Borrow a Trail Course Designer

Set parts of this pattern at home for a championship challenge.

As the official trail course designer for all of AQHA’s world shows, Tim “The Trail Man” Kimura wows riders every year with his challenging patterns that he describes as puzzles made up of “test questions.” His pattern for the amateur trail finals at the 2010 AQHA World Championship Show made the open riders gulp.

The Journal asked Tim to talk through that pattern. For all you trail strategists, it offers a rare glimpse into his course-setting thought process.

The Test

As a course designer, especially for this higher-level type of course, I ask myself first, “What do I want to test the contestants on with this course?”

When you get to this level in the finals, you know you’re going to have 15 top horses. So I’m allowed to do a little more than I am in the prelims where I’m sorting horses out, giving every horse an opportunity but trying to get 15 good horses.

These patterns are very horsemanship-y – transitions, turns, etc. – and I add the poles. I’m looking for a horse that handles, not one that just goes straight, point and shoot.

When I draw my patterns for the AQHA World Championship Show, the two amateur patterns (prelims and finals) are the first I draw; and the test questions posed by the course layout are very thought-out. I usually draw them early in the fall. After I watch riders at (the All American Quarter Horse Congress), I refine the test questions more.

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Setting the Course

You have to be in a good frame of mind when you set a course. If you’re not in a good mood, then you become a little vicious. I thought a lot about how I wanted to make this course ride; at 3 a.m. (on the day of the final), I was still looking at this design, thinking about how I wanted to lay it out.

For the practice, I set all the pieces of the pattern up, but I can’t set the course exactly how I set it in the Jim Norick Arena in the Coliseum. In the warm-up pen, riders can examine the test questions posed by the pattern pieces, but they don’t get the feel of how the whole thing rides. You know what the questions are; can you actually apply them (in the finals pattern)?

That’s why it’s so important to do a good walk-through – there are puzzles in the pattern you don’t see until you walk the course. It’s so important to learn how to walk a course and predetermine what’s going to happen before it happens.

I set obstacles to get someone to hit a pole. My goal as a course designer is not for riders to crash and burn, or to trap them, it’s to see if I can make them hit a pole, not a whole bunch, just one. If they hit a pole, they’ll want to try it again. If they go clean, they’re satisfied, and it wasn’t really a good challenge.

When you finish a puzzle, you’re done with it. When you still have questions to solve with that puzzle, you want to keep trying. I want people to want to keep trying my test.

1. Jog serpentine

In this first obstacle, I elevated every pole. Usually, I don’t like to block up the first pole very high. I give you one free pole if I’m in a good mood.

Where I put these green carpet-covered blocks dictates how sharp of a line you have to ride through the serpentine. With the green carpets, I’m taking some of the choices out and saying you have to ride my path, not the path that you might want.

The serpentine is the intro: It shows the judges early what kind of dancer you are.

2. Double-gate, back-through

The second obstacle was just something different, a gate with the back-through and the water box. The test question is all about where the horse’s head is going to go when you’re making the turns. If you don’t do it right, the standard will hit the horse’s head, going in and coming out. The last piece of the “where the horse’s head is” test is where to put a plant to be a bad guy.

I put one pole out to the right of the second gate that wasn’t in the practice pen, so if you backed up too far, you hit the pole also.

3. Jog poles

During the practice, I can tell which obstacles riders are worried about, and which they’re not. This one didn’t get a whole lot of attention, so I really wanted to test it in the finals.

For the finals, I blocked up the No. 2 pole pretty high, then you go over the X, and I blocked up the No. 6 pole. And I set two boundary poles to dictate the route.

As they started to weave, the boundary poles pushed them so there was no way they could go to the low side of the elevated pole.

4. Left lead, lope over poles

I blocked this up high on the No. 2 pole, the No. 3 and the No. 5.

I always like to block up the last pole high because I see that a lot of people try to ride off that pole and get too far ahead, and they forget their horse’s legs on the last pole.

For the 12-foot gap in the middle, if you don’t push your horse forward, it’s hard to make that 12-foot spot, especially for a smaller loper. But then you have to clear that elevated last pole. I like to run them and then block them and then block a pole up.

5. Right lead, lope over poles

The pattern is slow at No. 2, and the next breathing point isn’t until you get to the box at No. 8. With the first lead change, I was trying to give riders a little pause here in the pen. The test through these lope-overs is “Can I build up your heart rate and your anxiety?”

In No. 5, I blocked up every other pole, Nos. 2, 4 and 6, so it went low-high-low, then it became high-low-high. It’s the same question, asked two ways.

When I block a course, I’m looking for some horses to hit a pole, but I also want a great-moving horse to be able to show that. I block it a little high for difficulty, but I don’t over-block it because that just makes it noisy.

6. Left lead, lope over poles

It’s a quick lead change to get through to this first pole. This first pole was tricky because it stuck out a little farther than normal. There is a two-thirds-out spot (on a pole) that we like a lot in the trail. But if you chased that spot on this pole, you would be too long. You had to figure that out when you walked the pattern.

Then I put wagon wheels to the inside of the poles to dictate the path again and block the inside line.

The line from the No. 6 pole to the stacked No. 7 is another resting point inside the pattern.

7. Jog boxes

The test question in these figure-8 boxes is “Can you control your energy?” You can’t get too fast, but you must maintain a good trail trot, keeping in time with your horse and dancing correctly until you get to your next location.

If you look too far ahead or up too high, you’ll fall out of a box or hit that diagonal pole. It’s also hard because you’ve already rolled through six obstacles and three lopeovers.

8. Jog into box and turn

This isn’t too bad. Most can get into the box and turn. But it’s very sticky coming out of that box and stepping over the pole for the next obstacle, the sidepass.

9. Sidepass

The last two obstacles are essay questions, long answers. If you’re in a hurry, and you’re mad about how you’ve done in the pattern so far, you’re focusing on the results and not your process, and the pattern will get you here because you won’t focus.

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No. 9 is an old-school sidepass with a sidepass – turn – sidepass. But it’s right under the judges, and there are a lot of people watching: It’s easy to get nervous. The question here is, “Can you slow your heart rate back down?”

10. Walk-over poles and bridges

This was a very reasonable set of walk-overs, not easy, but reasonable. It was very rhythmic. But if you become a control freak here, you’ll mess up your horse’s legs. I find that when you touch your horse’s face and you’re doing a walk-over, the back legs can’t engage where the front ones go. A calm person can do this pretty well.

The Big Picture

I was pleased that there were hits in different spots in this pattern, it wasn’t one obstacle giving everyone trouble, but people had trouble in different areas. There were mistakes in every question, and I like that because I know I’m doing my job as a tester. It challenged different horses and riders in different areas.

I want a pattern to be hard but not trappy. I want everyone who rides it to want to ride it again. I want every trainer to want to try it themselves because they know it’s hard. It makes me feel good when people see a pattern at a show and want to set it at home. That means they’re inspired. That’s my job: to set up quality tests.