Hit the Trail

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Looking for a fun way to boost your stable’s bottom line or raise money for a worthy cause? A group trail ride or a hunter pace may fill the bill. These events are growing in popularity, and they’re simpler to stage than horse shows.

To learn the secrets of a successful ride, we talked to three experienced organizers. Vanessa DeRoux is general manager at Bucks County Horse Park in Revere, Pa., which runs paces and other team rides spring through fall. Jan Gorman organizes the Northwest Quarter Horse Association’s annual Happy Trails Benefit Ride in Clyde, Wash. And Susan Lynn hosts a successful hunter pace each November at her Locust Hill Farm in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Here are their recommendations.

Choose an Event

What’s your pleasure? Group rides can be highly organized—everyone in line behind the leader—or highly casual. On the Happy Trails ride, riders mosey along at their own speed. An optional poker ride adds an element of competition, says Jan Gorman: Riders who “ante up” with a $10 fee draw cards at checkpoints along the way, and the rider with the highest hand wins a prize.

A hunter pace sends teams (usually two or three riders) over a marked cross-country course; the winner is the team that finishes closest to an ideal time. Paces were originally designed to mimic foxhunting, but many make jumps optional and call for less speed.

Paper chases and scavenger hunts are favorites with kids at Bucks County Horse Park, says Vanessa DeRoux. Teams ride from checkpoint to checkpoint, picking up tokens and clues that guide them to the next stop. The winner is the team that collects all the tokens and completes the ride closest to an ideal time.

Whatever your event, plan to offer extras. Many rides include lunch or dinner in the entry fee. “If you have a good caterer, people come back,” says Gorman. Her group ride offers a whole weekend of goodies—four meals, a horsemanship demonstration, an auction and a live band.

Decide Where and When

“Finding a place is the hardest part of the job,” says Gorman. “We need water, electricity, places to park trailers and set up a makeshift kitchen—plus trails that are easy enough for inexperienced riders.” The Happy Trails ride has found a home at the 20,000-acre Hair Ranch.

Locust Hill Farm runs its pace partly on neighboring land. To convince property owners to let riders cross, Susan Lynn says, provide copies of your liability insurance (see below). Many states have so-called Good Samaritan Laws that shield property owners from liability for horse-related accidents; if your state is one, provide information about the law as well.

To use trails on public land, check with the authorities in charge. Even where horses are allowed on public trails, there may be limits on the number that can be in a given area at one time. Additionally, most trailheads can’t accommodate herds of horse trailers, so you’ll need to choose a staging area. Park officials can tell you about restrictions and advise which trails will best suit your event.

Spring and fall are ideal times. In many places summer heat makes long rides stressful, and winter is—well, winter. Try for a weekend when there are no similar events in your area. If you can’t find an open date, make your event attractive with a fabulous meal or special awards, suggests Lynn. Her pace, which runs the same day as that of a nearby hunt, offers a $1,000 purse, divided among the top three finishers.

Budget

Group rides may be cheaper to run than shows, but your budget will need to cover some big items.

Insurance: If your regular liability policy won’t cover the event, you’ll need a special-events policy. This coverage should protect everyone involved in the ride, from landowners to parking attendants, against liability claims.

Supplies and services: You’ll need portable toilets, walkie-talkies, tents, signs, pinnies, awards or ribbons, and other supplies, depending on your event and the extras (like food) you’ll offer. Figure out what you’ll need to rent, borrow, or buy, and reserve rentals and services as far in advance as possible.

Advertising, printing and mailing: Build the cost of advertising into your budget to get the word out.

“Figure all your costs, and divide the total by the number of riders you expect,” says Gorman. Your cost per rider is key to setting an entry fee that will keep you in the black.

The Happy Trails ride is a charity event, so local businesses kick in with donations of supplies and services. That helps keep the fee for the full weekend at $75. The Locust Hill pace, which is not run for charity, has an entry fee of $70; at Bucks County, it’s $30 for Horse Park members and $35 for nonmembers.

Plan

Before you advertise for entries, plan the basics.

Length: Base the length of the ride on the trails and the abilities of horses and riders. Bucks County events range from about 5 miles in spring (when horses aren’t fit) to 12 miles in fall; most are about 8 miles. Group trail rides run anywhere from 90 minutes to 4 hours. One option is to send out two groups, for a long ride and a short ride.

Difficulty: To draw the most riders, Lynn keeps jumps optional and mostly low, with a few 3-footers thrown in for brave souls. Many paces run separate divisions: hunt (fast) and pleasure (slow, with little or no jumping). Trail rides likewise can be divided into fast and slow groups.

Rules: Sensible rules require boots and protective headgear and bar smoking and drinking on the trail. Many events specify a minimum age or require juniors to ride with adults. Most require horses to have a current negative Coggins test; your state may have additional requirements for horses that ship in from other states. Contact your state veterinarian’s office to find out.

Entries: Decide whether you’ll take entries in advance or on the day. For team rides, you’ll need to allow 4 or 5 minutes between starts to keep the route from getting too crowded, and that will put a cap on entries.

Awards: Team rides usually hand out ribbons or other prizes to teams that finish close to the ideal time. Many give awards for turnout, best-matched team, turtle (slowest) team, or other categories. Bucks County runs a “jackpot” division, in which riders pay an extra $5 and the winning team gets half the pot.

Get the Word Out

Press releases and listings in calendars of horse-related events are low-cost ways to let riders know about your event. Ads in local newspapers and horse publications may catch more eyes. An even better (but more expensive) way is to send out flyers to clients, horse groups and others who may be interested a month or two before the event. The organizers we talked to use all three methods.

Ads and flyers should supply as much information as practical—date, place, contact and entry information, rules, and a description of the ride.

Ready a Crew

All our organizers rely on volunteers to help set up equipment, serve food, clean up after the ride, and perform essential tasks, including check-in and parking. A group ride needs a trail boss, or leader. A timed ride needs a starter and timer.

Hunter paces usually include one or more volunteer-staffed checkpoints where horses are offered water and held for three minutes. Some paces have a veterinarian at the check. Lynn posts monitors with walkie-talkies wherever the route crosses a road.

Gorman sends out riders with walkie-talkies down the trail, in search of stragglers who may be in trouble. Because her ride takes place far from any town, she also makes sure a paramedic, veterinarian and farrier will be on site.

Set the Course

For a group trail ride, says Gorman, “It’s essential that riders go out first to explore the terrain and flag the route.” She and the trail boss cover the ground a week in advance. “We want the ride to be fun for everyone, so the trails must be easy enough for the least experienced riders,” she says.

Susan Lynn starts work on the Locust Hill course in midsummer. It’s brush-hogged several times, and then she sets fences. Besides permanent coops and stone walls, she uses sturdy portable jumps that are inviting—2 feet high and 10 to 12 feet wide, with wings, placed on level or rising ground. “We leave challenges for another day,” she says. The course is marked with arrows and “whoa” signs for muddy and rough spots.

DeRoux needs only to decide which of the Bucks County Horse Park’s 30 miles of trails she’ll use for an event. Crews go out a week before to clear downed trees, check jumps, and put down screenings in muddy spots. The last step is to set the ideal time by riding the course—no more than a day before the event, so that conditions will be the same. Then all that’s left is to order good weather.

Go!

Have your volunteers on hand an hour before the start to set up and help early arrivals. At the check-in, make sure every rider (or a parent) has signed a liability release. “We take faxed entries,” says Lynn, “but we insist on an actual signature on the release form.”

Thanks to careful planning, the ride should run without a hitch—and if something goes awry, you’ll be prepared to handle it.