Trail-Horse Training

The pinwheel lope over is one of the hardest things to do well in a trail course.

The pinwheel, fan or wagon wheel lope over is one of the hardest things to do well in a trail course. You’re asking the horse to steer in the circumference of a circle while hitting strides just right going over poles. To do that, every degree matters, and the horse has to be able to hold his body in position, straight, without falling in or out. That’s an advanced maneuver.

You have to work on obstacles like this over time, gradually, with repetition. If you try to crash-course a horse, you’re taking shortcuts, and those will catch up to you somewhere.

Loping over poles in an obstacle like the pinwheel can be a helpful training tool in a lot of ways. I’ll often take young horses over poles – whether they’re headed for trail or not – to give them something else to focus on, rather than me training them. It can help them relax.

It also helps improve balance for a horse and a rider. When novice riders ride a pinwheel, they tend to lean to the inside, dropping into the inside stirrup. When you do that, you throw your horse off balance, and he’ll tick poles. Practicing this helps you learn to stay straight in the saddle and keep the horse straight. You have to find your spot over that first pole correctly and then look up where you want to do.

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With any horse, I would only spend 15 to 20 minutes at the most schooling on a pinwheel lope over. When you’re working on this, you’re putting a horse into a deep focus in this area, and I think they can only handle 15 to 20 minutes of that. If you’re pleased with what you worked on, then you can be done. If you’re not, take him out of that circle and refresh his mind by doing something completely different, and then come back for another 10 to 15 minutes.

As you build you and your horse’s ability to do this obstacle, remember to work on both leads – you don’t want one lead to excel faster than the other. Every horse has a stronger lead, and you might have to put a little more time into the weaker lead. That’s normal.

Remember, when you set up lope overs, they must be 6 to 7 feet apart for the correct one-stride length.

Starting Out

When I start this with a green or inexperienced horse, I work on developing steering first, loping in a circle going over just one pole. I keep my circle pretty big in the beginning, and I make sure to go both directions.

Gradually, I’ll add more poles to the circle as I feel like the horse is progressing. When I

add a second pole, I put it 12 feet out so there are two strides between the poles; that makes it a little easier. I progressively add more poles, eventually spacing them 6 feet apart. And, gradually, I make my circle smaller.

In the beginning stages, I ride two-handed so I can stabilize the horse and help him keep his body straight as he tracks on the circle. Even in a circle, the body should be “straight” on the curve – the neck, shoulders and hips in line.

Remember, a green horse can’t find his own spot over the poles; the rider really has to do that for him. A horse can learn to find his stride through an obstacle on his own – he’ll lock down on the rhythm and find each spot all the way through – but it takes a long time to get to that point. At first, he’ll rely on the rider to find his spot over the poles.

At some point, an inexperienced horse will fall apart in his body position, and I know I’m going to have to correct it. When I start to feel the stride getting a little weaker, or the shoulders dropping in or out on the circle, anything like that, at that point, I’ll take him out of that circle, outside of the poles. I’ll reposition his body, and once I feel like it’s right again, I’ll go back into the wheel.

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When I correct, I try to be repetitious, but not quick in what I teach. By “repositioning,” I mean lifting the shoulders up, engaging through the rib cage, getting the shoulders in line with the hips. I’ll put a deeper leg into him and use my hands to reposition the body straighter and get the rhythm back – when a horse loses position over poles, he loses cadence, too. If you’re repetitious about how you straighten the body, horses learn to fix themselves.

I’ll also slowly introduce the horse to maintaining position while I ride one-handed. I’ll go as far as I can with one hand, and when I feel like he needs it, I’ll go back to two hands and correct his body.

If I have a horse who is reluctant in the steering or who wants to lean out of the circle, I’ll do rollbacks. I’ll lope down the arena, roll back and lope off. It reinforces the horse’s understanding that when the rein comes across his neck, there’s a purpose to it; he has got to move and use his hind end. After a few rollbacks, I find that when I go back to the circle, he’ll be a lot more willing to rein off that outside rein.

Step It Up

Once a horse can maintain position and a steady rhythm over the poles on the circle, I’ll elevate the poles. When the poles get a little higher, the horse has to lift his body more, and that helps improve the lope rhythm as he goes around the circle. At this point, you are starting to work toward a more finished look in this obstacle.

Again, I’ll go gradually. I’ll leave all the poles in the wheel, and I’ll elevate just one pole about 4 inches. As the horse finds his rhythm, I’ll elevate another. Eventually, I want to have them all elevated. I don’t make them higher than 8 inches.

Your horse has to be ready for this. If you elevate poles on a green or inexperienced horse too early, it can scare him a little. The horse has to have a lot of confidence in going over the pinwheel on the ground before you start elevating poles.

Remember, with your leg and rein, less is more. If you feel like you really have to bury your leg into the horse to keep him going, or if you really have to pull that rein across the neck for steering, that’s too much. You should only have to lay that rein against the neck, and you should only need a light hold with that outside leg to keep the lope. Any more than that, and it’s time to work on steering and forward motion.

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In trail, the highest you can mark on an obstacle is a plus 1.5. To get that in a pinwheel lope over, you need to have forward motion, and your horse needs to be steering with a very light contact, while keeping a very good rhythm as he goes around.

That finished look can take a couple of years. My best horses have progressed slowly. With any horse that I’ve tried to get finished a little too fast, I’ve only ended up with things that I’ve had to fix later on.

You have to read your horse. If your horse gets nervous or tense, is chomping at the bit or even getting pin-eared, those are signs that you are pushing too hard, too fast. It’s time to back off, go back to an easier version of the obstacle, or do something else.

Let that finished look come with repetition and breaks from training times. It’ll come slowly, but it’ll come.