Trail Class, Obstacles and Patterns

Trail Class

Trail is a great subject to incorporate into your lessons. You can use it to…

  • practice skills such as direct steering, using all 4 aids, backing, sidepass, etc.
  • prepare them for outdoor trail rides
  • teach them how to introduce horses to new objects – don’t hold your breath because your horse feels your tension!
  • teach them horse behavior, how to tell when a horse is scared of an object and what to do
  • work on memory and focus with obstacle course patterns
  • work on patience, with learning new obstacles and waiting your turn
  • teach them how to ride an several-step obstacle course (Western Horseman has some great tips for doing this)
  • have fun!

There are several types of Trail to teach about and use:

Show Trail Class

The Trail classes found at shows were originally meant to imitate objects found on outdoor trail rides, and have expanded to include other fun obstacles as well. According to AQHA, horses are judges on performance, manners, willingness, cooperation, finesse, and success at negotiating obstacles. Points are taken off for knicking, biting, knocking over or stepping out of an obstacle, breaking gait, balking at an obstacle, stepping through the obstacle incorrectly, refusing and displaying disobedience. Riders are disqualified for doing the obstacles in the wrong order, not doing an obstacle, entering an obstacle in the wrong direction, and for the third refusal.

Show Trail Obstacles

  • stop horse in front of or behind ground pole
  • ride over poles – on ground (15-20 in. apart for walk, 3-3.5 ft. apart for trot) or raised (for walk min. 22 in. apart and elevated 12 in.)
  • steer through poles pattern L, V, Z, or labyrinth
  • ride over poles in a zig zag shape
  • ride over poles in a curved shape
  • ride over a straddle poles – one pole stretching out straight in front of you, with horse’s left hooves on one side and right hooves on the other
  • woah at pole and back up 5 steps
  • woah and back through parallel poles
  • back through and around 3 markers, such as weaving cones or barrels
  • back through poles in an L, V, or U
  • backing – through obstacles obstacles – use poles, elevated poles
  • bending through cones (walk, jog)
  • bending through poles (walk, jog)
  • bending through barrels (walk, jog)
  • bending around natural obstacles just at trees and plants
  • carry an object from one part of the arena to another
  • carry a bucket from one barrel to another (think about which hand you want them to use, whether you want them to cross over midline; remind them not to lean or their horse will move, and to aim their horse’s nose to the side of the bucket so they don’t put their nose in it looking for a treat!)
  • ride over a wooden bridge
  • put on and remove a vest, slicker, necklace, etc.
  • mailbox – take out letter, open it, then put it back in; for more advanced riders sidepass over a pole to the mailbox and sidepass out
  • side pass straight – between poles (min. 3 ft. 6 in. apart, over a pole, between or over cones (then kid can see where knocked a cone over)
  • side pass through a path of L, T, V, Z – maybe include a turn on the haunches or forehand
  • the square or box – ride into a square made of 4 poles, execute a maneuver such as 180 degree pivot/right turn/turn on haunches/turn on hindquarter/etc., and depart (remind them to go slowly, one step at a time)
  • pass between two sawhorses draped with saddle blankets
  • ride through or under brush
  • draw a shape on a black/whiteboard
  • cross bridge, stop, pivot, back through cones/poles
  • walk to first pole, take raincoat or some material off it, walk to the next pole and hang it there
  • sounds, whistles (use parents to applaud!)
  • bridge (put cones on the corners for guidance and to keep horses from stepping off, remove cones for added difficulty)
  • gate – open gate, walk through (many shows require you to not let go of the gate), close gate. (You can use a real gate; or two standards with a rope/twine/crepe paper strung between them, depending on the difficulty! Or instead of standards, two barrels with cones on top from which to string the “gate”.)
  • pole pivot – a pole is placed with one end on a barrel and the other end on the ground. The rider picks the pole up off the barrel and rides around in a circle so the pole pivots on the end that’s on the ground, then places the pole back on the barrel. (This is great for seeting a circle!) (Variation: A rope on the barrel instead of a pole).
  • huge beach ball – move it from one end of the arena to the other
  • at the end of the pattern woah, acknowledge judge, then exit

Show Trail Patterns

Outdoor Trail Riding

Outdoor Trail Riding is done outside on a trail on your property, through a park, through a forest, or other similar places outside of the arena. Obstacles are items naturally found in the wild, tasks a rider might encounter on a trail ride, and knowledge about safe trail riding. If you don’t have an outdoor trail to use, you can imitate these obstacles in the arena in many fun and creative ways!


