Before the ride, horses are inspected by a veterinarian to ensure they are fit to perform in the ride. Riders may be given a map or GPS waypoints for the course, which shows the route, the places for compulsory halts (called "holds"), and any natural obstacles (such as ditches, steep hills, and water crossings). The trails frequently are marked with colored surveyor's tape ribbons at regular intervals with additional ribbons or small arrow markers at turns in the trail.
The ride is divided into sections, with different names (legs, phases, loops etc.). After each section, horses are stopped for a veterinary inspection (sometimes called a "vetgate"), where they are checked for soundness and dehydration, with their pulse and respiration taken. To continue the ride, the horse must pass the examination, including reducing its heart rate below that specified for the event, typically 64 bpm, although terrain and weather may require the ride veterinarians to set a different maximum target. The riders' time keeps running until their horses reach the required target, so it is important that the horses recover as soon as possible. Any horse deemed unfit to continue (due to lameness or excessive fatigue, for example) is eliminated from further competition.
After the veterinary inspection, the horse must be held for an additional hold time (usually between 40 – 60 minutes), at which time it is fed and watered.
Riders are free to choose their pace during the competition, adjusting to the terrain and their mount's condition. Therefore, they must have a great knowledge of pace, knowing when to slow down or speed up during the ride, as well as a great knowledge of their horse's condition and signs of tiring. Riders may also choose to ride, or may dismount and walk or jog with their horse without penalty. However, they must be mounted when they cross the starting and finish lines.