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Western Training

Setting up a Practice Trail Course

By Kim and Kari Baker

 

Are you or your horse becoming bored with repeated workouts, riding around and around, in an arena? If so, consider setting up a western trail class practice course.

Whether or not you ever plan to show your horse in a western trail class, you'll find that training for such a class will improve your horse's agility and his confidence for many other events. Even if you absolutely do not intend to inter a show arena, but would prefer to take to the woods riding down trails au-natural, training your horse to maneuver through and over various western trail class obstacles will in fact teach your horse to calmly negotiate many, if not most, natural obstacles found out on the trail. As a bonus you'll discover that your own horsemanship skills will sharpen, which in turn will fine-tune your horse's response to cues.

"We like to start all of our young horses on trail class obstacles as soon as they are riding quietly in the arena. It teaches them to steer, and keeps them from becoming bored by riding only on the rail," say top Appaloosa World championship trail class competitors, Tom and Phyllis Kirby of Chuluota, Florida.

Despite the fact that most all horses are capable of learning to maneuver over and through trail class obstacles, you'll find that a horse with a naturally calm disposition, one that doesn't easily panic under pressure, to be a more suitable western trail class mount. Conformation and body types contributing to agility and balance also play a part in how successful your horse will perform in competition, but let's assume that you are satisfied with your horse and that you are ready to put together a practice trail course.

Trail Class Obstacles

A western trail course is simply a series of challenging obstacles that a horse and rider must carefully negotiate through, around, or over. Though artificially constructed, these obstacles represent what you might come across while out on the trail. So what are the obstacles?

If you plan to show within a specific breed association, the best place to begin is to read the show rulebook of your particular breed so that you'll know exactly what type of obstacles to expect. Each breed association rulebook will normally provide a list of both mandatory and optional trail class obstacles. From this list the show committee will typically select six to ten obstacles.

Generally speaking, most shows will require you to traverse a bridge, ride at a designated gait over at least four poles, open and pass through a gate, perform a side pass, and complete a back-through. Other often-used obstacles include, a box, a serpentine, a water hazard, removing an item from a mailbox, putting on and taking off a slicker, ground tie, carry an object from one point in the arena to another, dismount and lead your horse through an obstacle, or clear a small jump.

Setting it up

To put together your practice trail course you'll need to gather together a few items. Scrounge around the barn or stable, as you're apt to find much of what you'll need within the close proximity of your horse. Besides the barn, the next best place to look is at home, the lumber store, or perhaps a local garden nursery.

Building Bridges

To start off, you'll need something that will represent a bridge. This might be as simple as a sheet of three-quarter inch outdoor quality plywood, or as fancy as a raised plank bridge with rails constructed out of two by six inch boards. However, as nice as a raised bridge might be, it's usually best to start your horse off with a plywood bridge laid flat on the ground, graduating to a more complex bridge as your horse progresses.

Actually, you'll find that you have two bridges within a single sheet of plywood. Just give it a flashy coat of white, blue, or even hot pink paint; maybe even with stripes, on one side, leaving the opposite side natural. Then flip it over ever so often. Such a basic change as this may not seem like a big deal to you. But to your horse, it just might seem as though you're asking him to walk off the edge of the earth.

Versatile Poles

Next you'll need to amass a number of poles. To start off, twelve poles will be sufficient, though you may want to add more as you and your horse progress in training.

When putting together your practice course, you'll find that the pole is probably the most versatile trail element of all, and will be utilized in approximately 40 percent of your total trail course. The back-through, step-overs, the box and the side pass obstacles are all, by and large, assembled out of poles.

"Poles may also be added to existing obstacles like the bridge or gate, to boost their difficulty. "But there are specific rules about how high they can be elevated, and if elevated poles are used some obstacles then must be widened to make them negotiable," explains Tom. "Elevated poles must also be secured in some way so that they do not rock or roll if touched."

Gates

The last major item is the gate. If your arena gate is easy enough for you to handle from the back of your horse, by all means feel free to use it as part of your practice course. However, be sure that it's safe to handle from the back of your horse. Should your horse become confused, and bump into the gate, there should be no sharp edges that could cause injury to either of you.

Even if your arena gate is suitable, setting up a basic rope gate might be beneficial should you run into such a gate at a show. The rope gate is constructed out of two uprights or jump standards. Space the uprights six to eight feet apart, and then fasten a length of rope to one of the uprights. Tie a loop in the other end of the rope so that it will easily drop over the top of the second upright. A wooden dowel or peg set into the upright approximately six inches from the top and sticking out a couple of inches, will prevent the rope from sliding too far down the post.

To make it a bit more difficult, "You may want to add some foliage at the gate. Of course your horse is going to try to get the foliage," says Tom. "You'll also need to practice both right and left hand push gates, and even an occasional back through."

Optional Obstacles

Though not a vital item, three or more cones or markers are useful to have on hand. You'll use them for serpentines as well as different variations of back-throughs. You don't have cones? With a little ingenuity you might fashion markers out of many items you already have at home. For instance, medium sized plastic plant containers will work fine. Just stabilize them with dirt so they won't blow away in the first big wind. You might even plant flowers in the pots for a little added class. Old paint cans or small paint buckets would also work well in place of cones. Use the last of your paint to give them a bright new look.

