Trail Challenge FAQ

Learn more – and get involved – with AQHA’s newest event: the AQHA Trail Challenge Program.

Journal Plus

Most of us enjoy exploring scenic trails on a steady horse, right? But you may also enjoy a bit of competition, too. Well, as of 2012, AQHA has just the thing to combine those two interests.

The AQHA Trail Challenge Program asks horses and riders to work as a team, navigating natural obstacles they might experience on the trail. The focus is on horsemanship, and the goal is to promote education, safety and fun. As a bonus, “trail challenge merits” will be recorded on horses’ permanent AQHA records.

What can I expect?
A Trail Challenge can include between six and 16 obstacles, depending on the terrain at the event. Just a few possible obstacles are: working a gate from horseback; stepping over a series of logs while the rider ducks under branches; riding through shredded shower curtains strung between trees; and moving a slicker or mailbag from tree to tree.

While you practice for the Trail Challenge Program, log your hours in the saddle and earn rewards through AQHA's Horseback Riding Program.

What are the requirements to participate?
Competitors must be a member of AQHA or AQHYA. There will be an all-breeds division for both youth and adults (with no trail challenge merits awarded). There are also youth and adult classes for riders in the American Quarter Horse division. Adults compete in one of three levels. The lowest level is for new partnerships where horse and rider are still establishing trust. Level 2 is an intermediate established partnership, and Level 3 is considered “master level,” where the horse and rider have trust, ability to tackle difficult obstacles and the conditioning to travel a longer course.

Will this be judged by AQHA judges?
Not necessarily. Trail Challenge judges do not have to be AQHA-approved judges; the rules state only that they must be knowledgeable horsemen or women. The judges should answer any questions happily and will even demonstrate each obstacle, emphasizing the educational aspect of the event.

How will I be judged?
Much like reining, each horse starts the course with a score of 70, with additions or subtractions on each obstacle for excellent or poor performance. An obstacle score of zero would indicate that an obstacle was negotiated correctly, with nothing either extraordinarily good or bad about the performance. The judges will be watching, of course, how successfully the obstacles are negotiated. But it’s also important how the horse behaves, how he responds to his rider’s cues and how relaxed he remains.

Other judging guidelines include:

    • Leading – Does the horse follow willingly, or does he lag behind or crowd his handler?


    • Mounting – Does the horse stand quietly, and does the rider check the cinch before mounting?


    • Water Crossing – Does the horse walk through quietly in a continued forward movement? There will be no penalties for stopping for a drink or looking at the water before crossing.


    • Log Drag – Does the horse stand quietly during preparation and then pull or drag in control, with neither horse nor rider getting tangled in the rope? The rider may hold rope or dally once. There is to be no tying hard and fast.

Enroll in AQHA's Horseback Riding Program and earn rewards for time spent in the saddle.

Do I need special gear?
Horses and riders may go in western or English tack and attire, and the rules found in the AQHA Official Handbook will dictate which bits are legal.

OK, I want to learn more!
See the latest information and schedule or call AQHA Customer Service at (806) 376-4888. Email Stephanie McCommon at stephaniem@aqha.org if you’d like to be a judge or if you’d like to consider hosting a Trail Challenge.

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