Monday, March 23, 2015

Arena Trail 101

     Arena Trail is about negotiating obstacles such as poles or logs and bridges.  It’s about handling gates of all shapes and sizes and occasionally even negotiating water hazards and dragging things.  Often courses are decorated with flowers, plants and bushes or other items to pique a horse’s curiosity.  Sometimes courses will even have a theme such as a farm (visualize toy tractors everywhere – yes, I’ve seen it) or even old cars! 

     Whatever the Trail course or its obstacles it can be a blast to watch the “go” of a well schooled horse that is confident and trusting, curious and athletic.  Trail is not only fun to watch, more importantly: some amount of training for this event is of benefit to all horses and riders – be they Western or English – and regardless of whether you show or not. 

     Most horses like the change in routine that Trail schooling brings.  It can help others gain confidence in the arena and working over poles can improve nearly every horse’s striding.  Arena Trail also gives riders a chance to vary their work, add new warm-up exercises to their routine and often improve their “feel” and general riding skills.  No matter what your goal, schooling for Arena Trail can help you become a closer and better partner with your horse – and you’ll have fun in the process!

     Modern Arena Trail is all about maneuverability, willingness and most importantly, agility.  The Trail horse must negotiate obstacles with style and ideally never touch a thing.  Horses must perform back-throughs, side passes and must be able to turn and circle in tight spaces which can be very challenging.  Trail horses must walk, trot, lope and halt when asked, with no resistance.  Often the courses are tight and transitions must be exact. 

     So…. Sounds like fun, yes?  But where do you start?  Arena Trail is an event that takes time and patience to train so it’s best to start out with simple maneuvers and build over time – much like teaching someone to read, you start out with the ABC’s, then a simple word, then get more complex as the student learns.  No matter what your horse’s true age, if they’ve not negotiated Trail obstacles before, they’re a new student and you not only want them to learn, you want to build confidence!

     I like to begin with one or two jog/trot poles or one lope/canter pole.  Trail is judged, in part, on striding over the poles and sometimes between the poles so, the jog poles for Western horses should be set 3 to 3.5 feet apart.  For an English horse, you’ll want to widen that to 4 feet.   As a horse grows more skilled in Trail the measurements can be more approximate but when I’m schooling a beginning Trail horse I take great care so the measurements should be as close to “perfect striding”  for the average horse as possible.
     I’ve had some beginning Trail horses that were curious and interested while others weren’t so sure about the obstacles.  Starting simple gives the horse the confidence it needs to build up to other, future obstacles and this simple start gives both horse and rider a good exercise in collection, striding and balance, used in a practical sense.
     During this starting phase those two jog/trot poles make a good starting back-through obstacle (though sometimes I have to widen them to build confidence).   I find it’s best to start teaching the back-through by walking the horse forward through the parallel jog/trot poles, asking them halt, then slowly asking for a straight back-up.  I’ll save teaching the horse to back into the actual obstacle for later, when they’re confident backing through simple obstacles. 
   A great thing about starting out with Trail though, you can always reduce things to their simplest common denominator.  Firstly, a horse must always be able and willing to do maneuvers without poles so I never teach maneuvers over poles until a horse is comfortable without poles.  For example, until a horse can lope or canter correctly, I’ll not lope or canter it over poles; the same thing can be said of the jog/trot and even the walk.  Until a horse can back up nicely, in a straight line, without rushing, I’ll not try to teach them to back through an obstacle.  You get the idea.  And, if a horse is afraid of the poles, I just encourage him or I’ll have him follow a veteran over or through an obstacle and before you know it, he’s doing it on his own.  I never punish an inexperienced horse over poles, I believe in letting the poles teach the horse!  And most of all, I believe in having fun while you learn and I hope this article makes you want to learn more about Arena Trail. 
     Talk to you next month with more on Arena Trail!  JD 

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