The Trail Wheel Warm-Up

Use this horse-showing warm-up to prepare your horse to work on trail obstacles.

I approach trail as if it is a jump course that happens to be on the ground. When I ride a horse to a pole, I treat it as if it is a jump. I want the horse to be in the correct body position and to carry himself over in a collected manner, with his back up, driving from behind.

As he goes over the pole, I want him to elevate his back. I like his neck to drop so his shoulders are up and square as he goes over the pole, holding that correct body position.

When horses hollow their backs and raise their necks as they go over a pole, they change their stride length. They might get lucky and get over that one pole cleanly, but they’re going to change their stride length and their cadence and reduce their chances of getting over the next pole cleanly.

I don’t work on trail obstacles every day, but every day that I do work on trail, I warm up on my trail wheel.

Whether the horse is green or a veteran, this exercise reminds the horse of the body position I want and the mental focus I want.

The Wheel Setup
Out in my working area, I have about eight poles set haphazardly in a sort of wagon-wheel-spoke pattern about 60 feet in diameter.

The poles are natural landscape poles, not painted, and they’re not set at any exact distances. I make sure they’re set more than walkover distance apart, but I don’t do anything special to line them up. If a horse bumps a pole one way or the other, I don’t fix it. I just leave it alone. If I have a specific lesson I want to teach a specific horse, I might adjust the poles, but for the most part, the random arrangement suits the goals of the exercise.

On days when I’m working my experienced horses on trail obstacles, I warm up by trotting and loping this circle both directions before I do anything else.

When I start the exercise, I just hit the circle at a jog until I like the cadence the horse is maintaining. I make sure the horse is guiding and is standing up in his shoulders and keeping his body in correct form when he goes over the poles. Teaching the horse the correct body position for crossing a pole is one goal of the exercise, so I really concentrate on form.

For more information on riding trail patterns, check out AQHA's "Showing to Win: Trail" DVD. From the rules to the scoring system to the execution of the pattern, this DVD gives a comprehensive explanation of trail class.

A second goal is to let the horse figure out how to get himself into position so that he doesn’t chip or go long. The horse needs to adjust his own stride. That’s why the poles aren’t set at exact distances. If you leave the poles at the perfect distance all the time, the horse starts expecting those poles to be at the perfect distance.

We make good plans for riding our trail courses, but sometimes at shows, we might not get a transition just like we want it or the horse might be a half-stride off. I want the horse to recognize the problem two or three strides out and start adjusting for himself, lengthening or shortening his stride as necessary.

These days, trail is so tough that a chip can drop your score on an obstacle by a half-point. Today, that’s a lot.

And sometimes, the course designer sets the poles at odd distances for the challenge.

At the 2012 AQHA World Championship Show, the junior trail course included an extended lope around a wagon wheel with the poles set for a regular lope stride. My horse at the time, PF Put It N Park, was able to rate those poles for himself because he had worked so long on my trail wheel.

I want the horses to think, and I want them to listen to me at the same time.

This wheel exercise sounds simple, but it can be hard for a young horse to put it together all the way around.

If a young horse does something well, such as keeping his rib cage up properly over a pole or getting the distance correct on two poles in a row, I’ll reward him so that he knows he did well.

Although I try to aim for the center of the poles, I give the horse the freedom to get out of position so that I can correct him and put him back in position. I might do that by stopping and backing him and giving him a second chance at the pole.

As soon as my horse maintains good position both ways at the lope and the jog, I’m off to hit the rest of the trail obstacles.

Sometimes after I finish a training session, I’ll take my horse around the wheel one more time before I put him away for the day. Often, when a young or inexperienced horse has had a chance to think about things for a bit, he can do a better job the second time we try it.

Have you ever wondered what a judge thought of your trail pattern? AQHA's "Showing to Win: Trail" DVD offers insight from AQHA Professional Horsemen, judges and exhibitors Charlie Cole, Leslie Lange and Jim Searles to give you insight into what the judge is looking for.

Advanced Techniques
A third goal of the exercise is to just keep a horse’s attention. I started using the wheel when I had a stallion in training who was easily distracted. It wasn’t his fault – there were broodmares just across the fence from my working area.

I started longeing him over the wheel, and the different spaces between the poles really forced him to pay attention to what we were doing. Not long after that, I started riding horses through it. It’s a staple of my training program now.

I can move the diameter of the wheel out to about 80 feet, or I can squeeze it down to about 40 feet, depending on my goals for a particular horse. In general, though, I keep it about the size of a 60-foot round pen.

The number of poles isn’t exact, either. If I open it up, I add more poles. If there’s too much distance between poles, it gives the horse time to start thinking about other things – like the mares in the next pasture.

If I’m working an older horse, I might elevate the poles, or I might elevate one end of the poles. Sometimes, I’ll alternate between elevating the inside and the outside of the poles to keep the exercise interesting and make the horse think.

If I’m at home for a few weeks, just training the horses, the poles stay on the ground, but right before a show, I might add some painted poles with stripes and elevate both ends of the poles so that when the horse gets to the show, he’s thinking about picking up his feet.

Getting It Right
The most important thing to remember about this exercise is that it takes a long time to master it. If you’re trying it at home, don’t get discouraged if you don’t get it right away.

It’s physically difficult for a horse to rate his stride and go over those poles, carrying his body the way he should.

Just keep going with it, without applying too much pressure. Here’s the thing to remember about this exercise: It’s OK to mess up. It’s OK to mess up. It’s OK to mess up.

It just means you and the horse need to spend some more time on it. Your horse might be like the kid who needs a little extra help after school. You can’t get mad at a horse and then expect him to learn anything.

When you and the horse get it right, it will suddenly seem easy, even if you both have to work hard to get there.