You'll need additional things for your optional obstacles, so its time to bring out the true scavenger in you! Most items you need are easily found close at hand so again, rummage through your house and barn first. Then expand your search. What you can't find at home or at the barn you'll find at the local tack store, or possibly even at your next-door neighbor's yard sale.

Be sure to include common items such as, a mailbox, water box, slicker, saddlebags, a tarp, or a lariat in your search. While its always nice to use the real thing, you may want to use substitutes for those you don't have. For example, a simple box may take the place of a mailbox, a cotton longe line for a lariat, and a piece of heavy plastic will pass for a slicker.

Don't forget to include effects that produce horse-spooking noises. You never know when you might be required to blow on a whistle, or be faced with the challenge of picking up a trash bag of noisy Aluminum cans. Be inventive and have fun with it. The more things you introduce to your horse, the better prepared he'll be, either out on the trails or performing in the arena trail class.

Putting it all together

Now that you have your obstacles, how do you go about putting it all together? According to Tom and Phyllis Kirby, it actually doesn't matter how you set it up at home since you will not necessarily work your horse through your training trail course over and over from start to finish, or work the same pattern twice.

"For ideas, we sometimes save trail class patterns from shows," says Tom. "I think Phyllis has a book of them from the Appaloosa World and National shows for the last five years. However these patterns are generally three times longer than what you'd find at your local horse show, and most home arenas wouldn't hold them. We just use parts of these courses to practice on."

Dare to Challenge

In the beginning, practice difficult maneuvers such as backing, side passing, and turn on forehand or haunches well away from the trail obstacles. These exercises are un-natural to the horse, and are complicated enough without the interference of added stumbling blocks.

"To start a new or young horse on trail obstacles, begin with the simple ones first. Maybe just a walking over a pole," says Phyllis.

Realize that it will take some time for your horse to understand that your leg pressure at the girth conveys a message to move side ways while leg pressure behind the girth means that he's to just move his hindquarters, or possibly hold his hindquarters still while the reins tell him to move his front feet. If you find this all confusing just consider what your horse is up against. Nevertheless, once you and your horse are performing these maneuvers easily it's time to up the ante.

Set up a few basic trail obstacles, but keep it simple. In other words, start with a single pole to side pass over, slowly working up to more complex patterns such as the "T" or "W". Demanding too much of your horse too early on will only serve to discourage him.

"The worst thing to do is scare your horse. If your horse is uncomfortable with an obstacle, go back to something else until they are bored stiff with it. Then try the new one again. For an example, walk through the water box dry many times before you try walking through it with water in it," explains Phyllis.

Each time your horse is able to handle the task at hand, change the obstacles so that there's a reasonable amount of challenge in it. However, be sure to fairly evaluate the degree of difficulty. A slight challenge to you may in fact be an overly frustrating task to your horse.

Keep it interesting and avert anticipation, by altering the obstacles as well as the pattern. You might even practice your trail course from either end. Begin a practice session with the gate one day, then the next time you might finish with the gate.

"We change our practice pattern often," says Phyllis. "Even if we don't move the obstacles every time we practice, we never practice it in the same order. Horses learn by repetition and we don't want them to learn a pattern. We only want them to learn how to think their way through an obstacle."

"Repeating a pattern over and over will allow your horse to anticipate. This will get you into trouble when your horse begins to think he knows the pattern better than you," adds Tom.

While practicing at home it's always a good idea to stop your horse at any point when working an obstacle. A hesitation of a few moments before signaling him to continue will endow him with the capacity to be patient.

"Some horses are anxious to please while others just want to get it all over with. In either case, they will start to rush and that usually results in ticks and knocks," says Tom.

Training your horse for western trail class is not only challenging it can be very rewarding. As you and your horse progress, you'll be amazed at how truly maneuverable your horse actually is. You may also find that it has even enriched your relationship with your horse.


Trail Obstacle Dimensions

Bridge 36 inches wide and at least 6 feet long. Must be sturdy and safe.

Rider Overs - A minimum of four wood rails or poles placed in a straight line, a zigzag, or circle. May be raised at either or both ends. Standard measurement between poles will depend on speed of gait and elevation. Walk overs (15 to 24 inches), Trot overs (3 feet to 3 feet 6 inches), Lope overs (6 to 7 feet)

Gate Must be safe for horse and rider to maneuver through. An opening of 6 to 8 feet is adequate.

Back-through Obstacle Minimum distance between poles or markers should be no less than 28 inches (30 to 36 inches is standard.) A back-through constructed of raised poles, must be no less that 30 inches apart with an elevation of no more than 24 inches high.

Box Set of four poles placed so that they form a square. Poles must be equal in length, and no shorter than 5 feet long or longer than 6 feet.

Side pass may be performed over or between any object that will not endanger the horse or rider. The side pass may also be laid out in various patterns from a simple straight line to the more challenging "L", "W", or "T".

Water Box Generally painted royal blue, water boxes should be 30 inches wide and 4 to 6 feet long.



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