How to groom your horse for a competitive trail ride!



Sure, these next tips apply to competitive trail rides, but also to anyone who wants to be super prepared for an outing with your horse.


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  • So the first place I started was on the American Competitive Trail Horse Association (ACTHA) website Rule Book. Logical, right? There are lots of other organizations as well, so be sure to read the rules before you hit the trail. The ACTHA rule book is chock full of rules and guidelines that help you understand how to compete and a few blurbs on tack and what not. But no guidelines about braids, colors, and other turnout rules. And I noticed something – there are a few rules and guidelines that definitely require you to make some decisions about how to turn out your horse. I’ll go through them one by one for you.



  • If a halter is worn, it must be worn under some type of headgear. A horse wearing a halter and a bridle/bosal/bitless bridle/hackamore has a boatload of leather/nylon/buckles/snaps on their head. A typical halter is looser than a bridle, so putting it on beneath a bridle can be awkward at best. Consider using an adjustable halter to make the fit more accurate. Adjust your bridle to allow more room for the halter underneath. Practice at home.


  • Also, think about using a cream or lotion where the halter and bridle combo add pressure to your horse’s head. This helps lubricate the area and prevent hair and skin loss.


  • Protective sport boots are permitted. This is great – you can protect your horse’s legs from knocks and scrapes! But…. take some time to pick the right pair for your ride. Neoprene boots can heat your horse’s lower legs, but they can easily go through water obstacles. Plan on hosing and icing your horse’s legs afterward to reduce the heat. Polo wraps are cooler but don’t fare so well after a water crossing. Think about the type of shell for sport boots – does it act like a sticker burr magnet? There are dozens and dozens of styles (and weights) out there, pick what works for your ride. Loads of info on sport boots and polo wraps here.


  • The use of a protective hoof boot is permitted. These protective boots are super for the barefoot horse if the terrain is unknown and/or rocky/hard/questionable. When picking the protective boot, think about the material involved, how exact the fit is, and what parts of the boot can cause rubs/can survive water/need an exact fit. Remember that a loose fit creates more opportunities for rubs. Get creative and use some sort of protection for any parts of the boot that can cause rubs and hair/skin loss.





  • Riders should use tack and ride in a style that is traditional and accepted by their discipline. You could go in dressage tack, jump tack, or western tack. What about sidesaddle? No exclusion there! There are definite rules against martingales and tie-downs, so observe your discipline’s tradition and the tack limits placed by the organizers of your event.






So I’ll add a few notes about overall turnout and appearance for a competitive trail ride.


  • I have yet to read a rule from the USEF or FEI or anywhere else that speaks to how to trim fetlocks, braid a mane, or bang a tail. I have yet to read a rule that speaks to how shiny a horse could be, how long or short a mane should be, or what the best color of leather saddle you should use is. I do know this for a fact – when you are presenting a horse to your trainer, a clinician, a judge, a potential buyer, you name it – appearance and bloom and health matters. Think about buying a used car – would you want to purchase a dirty car with fast food wrappers and dust everywhere?


  • You don’t have to braid the mane, but a conditioned and combed mane with a small bridle path (if you like) says that you spent time on your horse. A shiny horse speaks to hours of curry comb sessions and a well-balanced diet. A tidy tail suggests time spent well spent cultivating the most beautiful fly-swatting tail in town. Clean and healthy tack speaks to your stable management skills and standards. When you invest in proper and long-term grooming and care, your relationship with your horse grows and as a bonus, the judge notices.


  • Using traditional and understated tack allows the judge to see you and your horse at your best without the need for sunglasses. Don’t get me wrong – I love the bling, purple saddle pads, and wacky printed polo wraps at home. For shows, competitions, and exhibitions, plain and simple is the way to go. White saddle pads and leg protection is great, or black for gray or white horses are good too. Make sure your equipment is clean and safe. Make sure your tack fits properly – this is a safety issue as well as a comfort issue for your horse. You may not be going to the Olympics, but you can still look like it!




Also, think about the terrain you and your horse will face on the trail. Adjust your grooming accordingly. A few thoughts:


  • Consider the grasses that you may encounter – anything above hoof height is Tickville central. Use a spray with permethrin and cypermethrin to repel ticks.


  • If your horse is heavily feathered, consider trimming the legs. This allows you to more easily check for tendon heat and swelling. Trimmed legs also dry faster, are easier to treat if you find scratches, cuts, and ticks, and less likely to pick up burrs and bugs. Trimmed legs are also easier to clean and keep clean. You don’t need to clip to the skin, just be aware that feathers can interfere. More on fetlock feathers here!


  • For super long manes, you may want to try a long-running braid or several loose braids that dangle long. This can help with cooling, and your reins can stay untangled.


  • In very hot climates, have a plan for cooling your horse effectively during and after your ride. Hence the need for a thermometer (the Veterinary stations will have one, but what if you notice something in-between stations?) Check with your organization about carrying some rubbing alcohol in a spray bottle, this evaporates faster than water and sweat and can help cool your horse.


  • Only use super clean tack and saddle pads. Rubs are bad enough but rubs with dirt and crusty hair are much worse.


  • Have a plan for taking care of your horse’s legs when you get back to base camp. His legs have just carted you and your stuff over a lot of uneven and sometimes rock-hard terrain! You have loads of options ranging from ice, poultice, and liniments. More on that subject here!


  • Have a lot of fun and send photos!


How do you turn out your horse for the competitive trail?


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