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Sage Hill Competitive Trail Ride
Cachuma Lake Recreation Area, California

When I came back home to California after living in New York City for 14 years, I immediately got back into horses—and I knew I wanted to compete. As a kid, I’d never been able to afford a fancy show horse. My little grade mare was a wonderful horse, but she didn’t stand a chance in western classes or halter shows. So now that I was all grown up and riding again, I was eager to do something competitive with a horse.

The problem was the same, however. Even though I was all grown up and well established in my career, I still couldn’t afford an expensive show horse or fancy tack. Or even a trainer to show me how to win at a horse show.

I was in this sad state of realization when I discovered competitive trail riding.

Elfin Forest Competitive Trail Ride Escondido, California

Elfin Forest Competitive Trail Ride
Escondido, California

I’d heard about NATRC–the North American Trail Riding Conference–but I’d never been to an event. Since I love trail riding, it sounded like fun. So when a friend offered to enter a NATRC event with me, and even told me I could borrow her retired endurance horse, I jumped at the chance.

The ride was beautiful. It encompassed 25 miles of spectacular trails in the hills above Santa Barbara. We rode through meadows and oak forests, through creeks and past a lake. I learned a lot about caring for my horse on a long trail ride, and how to safely camp with a horse. Just the experience alone was worth the trip, so imagine my joy when both my horse and I won second place in our division! I was hooked.

Fifteen years later, I am still enjoying NATRC competitive trail rides. Unlike endurance riding, NATRC rides are not a race. Instead, horse and rider travel at a moderate pace. They are judged individually, the rider on horsemanship, the horse on conditioning and manners. At the end of a wonderful day of riding, dinner is served and ribbons are handed out.

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Riding with Spanish Mustang Milagro

These days, I participate in NATRC rides with my 14-year-old Spanish Mustang, Milagro. My fellow riders compete on everything from Arabians to unregistered grade horses. No expensive show clothes or tack is necessary. As long as the saddle and bridle fit and the horse and rider are safe and comfortable, that’s all that matters.

While many riders camp out in RV’s or living-quarter trailers the night before the ride, I sleep in a tent. I enjoy being close to nature and being able to hear my horse quietly munching his hay nearby.

Over the years, I have learned so much about horse care as a result of NATRC. Saddle fitting,conditioning, pacing a long-ride–all this and more have become part of my knowledge base.

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NATRC horse & rider partnership

Milagro has benefited from NATRC too. He was green when I first started taking him to rides, but the many miles we’ve spent on the trail have made him into a relaxed, seasoned trail horse.

NATRC emphasizes developing a partnership with your horse, which is easy to do when you spend so many hours together on the trail. The sport also encourages friendly equestrian competition–and an atmosphere you will never experience at a horse show. Riders truly care about each other and the horses, and the people involved are warm and welcoming.

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Lunch break at Sage Hill Competitive Trail Ride in Cachuma Lake Recreation Area, California

If you like trail riding and want to learn as much as you can about your horse, all while earning ribbons and making friends, NATRC might be for you.
For more information, visit the NATRC website at

This is a guest post by equestrian Audrey Pavia, an avid supporter of NATRC. For additional information on competitive trail riding follow @AudreyPav @NATRC2 on Twitter and @Nancydbrown @ridinghorseback