By Megan Arszman
Trail or a pile of Pick-Up Sticks dropped in the middle of the ring…Battling Against the Tick
Trail used to be a class full of what could be considered “scary” obstacles: water crossings, mailboxes, rain slickers, and a few logs to walk over. It could be described as almost elementary.
Today’s modern-day trail course can sometimes resemble a pile of Pick-Up Sticks dropped in the middle of the ring. It’s become more of a precision class for horse and rider to navigate rather than an obstacle course.
The courses are tougher now, but so is the competition. Trainers are becoming more specialized for this one event, working with horses to have more precision in their stride and cadence for wagon wheels, arcs, and serpentines.
Pleasure Over Poles
Because of an increase in the focus on cadence and gait transitions, trail could be called a pleasure class over poles. But, as AQHA Professional Horseman Dan Trein cautions, some riders need to be aware of their horse’s head carriage when it comes to being too low or too behind the vertical. “We want the horse to be attentive and looking at what they’re doing,” he explains. “Some people don’t like the head to be way too low and behind the vertical.”
Judges look for cadence and precise strides when it comes to the gaits throughout the trail course. However, sometimes a rider will have his or her horse move too slowly between the obstacles. “[Judges look for] a good steady rhythm at the trot and at the canter,” Trein says. “It is very important to present a real cadence and stride to the trail obstacles.”
“I look for the quality of the movement between and over the obstacles, the awareness, soft carriage, expression of the horse, and the coordination between the horse and rider. I really look for a high level of execution,” he continues.
One of the reasons for the increase in the level of competition in trail can also be attributed to the scoring system judges now use. The system makes judging more uniform across the board by adding credibility to the overall placings. Exhibitors can look at their score sheets to see how a judge scored certain maneuvers and see what they need to work on to improve their scores.
Gone are the days of practicing once or twice before a show. APHA trainer Karen Qualls has a separate arena with a trail course set up so her students can work on trail every day. “Every month, I have a trail course designer come out and design a new competitive-level course,” Qualls says. “My students practice like they’re showing every time at home. When we get to the horse shows, they’ll walk the pattern and they’ll do the warm-up trail, but they’re prepared getting there.”
In Ohio, Trein has a series of logs and obstacles for riders of all experience levels. From ground level logs for green horses and riders to larger elevated logs for the well-seasoned trail horse, each team can work on a series of trot-overs and lope-overs at home to prepare for the show.
Trail is all about practice, and it helps to work with a professional to know the correct angles and approaches for each obstacle. “There are techniques that make approaches to obstacles so much easier if someone makes you aware of them,” Qualls explains. “Trainers have so many tips on an approach to a certain obstacle or how to maneuver through a course. If you can get help, it makes life so much easier.”
Searching for a Challenge
One problem some trainers are seeing is the level of difficulty in the patterns at some of the smaller shows isn’t as high as what can be expected at some of the larger events.
“We see it all the time,” Qualls says. “I just don’t think show management at some shows understand the qualities of the modern-day trail horse. The modern-day trail horse really needs to be challenged with transitions and nice turns.”
“You cue your horse up to be super competitive by working hard courses at home. Then, you come to the show and nothing’s elevated and there’s no challenge. It’s just a course, and it’s not fun to ride. It’s not what you prepared for.”
Qualls believes this problem can be solved by simply having someone more knowledgeable about the current trends in trail to help show management create more challenging courses.
Preparing to Show
When at the shows, both Qualls and Trein have their exhibitors warm up over poles. “You don’t want to over-school the horses,” Trein cautions. “You want a comfortable knowledge level of what they’re going to do in the pen.”
If the show offers a warm-up trail class, Qualls encourages her students to participate before their actual class. “We warm up over some poles before we go in, but doing the warm-up trail is wonderful. We do that to get a feel for the pattern and a feel for your horse.” She also cautions over-schooling your horse at the show. Save the training for at home.
A Good Ride
Trail is all about that clean ride and precise communication between horse and rider through multiple obstacles.
“When you can control the stride of the horse, and not allow the horse to get ahead of you or cut into your obstacle poorly, you come in with every stride correct. I think that’s a great ride,” Qualls says.
And, of course, there is that one very important element to completing a successful trail course; you want a quiet ride, one without the sound of a hoof striking a log. One tick could be the difference between gold and silver.
Click here to read the complete article from the Equine Chronicle November/December 2013 Issue, Vol. 16 Number 7.