Riding Tips

Horse Trail Riding on Steroids: Extreme Mountain Trail 101

extreme mountain trail horse
Written by Nicky H

Trail Riding on Steroids: Extreme Mountain Trail

I’m an adventurer at heart and love exploring new places, especially if I’ve got a horse underneath me and a dog by my side. This sense of adventure and curiosity has led me into some challenging situations. Riding with trail operators in South Africa, I’ve swum horses across rivers, had them hopping down a boulder-festooned hillside, and held my breath as they’ve navigated narrow cattle tracks along the edge of a cliff.

These experiences spurred my interest in trail riding, especially the emerging sport of Extreme Mountain Trail!

In the US, most extreme trail riding takes place in a specially designed arena where horse and rider must negotiate a series of obstacles. These often include bridges with water flowing underneath, steep hills, suspension bridges, paths littered with rocks and logs, and giant teeter-totters.

This type of trail challenge better mimics what you might see on real-life rough terrain. 

Horse Rookie Aside: Our founder’s Azteca got to do an Extreme Mountain Trail Course in Oregon (before she purchased him). Check out Jax navigating the suspended bridge above!

Extreme Trail Riding: What is it?

Extreme trail riding is a relatively new discipline, beginning in the early 2000s. Inspired by the classic trail class, extreme mountain trail features more realistic (and challenging) obstacles. Today, challenges are held across the US, Canada, Australia, and Europe.

Competitive events are referred to as “Challenges” and are designed to showcase the boldness, confidence, and athleticism of horses, ponies, and mules. The International Mountain Trail Challenge Association (IMTCA) offers memberships and educational resources.

Typical Mountain Trail Challenge events feature between 6 and 16 obstacles.

Some typical obstacles you might encounter include teeter totters, balance beams, raised logs, bridges, balance beams, mazes, and cross bucks.

The Benefits of Extreme Trail Riding

Whether you want to be out in the open countryside or in an arena, extreme trail riding is a great way to improve your horse’s balance and muscle condition.

Not only will extreme trail riding build your confidence, but it will also encourage your horse to approach new obstacles with curiosity, rather than apprehension.

Tackling these challenges together will also deepen the bond between you and your horse, encouraging mutual trust and building on the partnership you’ve already established.

Introducing Your Horse to Extreme Trail Riding

One of the attractions of extreme trail riding is that you can compete on any horse and at any level.

According to Mark Bolender, founder of the International Mountain Trail Challenge Association (IMTCA), extreme trail riding “really is a sport that anyone can do with any breed of equine, whether it’s a mini, mule, draft, or anything in between.”

From the Ground Up

A horse and rider that are new to the sport will invariably start out on the ground, with the rider leading the horse around the obstacle course and giving them plenty of time to familiarize themselves with each obstacle.

By observing your horse’s reaction to new obstacles, you can gauge how quickly or slowly to move through the course, spending more time on the obstacles that your horse struggles with.

For instance, some horses may be reluctant to walk through water, while others might rush into it, putting themselves and their riders in potential danger.

In these early stages, take your time, and reward your horse after every obstacle. Remember, in this phase of training, you are establishing yourself as the leader and it’s your job to guide your horse confidently through each new obstacle.

Saddling Up

Once your horse is confident and comfortable tackling the course with you on the ground, it’s time to saddle up.

Some horses will breeze through the next phase of training, negotiating each obstacle as easily as they did without a rider. Others will behave as if they’ve never seen any of these challenges before in their lives!

Whatever your horse’s reaction is, stay calm and keep quietly asking him to face and explore the obstacle, even if actually navigating their way through it seems impossible. As your horse becomes more familiar with the sensation of walking through flowing water or balancing on a teeter totter, he’ll move more willingly and freely through the course.

As you and your horse gain experience and confidence, you can start to build speed, performing the same courses at a trot or canter before moving onto more challenging courses.

How is Extreme Trail Riding Judged?

Judges assess each horse and rider combination according to how well they navigate the course, with the highest scores being given to those that move safely through each challenge, without stumbling or knocking any part of the obstacle.

Horses must respond willingly to the rider’s cues and display zero resistance. 

The safety of the horse and rider are paramount and if a judge feels that a horse and rider can’t navigate an obstacle safely, they may ask you skip it altogether.

Competitors will lose more marks for failing to attempt an obstacle than they will for failing to complete it, so the emphasis is on effort, as well as the horse’s manners and responsiveness.

Although judges recognize that different breeds and individual horses may move through the course at different speeds and utilizing different gaits, teams moving through the obstacles “with style and the rate of progress” will be credited for their performance “providing correctness is not sacrificed.”

Points are awarded for your entry into an obstacle, your ability to navigate that obstacle, and your exit. You also receive additional points for horsemanship, which includes correct use of hands and other aids, appropriate behavior on the course, and proper attire.

Extreme Trail Divisions and Levels

There are five different divisions in extreme trail riding:

  • Lead line
  • Novice
  • Youth
  • Adult
  • Open

Within each of these divisions, there are three levels:

Level One

This level is for partnerships that are new to the sport and maybe unsure about each member’s ability to navigate the obstacles. Level one obstacles are easier and can be completed with a basic maneuver or technique. Level one competitors complete the course at a walk.

Level Two

This level is for established partnerships that are confident in each other’s ability to negotiate obstacles and have the conditioning to ride longer courses. A forward, ground covering stride is encouraged, and teams may compete at a jog, trot, or running walk.

Level Three

Partnerships competing at this level have established trust and are confident in each other’s ability to navigate complex obstacles. Both horse and rider are fit enough to complete long obstacle courses and perform complex maneuvers at speed. They may canter or lope up to, and between, obstacles and complete 360° maneuvers on certain obstacles.

Extreme Trail Riding Events

Extreme trail riding is becoming increasingly popular, and events are cropping up all over the world.

Before you enter an extreme trail riding event, you should consider familiarizing yourself with the course. The best way to do that is to book a lesson for you and your horse at your nearest horse park or course.

You can find details of those on the Bolender Horse Park website.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How does trail riding work?

Typically, trail riding means just that–riding a horse on trails. This can be done alone or in a group. Trails can be paved, gravel, or dirt, traversing fields, woods, and mountainsides. Trail riding in an arena typically refers to a specific class at a horse show designed to mimic obstacles you might encounter on a trail ride.

Typical obstacles include gates, bridges, poles, and sometimes tarps or water obstacles. These classes, however, have strayed pretty far from a typical trail ride.

Q: Is trail riding good for a horse?

Trail riding typically requires more stamina than riding in an arena, making it a great way to build your horse’s endurance. It can also provide a nice break from arena work, which can be mentally rewarding as well.

Q: Is a horse or a mule better for trail riding?

Mules are extremely surefooted. Their feet tend to be tougher, and they are less prone to soundness issues. Mules are cautious and highly intelligent, making them a great choice for trail riding.

Parting Thoughts

Extreme trail riding can add a new dimension to your partnership with your horse, building confidence and muscle in places you never even knew existed.

Whether you usually compete at barrel racing or dressage, extreme trail riding is a great way to hone your horse’s skills, deepen the level of mutual trust in your relationship, and teach your horse to approach novel objects and obstacles calmly and confidently.

P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:


2017 International Mountain Trail Challenge Association Official Handbook of Rules and Regulations

Bolender Horse Park 

Off the Beaten Path – Extreme Mountain Trail Riding

Taking Trail to the Extreme – Horse and Rider

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About the author


Nicky H