Western Trail

Western Trail
Western Trail – another perennial favourite

Western Trail is another perennial favourite and you won’t find a western show anywhere that doesn’t have a trail class. It’s a series of obstacles set out in the arena approximating to the sort of objects found on a ride out. These may be a gate, a bridge, various poles in various configurations, a “ground tie”, and so on. There’s no time limit on the class and the horse scores highest that negotiates all the obstacles cleanly. That requires a minimum of cuing from the rider and without any indication of “attitude” (hesitation, a flicked tail, a shaken head or pawing the ground are common signs).

George won the class enough times for it to be a pain when, another day, he started messing about half way round. I have to admit that it was usually me that was the culprit (“No!” I hear you say. “Surely not you?”). That was when either I lost concentration or start mentally patting myself on the back too soon.  We might arrive at the Trail class having just finished, say, a Working Cow Horse class but that was irrelevant. The whole point of what we do is to manage that without it being an issue. The essence of this class is as much calmness on the part of the rider as it is the horse.

Western Trail – the rule 

The Western Trail class is judged on the performance of the horse at the three gaits over obstacles, its response to the rider and its intelligence. It is judged 90 % on the work and 10% on turnout. In the event of a tie the judge may ask finalists for more work. At major shows only obstacles 1,2 and 3  on the list below are mandatory.

  1. Opening, passing through and closing gate (USE A GATE WHICH WILL NOT ENDANGER HORSE OR RIDER).
  2. Ride over a wooden bridge.
  3. Ride over at least 4 spaced logs.
  4. A natural water hazard of safe construction.
  5. Hobble or ground-tie in a square of 4 markers.
  6. Back the horse through an L-shaped course of not more than 4 ft wide.
  7. Put on and remove a slicker.
  8. Dismount then lead the horse over obstacles of no more than 14″ high.
  9. Back through then around three to six markers set either in a triangle or a line.
  10. Remove and replace articles in a mailbox.
  11. Side pass over either a straight pole or T-shaped poles, or any other safe configuration.
  12. Seesaw of safe construction.
  13. 360 degree turn in a box 5’ or 6’ square.

At the Judge’s discretion, there may be other obstacles provided they are safe.  Time limits can be applied at the Judge’s discretion.

How George did it…

Of all the competition classes, this should be the one that requires least in the way of a particular technique. A properly finished western horse is trained to do all the above before he is allowed off the property. The basics of side passing, backing up and generally managing the environment in a quiet and vice free manner are mother’s milk to a western horse. Why, then, have a competition about it at all, I hear you ask?

Well, I believe the answer lies in what I was writing about earlier in relation to George and me. He had it all there but for various reasons, I wasn’t always able to get it out of him on a particular occasion and that applies to everyone to a greater or lesser degree.

The biggest problem

One of the biggest problems we have to deal with is the inherent shyness and caution in the average horse. Presented with something in his path with which he is not familiar his basic flight instinct will take over.

George suffered a broken leg and was out of action for the best part of six months. A sequel to that was damage to his laryngeal nerve which required a “Hobday” operation and he was out of action for yet another few months. One way and another it was the best part of two years that passed without us riding out together.

Flight instinct 

Then, almost everything we encountered during the first few miles was the cause of a refusal and anxious pawing of the ground. Fortunately, we were out with friends and he was happy to follow another horse past something in the hedgerow or whatever that was worrying him. But the flight instinct deep in every horse had re-asserted itself for a while.

And so, we shouldn’t overlook the basics in our enthusiasm to tackle new and exciting things. The obstacles used in most trail classes are readily found around your average riding establishment. All it takes is some time spent quietly working with these things on a regular basis. Then, they’re not a problem when we come across them in a competitive environment.

Quite apart from that, a bit of trail work interspersed with other exercises in an average day’s workout provides our horses with variety.

Rider’s tension

After that, it’s what is going on in our own heads that is the biggest issue. It took me a long time to realise that my excitement before starting a class was getting to George. As a matter of fact, I thought I had that cracked but now, working withe Peanut, we’ve moved onto a whole new level of sensitivity. They get their messages from a whole bundle of indicators and rider’s tension stands out a mile. It’s less of a problem the more we practice and can approach the class with equanimity.

Biggest contributor of all in this respect  is to know the course. So,on the day, we thoroughly memorize the trail and the judge’s requirements as to a particular pace at different points around the course. I’m never in a rush to be first in. It helps to sit and watch how other riders go about it with a copy of the course plan in hand. Always good to check because you might otherwise be about to copy someone else who got it wrong!