Article originally appears in Equestrian Ontario Magazine, December 2017 (pick yours up at your local Ontario tack shop today… FREE!)
If you have been following our series, you are likely now on your horse, looking down the open trail from the start line, about to embark on your first 6 or 12 mile distance ride! Congrats! Now all you have to do is ride! Right?
Oh my friend, we still have a long way to go in this series! First, put down the magazine, you shouldn’t be reading and riding. Just kidding. Silliness aside, I am going to take you through some of the things you will need to know while on the trail. Of course, be sure to visit www.OCTRA.on.ca to make sure you read the full rulebook.
How the trail is marked
During the ride talk, the trailmaster will tell you how the trail has been marked. Usually this is with a certain colour of ribbon, and if you are lucky, your ride will consist of more than one trail. Pay attention that you follow the ribbons in the correct order (ie do the pink loop then the white loop, not the reverse!). Turns may be marked with arrows or sometimes different colour ribbons. Make sure you know what to look for. At most of the rides here in Ontario, ribbons will always be on your righthand side and turns marked with arrows. This will help you to follow the trail in the correct direction. You don’t get credit for riding the course backwards!
Where did the ribbons go?
Oh dear, are you lost? It happens to the best of us, particularly as you compete more often and become complacent… I get lost way more now than when I first started! In any case, if you all of a sudden find that you are off trail, or you just haven’t seen a ribbon in a while, turn around! Retrace your steps until you see a ribbon in your colour. Look around to see if you missed an arrow. If you don’t see a turn, ride forward, back on the path you were already on… very slowly! Pay close attention to look for additional ribbons and if you see trail crossings, quickly look down them to see if you can spot a ribbon. The trails in Ontario are marked wonderfully, but nature and nosy neighbors sometimes remove or displace markings. I once made a turn onto private property because the neighbor had spotted our horsey arrows and re-purposed them to direct us off trail and down the driveway to their garage sale. At that point, I wasn’t in a mood to purchase the used halter they were offering us haha!
Other riders on Trail
One of the unique things about our sport is that all distances will run concurrently. That person that just passed you on trail might be a Team Canada rider or have 40,000+ miles in competition. How cool is that?! This does however pose a small threat to new riders and horses. First, be aware of what other distances are on trail that day. Is it just the other 12 milers? Or is there a FEI world qualifier running alongside you? FYI, that second one is probably not the best place for your first ride. Knowing what other rides are happening will give you an idea if any riders may be racing. Whether they are going for gold or not, common courtesy is for them to call out ahead that they are coming and ask if its ok to pass and at what gait. Let them know it’s your first ride and what you are comfortable with (this is where your green ribbon comes in handy too).
If your horse wants to run off after the other horse you can use it as an opportunity to school your dressage. Ask for lateral work, turn the horse around and ask him to back up on the trail, anything to engage his brain again. If you are nervous, you can get off and handwalk down the trail in most disciplines. This is why I always recommend distance riders to cross train with Dressage lessons! It’s nice to have buttons on trail.
Figuring out your distance
You are going to get tired, and your poor brain is going to start asking you questions like “are we there yet?” Being able to estimate your distance will also be a valuable tool as you start trying to improve your performance by balancing your speed with your horses recoveries (which is the founding principle of all competitive distance rides).
The easiest way is to carry a GPS sportswatch, but you don’t need this and those things are expensive! You can use running apps on your phone as well, but given it’s your first ride, you may have your hands full with an excited steed! The best way is a simple watch and homework. If you have mapped and tracked your training rides, you should have a good idea of the speed your horse walks and trots at and what your usual pace is. If you usually travel 4mph at home and you intend to do this at your first 12 mile ride, you can expect it will take you 3 hours plus any time holds in the middle. Some of the better marked trails will even give you a countdown… 5 miles to home… 4 miles to home… and so forth.
Hopefully this quick guide will keep you on track for your first ride. Things will never go completely according to plan, but if you prepare with education and training you are off to a great start!