Psychologists’ goals are to empower clients to better understand themselves, to better adapt to change, and to be able to calmly navigate the obstacles that lie in their path as they confront them.
A competitive trail riders, then, is a bit of a ‘psychologists in the saddle,’ empowering their horse to calmly cope with and navigate challenges that lie ahead. While psychologists may have a slightly more comfortable seat, trail riders enjoy fresh air, robust camaraderie, and, in most cases, a considerably better view.
Such will be the experience enjoyed by dozens of expected horses and riders at the Lochill Farm Competitive Trail Challenge on Sunday, Sept. 28 in Hillsborough.
It will be the fourth staging of the Competitive Trail Challenge since 2012 on the rolling pastures and forest trails at the Lochill Boarding Stables facility on St. Mary’s Road. Registration is still open, and there is a generous list of prizes in all divisions.
“I started competing in these in 2010, but I started coordinating this one in April of 2012, and the first year we did two,” said event director Heidi Thiel, a talented trail rider in her own right riding her horse Mac. “I try to stage these according to what I would enjoy coming to, and we’ve gotten really good reviews on these ‘one-day parties’ that we’ve put on.”
Thiel said they were hoping for a turnout of at least 60 horses and riders this year.
“The first one, about 43 showed up,” she said. “The next one, 45 showed up, and the next one there were 49. We’re hoping to get 60 riders coming to the farm this month. Age seven is the youngest, but as long as you can get on a horse, age doesn’t matter.”
Riding enthusiast Kate Albrecht said CTC events offer challenges and rewards that riding indoors could not.
“If people weren’t interested in doing horse competitions in an arena, there wasn’t a lot you could traditionally do where you could compete,” she said.
“A CTC tests the experience of the horse’s rider as a series of judged challenges,” Albrecht explained. “There are random things on the trails that may simply be about getting the horse to do simple movements or…things they’re ordinarily not comfortable with.”
Albrecht added that the parent organization for such events was the American Competitive Trail Horse Association, which sets the standard for rides all over the U.S. Other events in North Carolina have included CTC’s at Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, one and one coming up this October in Swansboro.
“ACTHA supports all levels of riders as well as is very active in trail access advocacy,” Albrecht said.
According to its website, ACTHA seeks to create enjoyable venues for American trail horses and…to create and enable humane treatment and employment options for horses in keeping with ACTHA’s higher cause: easing the suffering of horses in need. Founders sought to support events where riders could enjoy their horses and the wonderful scenery around them, to navigate challenges and show their horse’s talents, and, most of all, to enjoy camaraderie and fun.
At Lochill, horses and riders will be confronted with a series of eight obstacles chosen from sixteen deemed appropriate for CTC events.
“They won’t know what’s on the course,” Thiel said, “but they can go to the ACTHA site and see what I can pick from.”
Obstacles include anything unfamiliar which might test a horse’s sense of confidence.
“One’s called the ‘cowboy curtain,’” Albrecht said. “This hangs up and over a trail, and it may be ropes and streamers or even swimming pool foam noodles. The challenge would be for the rider to walk their horse right through that.”
“Another’s called ‘taking out the trash,’” she added, noting that a rider must stop at a post, and then procure an object or trash bag, which is dragged behind the horse for a distance.
“Horses don’t like things behind them, so you’re judged on the fluidity with which you accomplish the task [and] the horse’s comfort with the task; it’s about horse-and-rider communication.”
“It may be as simple as mounting or dismounting from the off-side,” said trail rider Clare Reece, who competes on her quarter-horse Paladin.
“A creek crossing can be an obstacle, and so can going up a hill,” said Lori Sogol, who rides her tall, 16-hand horse Charlie Brown. “It may be about a gait: going to point A and walking, at point B you start trotting, and at point C you make a clean stop.”
The Lochill course will run approximately seven miles in length, though Thiel insisted that the competition is not a race.
“Usually the gaited horses finish the course in about an hour,” she said. “The folks on non-gaited horses usually just take a leisurely ride, chat with friends, and see what they can do with their horses.”
Typically, even the best riders must confront challenges over and above mere obstacles, however.
“You never know what your horse is going to feel like doing on any given day,” Thiel said. “There are things that we’ve done many times at home, and then you get to an event, and your horse is like, ‘What? That’s a different color than I’m used to.’ You just never know.”
“It depends on the day,” Sogol said. “Most of the obstacles the horses have been exposed to. They may look at it and sniff at it, and eventually you can kind of get them through. You’re judged on how you get them through—you get a score and your horse gets a score.”
“I practice obstacles sometimes,” Reece admitted, “but just because it builds a safer trail horse. My horse is curious, and he likes to do different things.
“It’s totally fun, but it’s helpful. I do get a little competitive, mostly with myself. But people on the rides are very nice, everyone’s helpful, and safety’s really emphasized.”
Reece added that the social aspects are among the more attractive features in CTC’s, drawing more and more families in the casual competitions.
“We’re starting to see that,” she said, “and the junior levels are still a little lower than we’d like, but I loaned my horse Paladin to a junior. Pal’s a pretty solid citizen – he’s one of those horses we like to call babysitters – and he really likes kids.”
“We’re about serious fun and casual competition,” Thiel said. “Some of the riders are so much about scoring points, getting state or national recognition, and that’s unfortunate. We’d like to see more families out.”
“These challenges are for anyone who has a horse and can ride it,” Albrecht said. “This is open to anyone. It’s simply about a well-trained horse and a confident rider.”
In addition to the benefits to competing riders and horses, the event also raises money for the N.C. Therapeutic Riding Center in Mebane, which works with riders with disabilities in the Triangle, Thiel said.
“It’s part of an international organization for therapeutic riding,” she said.In the end, Albrecht said CTC events were about intelligence, repetition and trust.
“A rider has to really take the time to get horses used to stimuli, sounds, objects, motions, and things they’re not used to,” Albrecht said. “Most horses, when they’re trained properly, they can take on the world.”