Low pressure American Competitive Trail Horse Association events, gaining a foothold in Pennsylvania, offer divisions for all levels of training and allow horses to accumulate lifetime points. Credit Rein Photography
From the ground, the obstacles do not seem all that difficult. Perfectly spaced logs surround a massive tree trunk, inviting riders to try their hand at precision while challenging their horses’ obedience as they make their way around the circle. Once mounted, however, those alluring logs quickly become perplexing as wayward horses pop their shoulders away from the tree and wiggle away from the aids. Going over the logs smoothly, obediently, and accurately is one of many tasks an American Competitive Trail Horse Association, known as ACTHA, member could be asked to complete during an event.
While well-known and well developed in the southern and western parts of the nation, ACTHA has historically had a small, virtually non-existent presence in the northeast region. Luckily, as trail riding events have become more popular and more riders find trail to be a viable discipline, ACTHA membership has grown in Virginia, New Jersey, and more notably, in Pennsylvania. “It used to be that it was hard to find one or two events of anything remotely trail related,” said Danee Rudy, an ACTHA ride host in Jonestown, PA who has built her own permanent trail course on her property. “Now that more and more people are realizing that this is right up their alley, that they can ride in a semi-competitive environment but still have fun, both trail and ACTHA events are exploding.”
“No matter how big ACTHA gets, it will never be Congress or Devon,” said Rudy. “When you walk into the pen at Congress, your every move is under a microscope. ACTHA is very open—any breed, age, and experience level is welcome— even if you think your horse is going to snort at every obstacle. There’s no pressure.”
ACTHA offers several different divisions, allowing riders to choose an open class for more challenging obstacles or a pleasure division for a more relaxed ride. Riders can decide on a walk-only ride, or try their hand at a walk, trot, and canter challenge class. Judges evaluate both horse and rider with separate points and a time allotment of sixty seconds per obstacle. “ACTHA is like games on horseback,” said Caroline Owens of Sunbury, PA, who with her daughter Melissa, just moved into the open division this season. Hosts can choose to hold either an Arena Obstacle Challenge, called an AOC, or a Competitive Trail Challenge, called a CTC, and can pick which obstacles to use from an extensive list of options. Just like it sounds, the Arena Obstacle Challenge is held within an arena or enclosed field, while the CTC is a traditional six-mile trail with an obstacle and judge available after each passing mile.
“The obstacles are a closely held secret until the day of the event,” confides Owens. “Only the ride host and the judges know what they will be, and the riders find out when they check in and get a trail map.” Obstacles may include picking up a hat with a stick while mounted, throwing a rock into a pond, jumping a series of logs, or cantering through a serpentine of cones, among many more. “I remember an event where my Haflinger and I walked through a fake recycling pit…that made a nice crunchy sound. The whole point of ACTHA is to see if your horse is trail-savvy in a fun environment,” said Owens.
While the obstacles are timed, the ride itself is not. The pace is set entirely at the rider’s discretion, which may help those who have a green mount and would like to work through challenges as they arise. A rider can opt to not choose an obstacle, and will not be disqualified if they exit the obstacle’s cones before time expires.
“It’s unique because ACTHA is different than other competitive trail riding or endurance. This is not about the time or the distance, but the horse. We can go out, not worry, and have fun without straining the horse,” said Owens. Another Pennsylvania-based rider, Stephanie Dobiss, located in PA Furnace, chimed in. “Even for a 25 mile ride, there is a lot of training to make your horse physically fit. This is much more laid back, because anyone could pull their horse out of a field and try it. There’s something for everyone.” In keeping with the upbeat spirit, each event donates at least twenty percent of the proceeds to the charity of their choice as well. “I’d love to mentor new ride hosts throughout the process. We are all very welcoming of new members,” said Dobiss.
Besides the social aspect of riding off into the woods with friends, ACTHA also encourages giving all horses a sense of purpose. Horses and riders can earn lifetime achievement points with each event, so even if a horse has never been to a normal horse show, a potential owner knows that a prospect has had some mileage. “It gives the average horse a job, a worthiness, and is a way to say, ‘I have a darn good trail horse’, because you know, trail horses are worth something. They are dependable,” said Rudy.
Each obstacle is designed to test a horse’s bravery, submissiveness, and athleticism while mimicking actual trail conditions. As such, there are few rules. Martingales and tie-downs are not allowed, but a hackamore or a bitless bridle is fine. “You see all types of tack out there. Sometimes there are the cross-dressers; a western saddle with an English bridle, or a rider with breeches, tall boots, a button down, and a cowboy hat,” said Rudy. “It’s trail, so the tack doesn’t matter. If you’re riding through the woods, it’s absolutely okay to use two hands with a shank bit. What matters is that it is safe equipment so you can go out and work your horse.”
Newly added to complement the mounted portion, ACTHA has introduced an in-hand division for the Arena Obstacle Challenge to be performed on lead. Participants are judged on the communication, performance, and partnership between each pair. As with each division, there are no cross-entry limitations.
“I am always amazed by how much horses get out of doing obstacle work,” commented Rudy. “I have a couple of yearlings now that I can’t ride yet, but I can get them broke to death before even putting a saddle on them. They come out and think and learn where to put their feet. If I ask them to step down off of a bank, I know they won’t fall on their faces. They will learn the right ‘eye-hoof coordination’. I’ve never felt like a session has equaled time wasted.”
As ACTHA awareness builds, riders are seeing more opportunities to become involved as more events spring up across the state. Mostly volunteer-run, it is common to see a host’s family members or friends helping park trailers or running the food stand. “All new events have a learning curve, but ACTHA headquarters is really good about helping iron out the wrinkles,” said Rudy. “I’m excited that this is the first year where someone could join and go to multiple events in a season.”
For more information or to get involved with a local ride host, visit www.ACTHA.us.
Sound Like Fun? ACTHA Has Local Events Coming Up
Centre Stables in PA Furnace will host a CTC on July 25 and an AOC on July 26. For more information phone (814) 931-0360 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Creekside Stables in Mohnton, PA will host an AOC on July 26. Phone (610) 721-6182 or email email@example.com. Owens Farm in Sunbury will host a CTC on August 1. Phone (570) 898-6060 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.