Do you love trail riding with your horse? Is she well-behaved and calm? Does she pop over logs with ease, and splash through streams happily? If your answers are all yes, your horse would probably do great in a western trail class. Trail classes are always popular at western shows, and there are usually separate youth and adult divisions, so you'll compete against young people like yourself.
This class is a test of your horse's obedience and skill on the trail. A course is set up in the ring, and your horse must travel through it calmly and sensibly on a loose rein. You have to step over poles at the walk and jump small fences at the jog or lope. You also have to back up and halt inside a line of poles and walk over a small wooden bridge. You might have to open and shut a gate in a more advanced trail class. Some tests may include walking through water and mailing letters.
During your test, you are judged on your horse's performance over the obstacles, her manners, her pace, her attitude and her response to your cues. You will be marked down if your horse refuses to jump, moves forward at an unsteady pace, or knocks poles out of place.
Before you sign up for your first western trail class, it is a good idea to set up some obstacles to see how your horse copes with them. It may take some time before she takes these obstacles in stride, but if you practice a lot, your horse should be well prepared for her first competition.
We asked our reader, Caitlin Donnell, and her horse, Stormy, to take on some obstacles that they might meet in a trail class. Some of the obstacles we made (and you can make too), and some are natural.
Some courses include water, so get your horse used to the wet stuff at home. If you're lucky enough to have a creek or stream nearby, walk your horse through it several times a week. If she won't go near water, ask a friend with a reliable horse to lead you through a couple of times. Your horse should walk quietly into the water. Don't let her in leap in with all four feet!
Most trail classes include a small jump, usually no higher than two feet, six inches. You'll probably have to jump it at a lope (western canter). Jog over poles until your horse gets used to jumping. Then pop her over small cross-poles and tiny fences. Lean forward, over your horse's neck, to make jumping easier for her.
You'll have to walk over a short, low bridge in a trail class. Teach your horse to walk over things, by placing a wide, thin board on the ground and asking her to walk over it many times. Ask her to stand still on it too. She must get used to standing on unusual surfaces. Be patient — your horse may be afraid of the board at first.
Opening and shutting a gate is one of the most important things a trail horse can do. After all, you don't want to have to dismount every time you're faced with a gate. Most classes will include a gate. Practice standing parallel to the gate and unlocking it. Then push your horse over with your leg so he stands clear of the gate as it opens. Your horse should walk through the gate opening slowly, and turn around calmly to shut it behind her. She should not fidget or misbehave while you're fiddling with the gate.
You'll have to back up in between poles on the ground in a lot of trail classes. You may even have to back around a corner. Put poles down and practice backing up in between them. Pull back gently on the reins and squeeze with your legs. If your horse doesn't know how to back, ask a friend on the ground to push her back with her hands, while you are applying the backing aids. Your horse should catch on quickly.