Jump on the Trail Wagon

Put time into training your horse on trail obstacles.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

So you want to show trail?

Whether you have just bought a young horse as a prospect or are converting one you’ve been showing, you have to start at the beginning.

If your horse is well broke (as far as leads, side-passing, backing, turning, etc.), curious about his surroundings and has a mellow personality, chances are he could make a great trail horse.

AQHA Professional Horsewomen Liz Place and Sandy Arledge say it doesn’t take a high-dollar horse to be competitive in trail classes. However, whether you have a 3-year-old or a seasoned show horse, it takes time, patience and practice to reach world-class levels.

Liz trains out of Del Mar, California. She grew up under the tutelage of Sandy, an AQHA director emeritus.

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Looking for the Right Horse

Whether a young or seasoned horse, the qualities to look for in a trail prospect are the same. Liz says expression should be high on your list of priorities.

“You want your horse to walk in there, keep his eyes up and prick his ears,” she explains. “He needs to challenge an obstacle and think, ‘What’s down there?’ But he shouldn’t be stupid.”

Other characteristics she looks for include a mellow and willing attitude and willingness to work through all the obstacles slowly – you don’t want your horse to be in a hurry. When looking for a young trail prospect, both Liz and Sandy point out that a second-string pleasure futurity horse could be a good choice.

“The second-string horses are already broke and go slow,” Liz says.

“We have to teach the pleasure horses to be handled,” Sandy says. “Most pleasure horses aren’t accustomed to being handled in the face, and trail horses have to have a lot of guide to wind and bend around a course. Also, an ex-pleasure horse has to be comfortable off the rail to make it in trail.

Seasoned pleasure horses often get burned out on the rail, and trail courses rekindle their interest in working as show horses.

“Some of the best trail horses are the ones that get sour on the rail,” Sandy says. “They need some stimulus, something that interests them. I taught a sour pleasure horse to do trail when he was in his teens, and he earned a Superior and placed at the (AQHA) World (Championship) Show.”

But before you tackle your first obstacles, your horse has to be well broke.

“He has to know how to move off your leg, sidepass, pivot on the forehand and haunches,” Liz says. “You have to be able to put his ribs, shoulders and hips wherever you want.”

Sandy adds, “An older horse will usually get it faster than a younger one. If you don’t have all the pieces installed, it takes more time. He has to be supple, relaxed and in frame.”

Introducing the Obstacles

Just like introducing your horse to any new object or movement, starting on trail obstacles takes patience. Start out small with one pole, and then work your way up to multiple lope-overs. Liz likes to start young horses over obstacles when they are 2, and as soon as possible when starting an older horse. She likes to work obstacles every time she is on a green trail horse, always introducing new and more challenging elements.

“When you start him over obstacles, walk him over just one pole,” Liz says. “Let him look at it and get used to stepping over it, progressing to trotting and loping over it. Make a big circle and walk over it a few times. Pick up a jog and do the same thing. Just keep doing big circles around this pole until he gets used to it. Then, add another pole and walk, trot and lope.”

Liz starts a horse over the bridge during the same time period. “If he is afraid of the bridge, lead him to it and let him smell it and look at it,” she says. “That’s the only time I lead a horse to an obstacle, otherwise, I always ride up to them.”

When you introduce you horse to the back-through, Liz advices making it very wide – at least three feet.

“Instead of starting at the end and backing him into the chute, walk him into the chute and back up a couple steps and stop,” she explains. “Wait for about three minutes, then back a few more steps. Try to spend 20 minutes in a back-through when you’re teaching it.”

Learning Cadence

Cadence is one of the biggest problems your green trail horse might face, according to Liz and Sandy.

“I find that timing in the lope-overs is the hardest,” Liz says. “If he needs to shorten or lengthen his stride, a common problem is dropping to the trot instead of sucking back and slowing down. Changing leads is another thing he might do if he isn’t in stride.”

“Timing and position are the most important things,” Sandy says. “Your horse has to find his cadence and adjust his stride to the obstacles. It takes time.”

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Both agree that your horse has to learn his on his own by doing the obstacle over and over again. Sandy points out that starting lope-overs on an arc is easier than on a straight line because you can move the horse in or out and see where he puts himself. On a straight line, you’d have to shorten or lengthen his stride to make it through without hitting any poles. “You’ll see and feel the light come on,” Sandy says.

Show Practice

“Don’t go into the warm up and try to do the course,” Sandy says. “Pick and choose your obstacles, and don’t get in a hurry. Go in and pick what you think you’ll have trouble with, and if you have extra time, do the others. Don’t rush through it and leave on a sour note.”

Exiting the warm-up trail after a bad obstacle leaves you frustrated, your horse confused, and you have created more problems than you’ve solved. That will make your judged performance even more difficult.