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Trail Riding for Pleasure or Competition
By Kelli Paulson, Mid States Ranch Horses, LLC
Do you have the pleasure of owning a good trail horse? Have you admired other trail horses? Creating and maintaining a capable, willing trail horse is possible by understanding how the obstacles work. The obstacles you encounter can be divided into crossing obstacles or maneuvering obstacles.

Crossing obstacle examples are tarps, bridges and water crossings. The first phase is just getting over. Phase two is applying finesse to the crossing of the obstacle. When introducing an object start small. If you are not ready or comfortable riding over, lead or drive your horse over using groundwork principles.

When riding over, the key to crossing obstacles is to get your horse to move forward off your leg. Do this by gradually increasing pressure until you get the desired result, then immediately release. Use as little pressure as possible to get the desired result while being prepared to use as much as it takes. Rhythmic pressure applied with your legs usually works. You may have to stick with it for awhile. Sometimes it takes assistance from a flag, riding crop (tapping with rhythm) or another rider behind you to get the desired forward movement.

When he does go forward allow the forward motion even if it is faster then you wanted. You don’t want to discourage his proper response by stopping him or pulling on him when he does what you asked. Moving forward is the response you want. Gradually slow the forward movement to the correct speed.

Once your horse consistently moves forward start increasing the size and difficulty of the objects.

Maneuvering obstacles include gates, backing, and sidepassing. To address these obstacles you need to apply your groundwork principles until you can move the forehand and hindquarters independently from the ground and in the saddle.

Next, work at being able to control your horse’s feet individually. Each foot should be able to be able to go forward or backward, left or right as you request. A good exercise for this is placing paper plates (or a similar target) on the ground then have your horse place the chosen foot on the object.

Practice keeping one foot still and moving the rest around that foot. Do this with all four feet.

Refinement develops when you can put your horse exactly where you want him. For instance, staying exactly centered when backing through an “L”, not just getting through it. Your horse responds softly, willingly and accurately as he places his feet exactly where you want them.

Good trail skills can be used on a daily basis. Ranch Horse Shows and the Trail Rider Challenge will give you a chance to showcase your trail skills in different environments. Need help? Clinics and private lessons are available. Visit