Uphill, downhill, through brush, over rocks and deep sand, across streams–this equine athlete carries his rider to a destination. The trail horse travels along a sometimes none-too-defined path, replicating the centuries-old use of the horse as basic transportation.

Today’s trail horses provide pleasure and sport rather than a means of transport. Getting from here to there rarely involves a specific errand, but the trail horse still provides you with a reliable ride.

When you ride on the trail, your purpose is to complete a journey. You usually start and end at a certain point, forming a loop. Most riders hit the trail for fun. From the back of a good horse, you’ll relish the simple pleasures of the countryside. Just about any horse, pony, or mule can handle the minimal demands of carrying you across flat terrain.

The challenge escalates as your journey becomes longer and the landscape steeper. If you expect to ride for several hours or days, over various elevations and footings, you’ll look harder at your horse’s athletic abilities and condition.

To seek more adventure, you’ll add the spice of competition. You can test yourself against other horses and riders in three popular pursuits: competitive trail riding, ride and tie, and endurance riding.

Rules of the North American Trail Riding Conference govern competitive trail riding. Here, a horsemanship judge and a veterinarian score the entrants on manners, soundness, and condition. The horse must be fit enough to complete the ride within time constraints, and trained to perform over obstacles. Riders go for distance, not speed, and classes are judged over the same trail in the same length of time.

In ride and tie, two riders share a single horse in a fast-paced endurance race for equine and human athletes. All entrants sprint from a starting point, with the horse and rider quickly outdistancing the partner on foot. The ri