Try Competitive Mounted Orienteering

Combine camaraderie and horses with a dash of adventure and you’ve got the sport of competitive mounted orienteering.

Riders on mounted orienteering trail.
All horses have a number applied with a grease pencil before competing. This identifies them to everyone along the trail as competing in the CMO. Photo by Allen Macmillan/MacMillan Photography

Constantly drilling down on riding goals in an arena can become a grind for both horse and rider. Trail riding is fun and relaxing but lacks the thrill of competition. Another challenge for many equestrians is how to get the entire family together and engaged. One equestrian sport is potentially an answer to all of these: competitive mounted orienteering.

What Is It?

Horse riders getting compass reading.
A pair of riders get a reading off a compass to begin their course. Riders can compete as individuals or on teams made up of two to six riders. All breeds are allowed, although gaited horses are quite popular. Photo by Allen Macmillan/MacMillan Photography

Competitive mounted orienteering (CMO) is part trail ride and part skill-driven treasure hunt, all rolled into a fun and easy-going activity. Marti Caldwell, president of the National Association of Competitive Mounted Orienteering (NACMO) and the NACMO Indiana state director, extols the attributes of the sport.

“CMO can be a welcome break from competing and all the stress for both horse and rider that frequently accompanies a busy show schedule,” says Caldwell. “We try to put relaxation, camaraderie and just plain fun first, and competition second or third. Recognition is about all we get for winning, although we do have year-end awards at the regional and national levels. Some of our riders are just out there to have a good time, but for other members, the competition is pretty important too.”

History of CMO

The sport was created by horseman Cliff Pladsen from Olgilvie, Minn., in 1981. He hatched the CMO concept after temporarily getting lost on a trail ride with family and friends. He realized that learning compass navigation would be useful and fun while on horseback. Pladsen founded NACMO the same year. He developed and refined the rules and led NACMO activities through 1990.

In 1991, the assets of NACMO were sold to Walter H. Olsen of Tenino, Wash., who expanded and standardized the sport. By 1998, the bylaws had been revamped and the board restructured to include a seat for state affiliates that host five or more sanctioned rides per year. The sport is celebrating its 39th year in 2020.

What Do You Need?

Any domestic equine may be ridden in a CMO, as long as they are 3 years or older. Riders from any discipline may participate and use any type of tack.

CMO Equipment

The only tools required for CMO are an orienteering compass ($7 to $95 and available at many sporting goods stores or online) and a pen, marker or pencil for making notes and writing down codes.

Horse rider with mounted orienteering gear.
A pocketed vest to store gear, saddlebags, a compass and pen are about all you and your horse need to get started in CMO. Photo by Allen Macmillan/MacMillan Photography

Comfortable riding clothes selected with the weather in mind and tack that is well-fitted to horse and rider is important for CMO, just as for trail riding. Many riders wear their compass and writing instrument attached to a lanyard worn around their neck, while others choose to wear a multi-pocketed fisherman’s vest to stow gear.

Saddle bags are also popular for carrying equipment, such as horse care and first-aid supplies, insect repellent, sunscreen, a water bottle and the like. GPS units and cell phone navigation are not allowed in CMO competition, although it is advised that riders carry their phones in case of an emergency.

Current NACMO members come from a wide variety of other equine sports, including dressage, eventing, hunter/jumper, western riding, trail, 4-H, Pony Club and more. Many choose to make CMO a weekend outing for the entire family to ride together and enjoy the social gatherings.

Mounted orienteering riders showing map and clue sheet.
The sheet of paper shown in the hands of many of the riders has the CMO map on one side and the clues noting landmarks and compass bearings on the other side. Photo by Allen Macmillan/MacMillan Photography

On occasion, when the terrain permits, even driving horses put to a cart or carriage have taken part in CMOs. A rider or driver may compete as an individual or as a member of a team composed of two to six riders.

“One of the coolest things about CMO is that no one breed, size or age excels,” says Caldwell, who has also competed in both dressage and eventing as well. “Unlike endurance, where Arabians are king, or cutting, where you have to have a Quarter Horse, or dressage, jumping and eventing, where horses routinely stand 16 or 17 hands high, in CMO, horses, ponies, mules and donkeys may all compete. A lot of our older riders have started getting gaited horses, such as Tennessee Walking Horses, Missouri Fox Trotters, Standardbreds, Kentucky Mountain Horses and Paso Finos. Arabians are still popular, as are Quarter Horses. We have a few Haflingers, Thoroughbreds and warmbloods, and all kinds of grade crosses in our region, too. There’s also at least one donkey and a few mules that have come to our rides in Indiana and Illinois.”

How To Participate

CMO competitors are very willing to share information about their sport. Visit the National Association for Competitive Mounted Orienteering site at Contact information for current NACMO board members and state directors can be found there, as well as information on their history, bylaws, rules, awards, schedules and links to state and regional affiliates’ websites and Facebook pages.

NACMO offers an instructional PowerPoint presentation on CMO, as well as support and advice from board members, state directors and ride managers, to anyone wishing to try the sport for the first time. Sanctioned CMOs offer a practice objective station and all start with a riders’ meeting before competition. State and national dues, and ride fees, are affordable.

What’s The Objective?

Billed by devotees as “the thinking rider’s sport,” the goal of a CMO is to locate a given number of objective stations hidden within a wilderness area in the quickest time. Riders are given a map and a written set of clues and may only use a compass to find the hidden objectives. Each individual or team’s start and finish times are recorded, with the elapsed time and the number of objectives found determining the winner.

The map and clues for mounted orienteering.
The map and set of clues help riders start off as they look for objective stations. Photo by Allen Macmillan/MacMillan Photography

The much-sought-after objective is a simple paper plate with a code written on it hidden along the trail and indicated on the CMO map. The clues are compass readings and cryptic references to landmarks that orient the competitors and guide them to the plates.

Five objectives are hidden in a short course, and 10 for a long course CMO. Once a rider or team locates one of the plates, they prove it by recording the code next to the clues on the back of the map.

Strategy is an important and entertaining part of CMO, since a number of competitors can be on the trail at one time looking for the same objective stations. The key is to quickly and efficiently find all of the coded plates without tipping off others to the locations. To that end, a certain amount of purposeful distraction and good-natured fibbing is part of the game.

Mounted orienteering - Riders examine a landmark.
A pair of riders examines a broken-off tree. This is a landmark referred to in the clues on the back of the CMO map for that day. Photo by Allen Macmillan/MacMillan Photography

CMO events are often planned over an entire weekend with a competition held each day and a pitch-in dinner and socializing around the campfire on at least one evening.

“This sport selects for people who are a lot of fun and want to come out and play with their horses,” says Caldwell. “We’ve become a close-knit group. For instance, any one of them would come and pick you up with their truck and trailer if you’ve broken down.”

It’s this camaraderie which glues people to the sport, and this discipline is sure to grow further as word spreads and new riders try their hand at a competition. To learn more, visit

This article about competitive mounted orienteering appeared in the May 2020 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!


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