Monday, August 10, 2009

Trail Basics - The Arena And Beyond

Last week we covered trail riding as you would head out on the trail and take a nice trip to the backcountry, if you will...but now let’s explore that other world of ‘Trail’, the horse show world’s obstacle class.

During most shows, within the Western disciplines division is the Trail class. Trail isn’t so much about how beautifully your horse jogs, or how slow his lope is, it’s about how well he can negotiate various obstacles with differing degrees of difficulty. Particularly without clunking said obstacles with his feet or demolishing a multi-faceted obstacle.

The ideal Trail class horse will be a smooth, easy mover and won’t get his feathers ruffled very easily. If he’s careful with his hoof placement, I’m going to pick him as a Trail candidate. Of course, having that nice, slow lope and that pretty, smooth jog doesn’t hurt, either.

Beginning to train a horse to be competitive at Trail starts with having him solid on the rail. It will do no good to try taking a green mount who doesn’t know his leads yet into a Trail class. You’d be doomed to failure.

Once the horse is consistently good at the walk, jog and lope; once he backs quietly and easily; once he’ll respond quickly and softly when asked to halt; I’m going to start gradually adding in things for him to do, culminating in asking for a complete pattern.

My next step is to teach turns on the haunches, turns on the forehand and sidepassing. I have found that it’s generally easier to train a horse how to move his hindquarters while keeping his front in place first, so I’ll start there. This harkens back to making perfectly sure the horse understands completely and totally what it means when I tell him “Whoa!”. At that command, he needs to cease all movement. Immediately. No questions asked. If need be, I’ll reiterate those lessons, or give him a crash course. When I request he move his hip while not moving a forefoot, all I’m going to be asking for at first will be one step. Then two and so on, until I can get him to turn 90 degrees, 180 degrees, 360 degrees.

After the horse has mastered the concept of turning on the forehand, we move on to a pivot on the hind. Using the same method, he’ll be highly praised for moving only his front feet and keeping his rear still. The idea is to plant one hind foot and move around it. I’ll again ask for just one step to begin with, then two, using positive reinforcement and pretty soon he will be giving me a nice pivot. But remember -- this is not a Reining horse class, speed is not necessary! What the judge will be looking for is finesse and precision, not how fast your horse can spin.

When I begin sidepass training, all I’m doing is building on what the horse has already learned, just adding in a few caveats. First I want a step or two with the front, then a step or two with the rear to catch up. If I don’t rush him, shortly I’m going to have a horse who will understand how to sidepass. Eventually I’ll want to teach him how to sidepass over a pole, but that will come later.

In all these exercises, I will essentially be working a balancing act between using my legs, my seat (shifting my hips along with my weight in the saddle) and my hands. Asking the horse in what I term “little baby steps” to slowly perform whatever maneuver I request. Again, there is no need to rush. You gain no points for speed in the Trail class.

Now that I am assured the horse has nice gaits and listens fully to my cues with rein and leg, I can work him on cones (just like those you see on the side of the road during construction projects), walking through, jogging through, loping through, backing around -- serpentines and all sorts of creative combinations, mainly giving him something else to think about.

Once he has these additional components down, I’m going to start him over poles. There is some debate over whether to begin teaching a green youngster to accept walking and jogging, then loping, over poles as a normal part of his daily work routine, but I’m pretty sold. The only problem which arises is if he tends to either be sloppy with his feet and whacks the poles with a hoof, or if he tries to rush over them without paying attention to where he puts his hooves. As I’ve already stated, going too fast, rushing, is neither necessary nor conducive to riding a pretty Trail class pattern.

When I’m focusing on smooth, slow travel over poles, I start out with just one, then two, before asking the horse to negotiate a whole row and will always begin with a walk. I don’t like PVC or any type of plastic, solid wood is best. It doesn’t shatter and will only crack or break when old and rotted after many years of use.

To me, it’s important that I get a really nice ride consistently (there’s that word again!) at the walk over a series of six to eight poles before asking the horse to begin learning how to jog them, again adding in poles until I have a good six, seven, eight. The same goes for the lope, with the difference being I’ll just ask for three or four lopeovers in a row instead. Just remember to adjust and correct the spacing needed based on the gait and stride length of the horse.

If the horse is at the point in his training where he has perfected his rail gaits, his halt, turning on both the fore as well as hind both ways, sidepassing each direction and performing all gaits quietly, smoothly and without fuss over poles, he can just about deal with any Trail class segment. Now it’s time to wrap up his Trail training and put him to the test.

Finally, there will be a process of desensitizing the horse to two basic elements -- walking over or across something and accepting scary noises and/or objects.

