What Makes a Good Trail Horse?

I have been doing competitive horse trail riding and obstacle challenges for a little over 5 years now. I quickly realized that a large portion of my success in doing so was due to my horse's training, not her "street smarts."  After all, Ruby isn't the bravest soul on the trail. No really. Her motto is "you go first, if you survive I'll follow."

So bravery hasn’t won her any blue ribbons. What has? Her ability to negotiate obstacles. Great! So as long as she can stand on top of an upside down kiddie pool while getting beat by pool noodles then she will win. Aaaaahhh… not really. 

If you watch videos of horses doing obstacles, you are likely to think how much fun it is and how all you have to do is get your horse to put up with crazy things. Well, both of those are true, but if you want to compete at events like ACTHA (American Competitive Trail Horse Association) where the obstacles are judged, you need more than that. 

I had the pleasure last week of meeting and riding a new horse. The super lovely Miss Marlene purchased her first spotted horse and purchased him with the goal of doing obstacles.  He is a very nice gelding.  Well mannered, safe, sane and a smooth ride.  One of the first things I was quick to explain to his new owner though is that beyond doing crazy obstacles, you and your horse should be able to NAVIGATE any which way is requested. 

This means you need to be able to move your horse’s front end both directions for 1 step or 3 full pivots.  You need to get him to move his hind end the same.  Side passing properly and quietly.  Walking a straight line (this is harder than many think) and stopping and backing on a loose rein.  Can you mount with your horse standing rock steady?  Lope off on the correct lead from a stop? 

In doing judged obstacles, these are all important factors.  A ride host recently posted that she did 8 obstacles at her ride all using just 1 pole.  Crazy!?!?  No, there were no rolling barrels or flapping flags.  A single ground pole was used to side pass while straddling.  Lope to a stop straddling the pole.  Back a full circle around the pole.  Trot figure eights over the pole.  So many skills needed for these obstacles and none of them crazy flappy things. 

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE a good cowboy curtain.  My favorite obstacle ever is Barrel Board Pinwheel.  And my horse easily gets tripped up over a Wagon Wheel.  Yet none of those can be successfully maneuvered without the ability to put my horse’s feet where they need to be throughout the whole obstacle. 

The great thing about an organization like ACTHA is that it is set up for all levels of horse and rider skills.  So you can compete as you learn.  The better you get, the tougher division you move into.

So my advice to Miss Marlene was that she work on slow work and securing his maneuvers before worrying about building any crazy cool obstacles.  Although the sooner she has them, the sooner I can play with them! 

Send comments and questions to Stephanie at [email protected]Join Stephanie on the Horsecity Forums by clicking here.

Read more On the Trail With Stephanie:

On the Trail With Stephanie

The Great Escape (sort of)

Hello Fellow Trail Riders