The course for a trail in hand – obstacle by obstacle

The course for a trail in hand – obstacle by obstacle

In-hand trail is a relatively new class that has been added to many breed associations as well as some outdoor shows. This is a class that, as the name suggests, allows you to lead your horse through obstacles on the trail. This class is generally open to yearlings and 2-year-olds that have not yet been shown under saddle. The obstacles are generally the same as the standard trail classes except for the obstacles.

I think the trail in hand is a great addition to any horse’s show and training and is an excellent way to start teaching your horse how to maneuver obstacles. This gives young horses an extra area to focus on that isn’t as hard on their legs as lying down and teaches them to work with their handler. Not only does it prepare your horse for regular saddle classes, but it’s also a great way to start teaching a demonstration!

An in-hand trail class typically includes the following obstacles: door, walk and trot, back pass, side pass, mailbox or rain cover, bridge, box flip, and walk and/or trot through and around cones. The course can include all or just some of these obstacles, and generally the bigger the show, the more and more difficult the obstacles! Let’s go through these obstacles one by one and see what needs to be done and the best way to do it.

The gate:

Most shows now use a rope door rather than a real wooden door. This is usually made of 2 jump standards set about 6 feet apart with a thick rope tied to one side and slung over the other. In its most basic form, the handler must lead the horse to the gate, take the end of the loop, lead the horse through the gate (the opening between the jumping standards) and replace the end of the loop to close the gate. While doing this, the horse should stand still and move forward willingly when asked.

The best execution of this obstacle is achieved when the horse moves into the exact positions it would be in if someone on its back opened the door. This means that it must stop parallel to the door, far enough away that the driver does not pile up. After being led through the gate opening, the handler must stand back on the horse so that he is again parallel to the gate and his hoof even with where the noose is attached.


They consist of 3 or more earth poles that are set a certain distance apart (2 feet for passing, 3 feet for trotting). The horse must make his way without hitting any of the poles with his feet, and ideally should place each foot midway between the pole he steps over and the next pole in the row. The hardest part for some riders is the fact that they don’t have to go through the poles with the horse! The handler must be able to walk to the side of the bars while the horse passes through the center of the bars. This takes a lot of practice. At home, the handler should gradually work up to this by moving away each time the walk/trot is practiced. I find that teaching the horse to lie down well helps the horse feel comfortable working further away from you.

This obstacle really is a “practice makes perfect” situation! Most horses will learn to lift their legs after they have knocked over a few logs. Once your horse is good at not knocking the bars, you can try raising them slightly off the ground. If he can easily go over 4-6″ raised posts, he will have no problem at shows going over the flat posts!

Back via:

Exhibition back aisles may be straight, L-shaped, T-shaped or zig-zag. Reverse passes may also consist of a triangle of cones or barrels that the horse must rotate between or around. The horse must move at an even distance between the obstacles, turning when the handler asks. This is an obstacle that is best taken slowly!

Begin your work by simply asking your horse to back up in a straight line. Don’t worry about ground posts or cones, just teach the horse to back off as you want without resistance. Make your way to the back straight between 2 ground posts. Build from there, but take your time. Patience is key! If you get upset with your horse for not doing it right, he will remember that and start giving you trouble every time you get to the back.

Side feed:

Side passing seems to be the most difficult obstacle for most people. At a show you may be asked to cross sideways in both directions and it may not be just 1 straight pole to cross! Lateral crossing hurdles can be placed in L or V, where the handler must turn the horse to the leg or forehand in the corner. The best handler won’t even need to touch the horse to get it to pass correctly, even over these difficult obstacles!

With most horses, you can start training the side feed by holding the rein tight (to prevent forward movement) and poking the horse from the side (right where your heel or spur would go if you were riding) until he takes a small step to the side. Every time he moves away, you have to release the tension on his side, that’s his reward! Again, practice, practice, practice! Eventually, you’ll be able to just stick your hand out to his side and he’ll start making a side pass.

Mailbox or raincoat:

This is a fairly simple obstacle, but requires the horse to stand still and trust you. If you encounter a mailbox in your trail pattern, you must walk (or trot according to the pattern) your horse right next to the mailbox and stop with the horse with its barrel about a foot from the mailbox. The supervisor then opens the mailbox, takes out the envelope and holds it up for the judge to see, then returns it back. A raincoat is made very similarly. Stop the horse next to the raincoat (which will probably be suspended from a bending post or similar sturdy object), remove it and place it on the horse’s back, and then return the raincoat to its original position.

To prepare for these obstacles, your horse must stand still when asked and must be desensitized to your movement around him. I always prepare my horses for these things. At home, I’ll get the mail and raise my hand very quickly or slam the mailbox and open and close it. I do the same with the slicker, working up to the point where I can throw a raincoat roughly over the horse and even pull it over the horse’s head! Of course, you won’t do this in the show ring, but it’s always better to be overprepared. That way, nothing will bother your horse when he is in the ring.

The bridge:

The bridge is the trail obstacle that is most often seen in photos and is familiar to everyone. However, when showing a track in the hand, the driver must not cross the bridge with his horse! While walking to the side of the bridge, the horse should move straight across and into the center of the bridge. He should not appear nervous or try to cross quickly, but the horse is allowed to sniff the bridge and/or lower his head as he crosses it.

Although many shows have heavy arched bridges, you can start by placing a piece of plywood on the ground. It requires gradual work and it can take hours to get your horse to calmly cross a full bridge, but it’s worth the effort. Doing this work will make your horse more comfortable walking over strange grounds when attending shows, such as bars, metal areas or arena entrances/exits!

Turn in a box:

As easy as this sounds, this is a problem area for many exhibitors when it comes to trail. Most shows put the box 6’x6′, which is not small, but also not big enough to turn the horse or walk in a circle. This means the handler has to move both the horse’s shoulder and hindquarters! …And this must be done without entering the box (except that you can step on the corners of the box while spinning)!

This is one obstacle that I actually find easier to do from the saddle than on the ground. When you ride, you can use your legs to guide the horse around the turn. From the ground you have to teach your horse that when you move your body, you want him to move his in a certain way. Normally (if you are turning to the right) you can move the horse’s shoulder by walking towards it as if you wanted a turn for show. Every two steps you will need to stop and ask the horse to move his hip towards you. This takes some practice and every horse reacts differently!

Walk and trot through:

The final obstacle you may encounter in the trail ring is the walk and trot passages. These can be set up in a walk/trot combination, but usually consist of several cones placed between the handler walking or trotting the horse (in a coil or series of circles/eights).

Depending on the distance between the cones, the driver may or may not want to go around the cones as well. If they are further apart and the horse can handle weaving through the cones, the handler should stay to one side and simply push or pull the horse around the cones. If you have to make a deeper S to get over the obstacle, then the driver will probably want to weave with his horse!

What all these obstacles have in common is the need for patience and practice. The trail in hand is not a class you can go into cold. It takes hours of hard work at home to prepare your horse for the difficult maneuvers and possibly scary obstacles. Also, don’t try to cram everything into one lesson! Every horse is different and while one horse may “get it” right away, another horse may take a week to handle the same obstacle.

Just remember that your horse will perform no better in the show ring than his average day at home!

A final word of encouragement though: Trail is a very rewarding class and although it takes a lot of hard work, your horse will be much better for it. The work you put in will not only help you perform better in the trail class ring, but it will also create a nicer horse for you. Your horse will learn to respect you and work with you, and if you stay patient, he will learn to do his best for you every time you ask him to!

#trail #hand #obstacle #obstacle

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