  • emergency halts (circles)
  • emergency dismounts
  • warming up and cooling down on trail rides
  • gate (leg yields)
  • river (tarp)
  • animals (plastic deer)
  • crossing a “river” (blue tarp)
  • bridge (plain, or with a “river” (blue tarp) underneath)
  • crossing/jumping “ditches”
  • hills (zig zag poles pattern for going downhill)
  • poles (logs)
  • backing
  • leading, grooming and tacking, like on a pack trip
  • walk over branches or logs
  • mounting off a rock (mounting block)
  • rating your horse/control his speed to keep him in the proper place in line, and allow him to travel long distances without tiring (aids: legs to speed up, seat and reins to slow)
  • crossing water – walk so doesn’t get injured or loose a shoe, use legs to keep straight and give extra squeeze, if reluctant follow another horse through, don’t stop or he’ll paw and roll, if he tries to roll use your legs hard and even reins, keep heels down and hold the mane if the horse tries to jump
  • saddle bags scavenger hunt – such as for the items you should take with you on a long trail ride (hoof pick, water, sunscreen, etc.)
  • animals – plastic deer lawn ornament, beanie babies
  • pull a log
  • serpentines and zigzags – like switchbacks on trail
  • mount and dismount
  • mount and dismount on the wrong side of the horse
  • ground tying
  • wildlife box – Create a 12 foot square box using logs or poles. In the center of the box place flowers and simulated wildlife. The contestants are to enter the box from one direction and turn a 360 degree turn around the wildlife without touching the wildlife ( do not disturb the wildlife ) They will exit the box in the opposite direction from the entrance (example : if they entered from the South they will exit on the North) Horses will be penalized for stepping on the rails or the simulated wildlife. (ACTHA)
  • take them outside on a real trail ride!

Trail Riding Safety and Rules

  • goal: ride safely outdoors with common courtesy to others
  • be attentive to the leader and unexpected dangers
  • don’t tailgate, keep one horse length away to keep horses happy because most don’t like a nose in their rear and will kick!
  • don’t let your horse eat, it’s the wrong time, could get caught in bit (put hay in arena to temp them 🙂 )
  • always walk on pavement, it’s slippery so trotting may cause a fall
  • always walk when approaching or leaving the group
  • when riding uphill, stand and hold onto the horse’s mane, hands forward to let him stretch his neck, check and release to keep him from rushing, keep moving or it’s hard to start again
  • when riding downhill, lean a little back to keep in balance with heels down, right before check and release to slow him down and signal him to be careful, let him have his head enough to use it but no so much he rushes, keep slow at the bottom to wait for other horses – always walk your horse down hills
  • if you need to adjust something (clothes) let your leader know and everyone can stop
  • wait until everyone is mounted before moving off – if someone has to fix something the horse may get impatient if his buddies are leaving
  • don’t leave a water source until everyone’s done drinking – horses are herd animals, so if ones goes another might follow instead of getting the hydration he needs
  • warn other riders of hazards, like a coil of wire
  • communicate about gaits (“prepare to trot”) and passing and hazards
  • on roads, ride single file, off pavement is preferred because it’s hard on horses’ legs and feet, look out for broken glass, ride on the left facing traffic so horse isn’t surprised by cars from behind, when car is coming warn each other, when you cross the road cross all together
  • stay together, if he’s a slow walker alternate leg aids
  • never sit crooked! if you get sore, try standing in your stirrups for a while
  • never run back to the barn
  • when you pass, ask first, pass widely, never surprise them, turn your horse’s head toward the passing rider so the rump stays turned away – never pass without asking or your horses may think they’re racing
  • have fun!

Long Trail Rides and Overnight Pack Trips

Stuff to bring (in a pack attached to the horse) – teach this through a scavenger hunt!

  • hoof pick
  • bug repellent
  • fly spray before you leave
  • sweatshirt
  • water bottle
  • sunglasses
  • camera
  • lunch, snacks (have a pretend lunch!)
  • halter under bridle
  • lead rope
  • first aid kit


  • check tack and shoes before leaving – that they’re clean, put on correctly and well adjusted so no rubbing
  • stop after 10-15 min to check tack, tighten girths
  • let your horse stretch his neck down and pick his way through difficult trail spots
  • trotting with long strides covers the most ground in the shortest time
  • take breaks from the trot
  • tying your horse – knot at neck level or higher so doesn’t catch a foot over it, tie to something strong, teach how to do a quick release knot

In Hand Trail

In Hand Trail involves any of the obstacles listed above, but done by leading your horse through them! This is a fun and effective way to practice leading. A great article about the In-Hand Trail Course complete with description and obstacles and tips can be found here.

The In-Hand Trail Course – Obstacle by Obstacle, By Constance Colvin

More Ideas for Trail Class Lesson Plans

  • be creative!
  • give them pattern sheets to follow like a treasure map
  • have them walk the pattern before riding it
  • make it like a real show, each taking their turn, have numbers on their backs, with a “judge” – or let them judge each other!
  • let them make up their own pattern
  • make a progress chart for them to check off accomplished obstacles/skills
  • list all the obstacles on a poster and have them sign or initial by each obstacle they’ve done
  • at the end have a “trail license test”, and they get a photo license or certificate
  • choose a few obstacles to focus on each lesson, then combine them at the end
  • look through horse magazines for trail riding pictures and make a collage
  • give them trail riding “homework” – coloring pictures or short articles to read
  • have a mock trail show class

Prep Your Horses!

Remember that for safety your horses must be rock solid with all obstacles on the ground and with an experienced rider before you have a student do it – even if you are teaching your students how to introduce a horse to new objects. This means you need to take extra time during your week or before the lesson to prep yours horses by introducing them to new obstacles and practicing them until they are solid.



Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgement!

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