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Western Trail Class Dos and Don’ts

When backing in an L-shape, look in the direction of your turn. Photo by Gina Cioli

To score well in horse show trail classes, you must pay attention to details. Glancing in the wrong direction or allowing your horse to take an extra step between carefully measured poles can cost precious points. Top trainer Shaun Gloude of Franktown, Colo., understands how important it is to learn and practice western trail class rules. She helps her amateur and youth clients prepare for and succeed at high-level American Quarter Horse Association shows.

Here, she discusses the trail class mistakes she sees frequently. When it comes to stepping over poles, backing, and loping your horse over poles and into a box, she’ll show you what to do—and what to avoid.

DON’T: If the poles are spaced 24 inches apart, your horse may only put one front foot between them (not two as shown) or you will incur a penalty. Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

Trail Mistake 1: Backing Position

If your pattern calls for backing your horse with a turn, make sure that your posture and position don’t cause your horse to shift his weight and back in a crooked line.

The Right Move: As you back, keep your shoulders square. If you’re backing in an L-shape, glance down at the rails with as little head tilt as possible. Make sure to look to the side of the continuous rail (if you’re turning to the right, look to the right).

Don’t Do It: If you lean far to the side to see where your horse’s hooves will go, you will cause your horse to shift his weight away from the straight line.

Trail Mistake 2: Too Many Steps

Walking or trotting over poles is a common trail class addition. While the move seems easy, you must know when to allow your horse to step one or two hooves between the poles. Poles are set at 24- or 36-inch distances.

If the space between two poles is 24 inches, allow your horse to place one front hoof in the space. If the space is 36 inches, your horse may place two front hooves before moving on.

The Right Move: In this four-pole pattern, you must step over the first pole, help your horse place two steps in the first opening, then allow only one step in the smallest pole opening.

Don’t Do It: That small distance between the second and third poles isn’t enough space for two steps. Move your horse on and don’t allow him to place two front hooves in that smallest opening. If your horse takes two steps in that space, you’ll get a 1-point penalty.

DO: Lope into the box and immediately cue the halt so that all four of your horse’s feet are inside the box. Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

Trail Mistake 3: Stopping Too Late

Loping into a box  in the western trail class shows off your ability to stop on command. Look ahead and know how soon to cue your horse for the halt so that you don’t overshoot the box.

The Right Move: Lope your horse over one side of the box, then cue him to stop right away. Practice, practice, practice until you can stop while your horse keeps all his hooves inside the box.

Don’t Do It: You’ll incur a penalty if your horse stops with a foot outside the box.

Trail Mistake 4: Turning Wide

Once you’re in the box, make a 360-degree turn. If your turn is too wide, your horse will step out of the box, incurring a penalty.

The Right Move: Keep your horse’s hooves inside the box. Use your leg cues to show your horse that you need a sharp turn. Look in the direction you want to go and allow your horse enough rein to put his head down so that he can navigate the box.

DO: Use your legs to cue for a sharp turn so your horse knows to keep his feet inside the box. Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

Don’t Do It: If you allow your horse to move forward into a wide turn, you’ll step out of the box.

Each of these maneuvers takes practice to master. Work on maneuvers until your horse gets it right, then move on to practice something else when you’ve achieved success. Your horse will learn what’s expected of him, and you’ll learn how to cue for your horse’s individual movements when you spend time practicing together—but always ending on a good note.

Thanks to Megan Worley and Set To Blaze (aka “Rodney”) for modeling.

This article about western trail class dos and don’ts appeared in the August 2020 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!



Heidi Melocco

Heidi Nyland Melocco holds a Bachelor's degree in English from Ohio Wesleyan University and a Master's degree in journalism from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University with a concentration in magazine and photo editing. At the latter, she was named Master's Student of the Year. Her stories and photographs are seen regularly in many equine publications, including Horse Illustrated and Young Rider. Melocco is an author of Western Horseman's Understanding Lameness, Western Horseman’s Legends 6 and 9, and Goodnight’s Guide to Great Horsemanship, and she’s a contributing photographer for the Certified Horsemanship Association's Instructor Manual, Hitch Up & Go, The Revolution in Horsemanship by Rick Lamb and Robert Miller, DVM; and Breed for Success by Rene Riley and Honi Roberts. She and her daughter are currently writing a new children's book called Pony Powers—all about what it's like to keep a pony at home. Melocco's photos have won awards from the Equine Photographer's Network and an AIM Award. Melocco holds first-prize awards from American Horse Publications (AHP) for training stories and equine photography. She has had more than 35 magazine cover photos. Melocco continues to write about and photograph horses and also works in video broadcasting. She directed and produced a popular RFD-TV show for more than 10 years. Melocco stays up to speed with social media and has grown accounts to reach and engage with hundreds of thousands of fans. She served on the Board of Directors for the Colorado Horse Council and has presented social media seminars at the PATHi and CHA International Conferences.She started riding Ponies of the Americas at age 5 at Smiley R Ranch in Hilliard, Ohio, with Janet Hedman and the W. E. Richardson family. In college, she was president and later assistant coach of the Ohio Wesleyan University Equestrian Team, coached by world-champion-earning trainer Terry Myers. Keeping active as a rider and riding instructor, Melocco began studying Brain Gym—an international program based on whole-brain and active learning. As a 4-H advisor, she used the simple movements to help horseback riding students relax and achieve their goals in the saddle. Melocco became a registered instructor with Path International, helping to combine horse knowledge and therapeutic experience with horsemanship training. Melocco has presented demos at Equine Affaire and at the Path International and National Youth Horse Council Annual Conferences. She taught at the Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center in Longmont, Colo. Melocco resides on her small-acreage horse property with her husband, Jared; daughter Savannah; AQHA gelding, Golden H Mister T; pony, Romeo; dogs Lucy and Rosie, and three orange barn kitties known as the "Porch Patrol."

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