Cone Heads In A 2 And 1 2 Year Old The In-Hand Trail Course – Obstacle by Obstacle

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The In-Hand Trail Course – Obstacle by Obstacle

In-hand trail is a relatively new class that has been added to many breed associations and some open shows as well. It is a class that, as the name implies, allows you to guide your horse through the trail obstacles. This class is usually open to yearlings and 2-year-olds who have not yet been shown under saddle. The obstacles are generally the same as for standard trail classes with the exception of loop-overs.

I think that in-hand trail is a great addition to any horse’s show and training program and is a great way to start teaching your horse how to maneuver obstacles. It gives young horses an additional area to focus on that is not as hard on their legs as resting and teaches them to work with their handler. Not only does it prepare your horse for the regular, under saddle trail classes, it’s also a great way to start teaching showmanship!

The in-hand trail class usually includes the following obstacles: gate, walk and trot-overs, back passes, side pass, letterbox or raincoat, bridge, turning in a box, and walking and/or jogging 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 are! Let’s go through these obstacles one by one and look at what needs to be done and the best way to deal with it.

The Gate:

Most shows now use a rope gate rather than a real wooden gate. Generally this is done by 2 jump standards placed about 6 feet apart with a thick rope tied to one side and looped over the other. In the most basic form, the handler must lead the horse by the gate, take the loop end, lead the horse through the gate (the opening between the jumping standards) and replace the loop end to close the gate. In doing this the horse should stand still and walk forward willingly when asked.

The best performance of this obstacle is done when the horse is moved into the exact positions he would be in if someone on his back opened the gate. This means that he should stop parallel to the gate, with just enough distance so that the handler is not crowded. After being led through the gate opening, the handler should back the horse so he is again parallel to the gate and his whither even with the place the loop hooks over.


These consist of 3 or more ground poles that are placed at a fixed distance apart (2 feet for a walk, 3 feet for a trot-over). The horse should cross without striking any of the poles with his feet and ideally should place each foot halfway between the pole he is stepping over and the next pole in line. The hardest part for some handlers is the fact that they should not cross the bars with the horse! The handler should be able to walk along the side of the poles while the horse travels over the center of them. This takes a lot of practice. At home the carer should gradually work up to this by getting further each time they practice their walk/trot-overs. I find that teaching a horse to rest well helps to help the horse feel comfortable working away from you.

This obstacle is truly a “practice makes perfect” situation! Most horses will learn to lift their feet after they hit a few logs. Once your horse is good at not hitting any bars, you may want to try raising them off the ground a bit. If he can easily go over 4-6″ tall poles, he will have no problem at the shows making it over the flat poles!

Back Paths:

Back passes at shows may be set up straight, L-shaped, T-shaped or in a zigzag. Back passes can also consist of a triangle of cones or barrels that the horse must back between or around. The horse should travel evenly spaced between the obstacle, turning when the handler asks. This is an obstacle that is best taken slowly!

Start your work by just asking your horse to back up in a straight line. Don’t worry about ground bars or cones, just teach the horse to back up as you ask, without resistance. Work your way up to back directly between 2 earth poles. Build from there, but don’t rush. Patience is key! If you get upset with your horse for not doing well, he will remember that and start giving you trouble every time you come back.

Side pass:

Side pass seems to be the most difficult obstacle for most people. At a show you may be asked to pass in either direction and there may not be just 1 straight bar you have to cross! Side-pass hurdles can be set up in L or V where the handler must turn the horse onto the back or forehand at the corner. The best handler won’t even need to touch the horse to get him to step aside correctly, even in these difficult obstacles!

On most horses you can start teaching the side pass by holding the lead tight (to block forward) and poking the horse in the side (just where your heel or spur would go if you were riding) until he takes a small step to the side. Every time he leaves, you should release the pressure on his side, this is his reward! Again, practice, practice, practice! In the end, you will only be able to extend your hand, next to his side, and he will take off.

Mailbox or Raincoat:

This is a fairly simple obstacle, but requires the horse to stand still and trust you. If you come across a mailbox in your route pattern, you should walk (or trot along the pattern) your horse right up to the mailbox and stop with the horse with his barrel about a foot from the mailbox. The handler then opens the mailbox, removes the envelope and holds it up for the judge to see and then replaces it. A raincoat is made very similarly. Stop the horse next to the raincoat (which will probably be hung over a pole flexible pole or similar sturdy object), remove it and place it across the horse’s back and then replace the raincoat to its original position.

To prepare for these obstacles, your horse should stand quietly when asked, and should be desensitized to you moving around him. I always over prepare my horses for these things. At home I will pick up the mail and raise my arm very quickly or slam the mailbox open and shut. I do the same with the slicker working up to the point where I can throw the raincoat roughly on top of the horse and even pull it over my horse’s head! Of course, you won’t do this on the show, but it’s always better to be over-prepared. That way nothing will bother your horse when in the ring.

The bridge:

The bridge is the trailhead that is most often seen in photos and known to all. Showing an in-hand trail though, the handler must not go across the bridge with his horse! Walking along the side of the bridge the horse must travel directly across and centered on the bridge. He should not appear nervous or try to go quickly across but it is allowed that the horse sniffs the bridge and/or puts his head down while crossing it.

Although many shows have heavy arched bridges you can start by placing a piece of plywood on the ground. This requires gradual work and it may take hours for your horse to calmly cross a full bridge, but it is worth the effort. Doing this work will make your horse more comfortable walking through strange feet when attending shows, such as grids, metal areas or entrances/exits to arenas!

Turn in a Box:

As easy as that sounds, this is a problem area for many exhibitors when it comes to tracking. Most shows set up the box 6’x6′, which is not tiny, but also not big enough for you to pivot the horse or walk in a circle. That means the handler has to move both the horse’s shoulder and his rear end! …And, this must be done without entering the box (with the exception that you can step into the corners of the box while turning)!

This is one obstacle that I actually find easier to complete from the saddle than on the ground. When riding 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. Usually (if turning to the right), you can move the horse’s shoulder by walking towards him as if you are asking for a show turn. Every couple of steps you will have to pause and ask the horse to move his hip towards you. This takes some practice and every horse responds differently!

Walk and Jog:

The final obstacle you can encounter in the road ring is walking and jogging. These can be set up in combination with walk/trot-overs, but generally consist of several cones being placed for the handler to walk or trot the horse between (in a snake or series of circles/figure eight).

Depending on the distance between cones the handler 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 need to make a deeper S to be able to get through the obstacle, then the handler will probably want to weave with their horse!

The commonality between all these obstacles is the need for patience and practice. In-hand path is not a class you can go into cold. It requires hours of hard work at home to prepare your horse for the difficult maneuvers and potentially 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 resolve the same obstacle.

Just remember, your horse will do 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 road class show ring, but will also create a more pleasant horse to be around. Your horse will learn to respect you and work with you and if you stay patient he will learn to try for you every time you ask him to!

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