Trail riding is among the most popular equestrian pastimes, and competing on the trail was once something many trail riders enjoyed. But due to a variety of factors, two organizations that sanction competition on the trail have seen a big dip in both membership and ride participation: The North American Trail Ride Conference (NATRC) and the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) have experienced a significant decrease in interest in horse trail sports over the past several years.
NATRC, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, is the oldest competitive trail riding organization in the United States. The group started in 1961 with the goal of creating interest in developing both good trail horses and good on-the-trail horsemanship.
NATRC rides are not races; they are judged competitions with veterinarian and horsemanship judges. NATRC-sanctioned rides are held throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and are held at 8- to 90-mile distances, depending on the division.
In the three divisions that have existed in NATRC for decades—Novice, Competitive Pleasure and Open—both horse and rider are judged separately by different judges. Rides vary from one to three days in length and require horses and riders to camp overnight.
During competition, the horse is evaluated by a veterinary judge, who examines the horse for soundness and baseline vitals—temperature, pulse and respiration—before the ride and then again after the ride.
The vet gauges these same stats at points along the ride, in addition to the horse’s manners and partnership with the rider. The horse’s vital signs are taken with the goal of determining his condition and ability to continue. At the same time, a horsemanship judge evaluates the rider’s safety, handling and riding at check-in, checkout and during the ride.
The horse in each division with the highest point score is the winner in this horse trail sport. A separate win goes to the rider with the most points in each division.
Twenty years ago, NATRC rides had so many entries that participants had to be turned away. More recently, the sport has struggled to find enough people and horses to even hold an event.
According to Sarah Rinne, NATRC’s executive director, this 30 percent decline in participation over the past several years has several reasons behind it. Some of the main factors include a decrease in free time, age-related barriers for NATRC’s main rider demographic, and general finances.
“Society is busier than ever, and our sport [requires] a lot of time for proper care and conditioning of a distance horse,” she says. “It’s not just the time commitment of traveling to rides and competing.”
Rinne adds that it is exceptionally challenging to draw younger riders these days.
“The sport is competing for a substantial amount of time and expendable income from those who may not have it while starting careers and families,” she says.
Realizing the sport was in trouble, the NATRC’s national board of directors took a poll to determine the kinds of changes they should make.
“We conducted a survey in 2018 that was open to current members, past 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 riders. In addition, we worked to evaluate other organizations and the market as a whole in order to develop strategies for the future.”
As a result, a number of new concepts designed to increase participation in the sport were implemented in 2019.
“NATRC has responded to these barriers by offering more levels of membership that fit our members in different stages of life, as well as introducing a new competitive option called the Leisure division,” says Rinne. “Our new division is geared to be a one-day format in which competitors can arrive onsite that morning, check in for the competition, ride the designated 8- to 12-mile course, and check out. There is a quick turnaround for awards, allowing competitors to return home that day.”
Rinne points out that the Leisure division embraces NATRC’s philosophies while also accommodating riders’ busy lives. So far, the addition of this division is showing promise.
“We have noticed an increase in ridership due to the addition of the Leisure division format,” says Rinne. “In some cases, that division has enabled our rides to be financially successful, or at a minimum, not take a loss.”
The AERC, also a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, started in 1972 as a group of local riders in California, and eventually grew to become a nationwide organization. Endurance rides around the U.S. and Canada are sanctioned by AERC and span 50 miles or more.
The organization also sanctions limited-distance rides of 25 to 35 miles. AERC rides take participants through scenic trails consisting of all kinds of terrain, and have been the most popular type of trail competition for decades.
In AERC endurance rides, participating horses are examined for soundness before starting out on the trail. Along the ride, they are periodically checked for soundness and for normal physical and metabolic parameters.
Horses that appear lame are excused from competition, while those whose pulse and respiration remain elevated after a 30-minute rest are held until their vitals return to normal.
Once the ride is complete, the horse is checked again for soundness and normal vitals. Horses that pass this final check are given completion status.
The horse-and-rider team who finish first are the winners. However, AERC’s philosophy is “to finish is to win.” Many riders participate without the intent of winning, but just to enjoy the sport. An award for the best conditioned horse is given by the ride veterinarian, based on a horse’s soundness and metabolic status at the end of the ride.
For decades, AERC rides have been huge events. It wasn’t unusual to see 100 participants or more at an AERC event. The recession of 2008 changed that, however, resulting in the lowest rider participation in the history of the sport.
“The high point in ride entries for AERC was 2007,” says AERC President Monica Chapman. “There has since been a downward trend to 2018.”
By 2018, AERC had gone from 20,972 to 14,939 riders over an eight-year period.
The economic downturn of 2008 led the way in bringing participation down, but Chapman attributes the continued fall-off to more horse owners and riders aging out, while newer riders don’t have the time or money to participate in as many events. She also points to the overall rising costs of keeping a horse.
Faced with this reality, the AERC began an effort to boost membership and rider participation.
“Last year, we ran a campaign called Ride One More,” says Chapman. “Anyone who rode one more ride than the year before got a special award.”
For 2020, AERC is running another campaign called Step it Up. “Step It Up rewards members for [things like] trying a new distance, becoming a ride manager, and volunteering for a ride,” she says. “We also have mentorship programs, educational clinics, webinars, and the Green Beans Endurance Challenge Program for newcomers to the sport.”
These new programs seem to be doing the trick. In 2019, AERC’s ride participation numbers went up, along with membership.
“In 2019, our numbers slightly rebounded, despite many event cancellations due to weather,” says Chapman.
Effects of a Pandemic on Horse Trail Sports
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has caused both NATRC and the AERC to cancel many of their planned rides in 2020, the hope is that both sports will continue to see an upswing in participation once events can be rescheduled.
“All organizations are going to experience the financial and societal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Rinne. “While it’s not entirely clear how extensively NATRC will be impacted, we have taken steps to negate what we can by implementing additional participation options for members to remain active with their horses and NATRC, while also respecting Centers for Disease Control recommendations.”
One thing is clear: if new pushes by these two organizations are successful, horse trail sports will continue to prosper for years to come.