California Riding Magazine • March, 2008

Western Side Story
The Trials and Tribulations of Trail Classes

by Gayle Carline

When it comes to western events, most people like to watch speed. Reining and cow work tend to draw more crowds than Western Pleasure. Pleasure is judged on the quality of the horse’s movement on the rail. They are supposed to move “with forward motion,” but each gait should look calm and easy to ride. Quite frankly, I have to agree with the crowds; it takes a real breed aficionado to watch class after class of horses going around at a slow, cadenced walk, jog and lope.

I do, however, love to watch trail. Defined as a test of a horse’s maneuverability through obstacles, the rider must guide the horse over a series of poles at the walk, jog, or lope, as directed by the pattern. Although the rhythm of each ride is typically very slow, it’s easy to get caught up in the drama of whether the horse will clunk a pole with its foot, refuse to walk over the bridge or flow around the course so cleanly that it looks like magic.

The trail course originally recreated the kinds of situations that might be encountered on a natural trail. These situations would include stepping over fallen trees, walking through streams or across bridges, and opening and closing pasture gates. The horse was expected to go where the rider directed him, calmly.

The old trail event included more challenging activities for the horse and rider, such as walking the horse through tires, walking over a plastic tarp or having the rider put on a rain slicker. Over the years, associations began to rethink the “challenge” of having a horse walk over a tarp, and decided that some of these activities provided an unnecessary spook factor in an otherwise beautiful obstacle course. Trail became less about the bravery of the horse and more about their agility and obedience.

A typical trail course now consists of six to eight obstacles. Most of these are poles, laid in different patterns. These patterns can be boxes, wheels, L-shapes or even straight lines. In addition, there is usually a small bridge to walk over, a gate to open and a water box to walk through. Each horse show has its own trail course designer; the designer creates the patterns, then makes a map to show each rider where to start and stop and what to do in between those two points.
The challenge for the designer is to make the obstacles “flow,” that is, to make it feasible for a horse to arrive smoothly at the next station from the previous one. Once at the obstacle, the poles must be laid so that the horse can pass over them at the requested gate without extending or shortening their natural stride.

For example, if a horse is supposed to walk over two poles, then they can be placed close enough for the horse to step his foot over and down between them, perhaps a foot apart. If the horse is supposed to lope over two poles, then they must be placed the width of a normal lope stride.

Just because a designer has made a pattern that is “feasible” doesn’t mean that the pattern is easy. Trail courses with long spaces between obstacles, and few poles, make riding easy, but judging difficult. The horse is judged on how gracefully they negotiate the course and how well they respond to their rider.

For American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) judging, all horses start out with the score of 70, which is average. Errors, such as hitting poles or performing the wrong gait, will deduct from their score. Displaying positive actions, such as being attentive to the poles and willing to respond, adds to their score.

The designer is responsible for creating a course that will showcase the best competitors without making them look labored. The goal is to show the judge which horse is best at looking for each pole, ears forward and expression attentive, and finding the correct line for the proper gait, completing each obstacle while maintaining the proper quality of movement.

If you think it sounds tough, just try watching one of these events and see if you can pick the winner.

And there are plenty of places to watch, or compete, in trail. For Quarter Horse owners, the AQHA has three California shows in March, from Del Mar, to Rancho Murrieta, to Reedley (see for dates). The Paint Horse Association is having a show in Temecula on March 1 (, and the Appaloosa Horse Club has three in March (, in West Covina, Vista and Brentwood.

I’ve been competing in trail, off and on, for about nine years now. Last year, my trainer, Tina Duree, showed Snoopy in trail for the first time. This year, I’m going to start showing him. I’m very excited, and hope to see you at one of the shows!

Got any news you’d like to share with the western riding community? Contact me at 714-296-6009, or e-mail me at