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Twelve-Pole Trail: How to Set Your Own Course at Home

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By Loren Hitchcock

“Trail is a class that’s rapidly growing in popularity. Gone are the days of simply loping over poles and retrieving a letter out of a mailbox.”

The event has now become a combination of finesse and precision. Both horse and rider must be able to work as one to judge distances and space. One miscalculation can lead to many faults in this class; however, exhibitors can avoid the most common errors by honing their skills at home. Many basic trail obstacles can be set up with limited materials. It’s not necessary to set up an entire course in order to practice.

Robert Dehn has worked alongside the great Tim “The Trail Man” Kimura to create dynamic trail patterns for some of the largest equine breed events in the world. Dehn recommends that exhibitors check their rulebooks for each breed’s trail class requirements. For example, AQHA and APHA trail rules are very different.


“Check your rulebook for your breed’s mandatory obstacles in a pattern,” Dehn says. “Also, know how many points different penalties are worth.” Dehn recommends that exhibitors set their courses at home for the minimum distance between obstacles, usually 24 feet. This is important even if you only set a couple of obstacles. Both designers set tight courses that emphasize steering and maneuverability. Setting your course tighter at home will give you a ballpark feel for how the transitions work.


“These classes are won between the poles,” Dehn says. This means that competitors should not neglect to practice transitions between obstacles, much like practicing horsemanship transitions. “Exhibitors should practice smarter not harder,” Dehn adds.

Be sure to know your strengths and weaknesses. If your horse is a great loper and never touches a log, your focus at home might need to be on backing or practicing walk-overs. It is wise to set your obstacles to the minimum distance required for each. For example, most turn boxes will not be over six feet. Learning how to do this maneuver tightly will benefit you and your horse in the long run.

In addition to your strengths and weaknesses, consider the whole course and not just the obstacles. At many shows, decorations are a huge component of the trail course. Many times, more elaborate decorations are used rather than just flowers, items like scarecrows, hay bales, large bushes, and other out of the ordinary trimmings. An easy and affordable way to decorate your trail course is to add synthetic flowers in preparation for the horse show. Make your practice as realistic as possible.

“Trail is the ultimate mind game,” Dehn says. “Knowing your distances and what you’re preparing for is important. Don’t close your eyes and hope you make it.”

Courses and the obstacles within should be measured every day. This benefit of trail course maintenance is two-fold. First, you guarantee you’re practicing the obstacles correctly. Secondly, you learn your distances and see your lines from the ground and not just from the back of your horse. Walk your course like you would at a show. This helps for finding your spots on the logs and where to make your transitions. Always set obstacles that involve a transition.

Knowing your competition is half the battle in this class. “Watch videos of classes from past years on YouTube,” Dehn says. “Knowing what’s good and bad helps you become a better exhibitor.” This is a good way to get a feel for trail as an event. Compare how you might have approached the obstacle or completed a transition differently. Watching live feeds from shows is another way to hone your skills.

It’s never too late to start working on adding trail to your horse’s repertoire. Dehn has seen exhibitors get discouraged because they might not own a top five mover for the western pleasure, but trail has a slightly different focus. “Trail is more about cadence and rhythm,” Dehn says. “You don’t need the best mover, as trail is more of a test of a horse’s athletic ability rather than a test of movement. It is really about you and your horse working as a team to maneuver through the obstacles in any given pattern.”

It is also wise to take into consideration the types of obstacles typically seen in a trail class. Again, consult your rulebook to know your breed’s requirements, but typical obstacles that can be found include serpentines, turn boxes, chutes, walk-overs, jog-overs, and lope-overs. These obstacles can be set with limited materials and can be worked in a variety of ways. Serpentines can be set with three cones, and you have the versatility of being able to add poles between them to make the obstacle more difficult. Again, consult your rulebook as distances vary from breed to breed. Turn boxes are set with four poles and can be walked, jogged or loped into. The perimeter of the box can also be used for practicing side passes. Chutes can also be walked or jogged through and also have the advantage of being both side passed around and backed through using only four poles. If you only have access to a few poles, try setting up two or three obstacles a day. By breaking up your pattern this way, you can master one complete course over a week. Remember to incorporate your transition work into every practice.

twelvepole2When setting up your own trail course at home, it is a good idea to take a few things into consideration. First, consult your breed association’s rules and penalties for trail. Then, consider your strengths and weaknesses before setting up your obstacles. When practicing trail, remember Dehn’s advice to practice smarter and set realistic obstacles by adding decorations and other elements where necessary. Remember not to just focus on the obstacles but also on your transitions between obstacles and your steering. Following these easy steps will put you on the path towards a successful trail career.

Be sure to check out the twelve-pole trail pattern Dehn designed specifically for The Equine Chronicle­. By utilizing his pattern and the distances provided, you can set up a practice trail course at home with just twelve poles and a few cones!

Click here to read the complete article from the Equine Chronicle November/December 2013 Issue, Vol. 16 Number 7.