The first comes in handy with bridges, tarps, water crossings or tire obstacles, for instance. Let’s take the bridge component of our Trail course. I’ll start by asking for one hoof on the bridge (usually made of wooden planks, but you can improvise by simply using a 4’ x 8’ sheet of thick plywood). If he pulls it away quickly after setting the hoof down on the bridge, that’s okay. He tried. My first goal will be to keep him standing on the bridge until I tell him to step off. After being patient and getting him to set all four feet on it at once, soon he’ll be walking across like it’s no big deal. The same goes for walking over tarps, across water, through old tires -- patience is the best virtue! Especially when it comes to training horses...not unlike dealing with little kids.

Some Trail ‘obstacles’ involve things like sidepassing up to a mailbox and opening it; or picking up a plastic trash bag, burlap sack or bucket full of something scary like aluminum cans. Vary simple to simulate and practice with at home. These things I’ll generally begin with from the ground (in fact, tarps and water crossings can be easily dealt with in the round pen). That way, when the horse decides to bolt over or away from the spooky thing in his way, I can more easily reassure him there’s nothing to fear. Once he’s de-spooked (or ‘sacked-out’ as we used to say) and used to this sort of thing, I’ll start riding him through, over, around and with the things that had frightened him. After I’ve achieved success in that task, he’s almost a finished Trail class horse.

Last, we’ve got to tackle the gate. For many horses, it can be a scary episode, that first time, but it doesn’t need to be. I usually start out by making sure all my horses will allow me to open and close a gate while I’m on their back, I should be able to do so by making it a part of their daily routine when being ridden. Once more, slow baby steps are a must and soon, it’s just no big deal.

Well, there you have it, Trail Class 101. Happy trails!



  1. Oh Man! I have a funny story about a Trail Class about 12 yrs ago, involving the wonderful Appy mare who owned me at that time (she deserves a blog all her own, I have SO many stories about her.) I'll TRY to keep this short, but I apologise in advance because it won't be...

    Anyway, in 1995, after looking around, I bought this 17yo-or-so auction Appy mare for cheap, because her attitude (dominant but gentle and patient) was just right to be a mentor/companion for my then-yearling colt. This mare had an unsightly barb-wire scar on her rear leg and a couple sarcoids, she was a bit small for me (me 5'10", she 14'3") but she was totally sound and had excellent manners, so I figured she and I could tool around in the arena and ride trails for fun, until my colt was ready to start. That's all I expected from her--But!! Apache turned out to be SO MUCH more...
    Fast-forward through many stories about Apache's unexpected awesomeness--
    A couple years later I'd entered her in a Pony Club benefit fun show intending to compete in our normal dressage/jumping stuff, but the mechanics who were fixing my tow vehicle did not have it ready on time as promised. I made it to the show too late (English was in the morning, Western in the afternoon)--however, the show organizers were nice enough to let me substitute classes. So I figured, I don't know Western from a hole in the wall, but they have this Trail class where there's no requirements for my attire or the horse's tack, and Apache and I have done plenty of real trail riding, so at least it will be fun and hopefully we'll do ok.

    So here we go into the Trail competition, me clueless, wearing full Dressage garb, Apache in her AP English saddle and snaffle bridle, the judges and other competitors looking at us with heads tilted, like dogs who are seeing a whole new species of rodent for the first time and trying to figure out whether to chase the strange thing or run away.

    The first obstacle was a gate. I had the vague idea we were supposed to open it, go through, and close it behind us. I sidepassed Apache up to the gate so I could open the latch, then asked her to turn on the forehand so we could go through it. She danced around a bit, I lost hold of the latch and got ready to try the same thing again.

    Apache stopped dead--she would NOT move. Once she had my attention, she craned her neck around 90 degrees until she stared directly into my eyes, looked at me with a totally aghast expression until she saw I was listening, then she turned in the opposite direction and waited for me to open the gate. I opened it, she walked through, then she turned and waited for me to close it, looking at me again while blinking her cute eyes as if to say, " See? Leave it to me, I know what I'm doing, believe me you're not the first beginner I've had to take care of."

    Smart me for once, I listened to her. From then on, all I did was steer her to each obstacle, then drop the reins when we got there (mailbox, bridge, tarp, poles to trot over, hanging stuff to walk through, water puddle, etc.)
    Apache and I ended up taking 4th place, out of a class of 20 or so! Scratch that, SHE took 4th place, and probably would have placed higher if not for her clueless rider.
    I miss that horse, someday I'll try Trail again in her honor.

  2. *applause*

    What a great story!! Apache sounds like a one in a million mare! :)


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