeks into our conditioning program, I noticed Reese’s back seemed sore. He was also not waiting at the gate for me. We had started to increase speed quite a bit and I had to seriously evaluate my tack at this point. I started to do more reading and research. I decided to sell my Bob Marshall treeless saddle and try a Freeform treeless saddle. The Freeform Freewest is the style of treeless saddle that Jeremy Reynolds (winner of the 100 mile Tevis!) rode in back in 2007. That was good enough for me! The Freeform offers a “Y” shaped girthing system that helps support the riders weight and the molded inserts offers better protection along the spine. Immediately Reese felt great and we went back to conditioning without any further problems. Seeing Reese at the gate when I arrived for our rides told me that I was doing everything right. I was relieved.

Improved Riding: I had to also learn to be a much better rider, meeting motion with motion as Marcia told me. ;-) I had to learn to feel my horse and move with him, always remaining flexable and soft. This was the only way to keep him from being sore and allow him to use his body without me being a hinderance. For me, this was one of the most rewarding experiences.

Equipment/Heart Monitor: We had been doing LSD, or Long Slow Distance riding. Big, long rides at 4-5 mph. But now into our 3rd month, we were mixing in shorter rides at 6-7 mph. Reese was working hard but as he built muscle he felt fantastic and loved it! I was told by my CTR group to invest in a heart monitor to access Reese’s heart rate and learn to understand it better. I started take his pulse at every ride where I increased speed and was excited to see his heart rate drop quickly over the coming weeks. We were feeling very ready! I found may great endurance sites, but this was one of my favorites for buying saddle packs, heart monitors and other necessary items.

Trail & Ground Manners: I also had to work on trail manners. Proper spacing, lightening my cues and most important maintaining a nice even trot going home. This took a lot of practice and I had to work on keeping Reese light and not hanging on the bit, or wanting to step into a canter. Eventually, we could do an extended trot 45 minutes going away from home and coming back, on a loose rein! It was heaven! If he started to speed up, I would just lightly lift on the left rein and say ‘easy’ and he would back down nicely. It felt absolutely spectacular! I think Reese loved learning new things; I was SO proud of him! We were challenging each other and bonding like never before.

Chiro adjustments: I decided 2 weeks before our first 12 mile Novice ride that I would have Reese looked at by a chiropractor. I have never done this and I just wanted to be sure that the old saddle hadn’t caused any lasting soreness or issues. I was glad I did. Although nothing was serious, Reese did have some sore spots and got a few adjustments. I could tell he felt better.

Preparing for camping: Another important thing to get your horses ready for a CTR is camping over night. In our group, they allow electric portable fencing, which Reese was very used to from past camping trips. To refresh his memory, I set up some fencing in the backyard a week before the ride and had him graze inside it for a few hours per day.

Beet Pulp: To keep your horse hydrated, it is suggested to get them on beet pulp before the ride to get them used to it. My horses love the stuff…so that was easy. I started getting them used to it about 2 weeks before the ride. For every 1 lb of dry beet pulp, you must add 3 oz of bran to balance the cal/phos ratios.

Electrolytes: I realized the importance of electrolytes. I gave Reese electrolytes 2 days prior to the ride and then right after. I would strongly recommend it for anyone doing these rides.

Blankets & Coolers: It is also wise to have both coolers and warm blankets on endurance rides. I found some great deals on ebay for a waterproof polyfil blanket.

Putting what I learned to the test:

The day came for our first CTR. I was nervous, excited but felt very ready. My 4 months of training came down to this...I couldn't wait to see how Reese did in an actual ride.

Our 1st ride was a Novice, 12 mile ride which I would strongly suggest to anyone trying CTR. It was on Sept 7th, 2008 and 300 miles from home in beautiful country. The pace was still 6 mph, but there is a lot of considerations for mistakes made and everyone offers a great deal of help and advice. I remembered Verlin’s advice to not go for the ribbons, so I was just happy to complete the ride. Reese felt amazing on the ride, I never worried about him and it was a joy to be on his back. I kept thinking....'wow, this is such a blast...THIS is the reward!" All our hard work had paid off - Reese was light to my cues and a gentleman on the trail. We were a little clumsy at the vet checks, but I learned so much. Remarkably, Reese was awarded 3rd place out of 5 horses. To me that meant that maybe I had done something right. There was great satisfaction in that. Reese did have some very minor back & shoulder soreness so I planned to improve on that for our next ride….…I was hooked!

Our 2nd ride was 3 weeks later and was the big 25 mile ride that was 3 hours from home. I took those 3 weeks to increase more speed and distance and make small tweaks to my routine from the lessons I learned at the first ride. I had 2 goals for this ride and that was to get Reese over the line without any back or shoulder soreness and to finish without time penalties. (3 hours and 45 min.) We met both goals and I was ecstatic!! You can imagine my excitement when Reese was awarded 3rd place out of 7 riders. The ribbon was the icing on the cake. Again Reese felt fantastic and never showed signs of fatigue or being hestitant. The power under me was incredible. Reese has this wicked awesome extended trot that he does always surprises people that he is such a strong athlete inspite of his bulk. ;-) I think there must have been a smile on my face the entire time. The hard 4 months of conditioning were so worth it!

Reese gave 100% to the event, I was in awe over his heart & willingness. I had always considered Reese just a big mellow fellow….but it seems he has a little bit of Seabiscuit in him! What a riot to see him find his extended trot and love his job! If Reese can do it, any curly can! ;-)

In preparing for these rides, my main goal was always to condition Reese to the best of my ability so he was not stressed during the ride in any way. There were many days this summer when I was tired after work and didn’t know if I could muster up the strength to hit the trail, but I knew I couldn’t ask Reese to do something that I had not prepared him to do. There were many times that I had some fear too. For instance, when it came time to increase speed, or when I was increasing distance and had to ride 15 miles in new territory alone or working through the uncertainty of doing everything “right” and not pushing too hard or not pushing hard enough. There were even days when I wondered if I could do it….could ’we’ do it? Was I kidding myself? Somewhere in side, God gave me the strength and I am so glad he did. This was an experience I will never forget!

This sport attracts the friendliest people! I appreciated that no one cared what clothes you wore or what tack you used as long as you and your horse were comfortable. There was a supportive & helpful attitude from the other riders, something you don’t often see in competition. Everyone had their own personal goals and finishing with a ribbon wasn’t top on that list. They are the nicest, hardest working group I have ever met. These folks are out there doing it, not just talking about it. There were riders there in their 70’s doing 50 miles! It was inspiring and humbling all at the same time.

There are many resources online to help anyone wishing to get started in this sport.

Recommended reading: “Go the Distance” by Nancy S. Loving, DVM


My Favorite Photos from the CTR ride

Setting Up Camp Tacking Up Morning Ride Half Way Vet Check P&R
Half Way Camp, Rest Vet Check - Trot Out Vet Check - Chatting with Dr. Rae
Surprise Vet Check Beautiful Lake on the Trail Gorgeous Scenery
My Awesome Curly, Reese Finishing! Happy Endings

Video Clip of the Ride. Includes a little action on the trail! Enjoy!

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