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The In-Hand Trail Course – Obstacle by Obstacle
Handprint is a relatively new class that has been added to many breed associations and some open shows as well. It’s a class that, as the name implies, allows you to guide your horse through trail obstacles. This class is usually open to yearlings and 2-year-olds who have not yet been shown under saddle. Obstacles are generally the same as for standard trail classes, with the exception of wheel crossings.
I think the trail in hand is a great addition to any horse’s show bill and training and is a great way to start teaching your horse how to maneuver obstacles. It gives young horses an extra area to focus on that isn’t as hard on their legs as sitting and teaches them to work with their handler. Not only does it prepare your horse for regular classes, under saddle trails, but it’s also a great way to start learning your craft!
The hand trail class typically includes the following obstacles: a gate, walk and walk passes, backside passes, a mailbox or raincoat, a bridge, back to a box and walk and/or pass 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! Let’s go through these obstacles one by one and see what needs to be done and how best to overcome them.
Most shows now use a rope gate rather than a real wooden gate. Generally this is made of 2 jump standards placed about 6 meters apart with a thick rope tied to one end and looped over the other. In its most basic form, the handler must lead the horse to the gate, pick up the end of the loop, lead the horse through the gate (the opening between the jumping standards) and replace the end of the loop to close the gate. While doing this, the horse should remain calm and move forward willingly when asked.
This hurdle is best run when the horse is moved into the exact positions it would be in if someone on its back were to open the gate. This means that it should stop parallel to the gate, with enough distance that the holder is not crowded. After being led through the gate opening, the handler must turn the horse so that it is again parallel to the gate and its assemblies also to where the noose is attached.
These consist of 3 or more ground stakes that are spaced apart (2 feet for walking, 3 feet for trotting). The horse should make his way without hitting any of the posts with his feet, and should ideally place each foot halfway between the post he is passing and the next post in line. The hardest part for some handlers is the fact that they don’t have to go over the poles with the horse! The handler must be able to walk along the side of the posts as the horse travels over their center. This takes a lot of practice. At home, the handler should gradually build up to this, moving away each time they practice their walk/trot-over. I think teaching a horse to sit 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 legs after bumping a few logs. Once your horse is good at not knocking over any posts, you can try lifting them off the ground a bit. If he can easily go over the 4-6″ lift poles, he will have no problem in the show doing them over the flat poles!
Back roads in the show can be laid straight, L-shaped, T-shaped or in a zigzag. Back tracks may also consist of a triangle of cones or barrels that the horse must turn between or around. The horse must travel an equal distance between the obstacle, turning when requested by the handler. This is a hurdle that is best taken slowly!
Begin your work by simply asking your horse to turn in a straight line. Don’t worry about ground posts or cones, just teach the horse to lean as you ask, without resistance. Go up to the support straight between the 2 ground posts. Build from there, but don’t rush it. Patience is the key! If you get upset with your horse for not doing it right, he will remember that and start giving you problems every time you come back.
The side pass seems to be the most difficult obstacle for most people. At a show you may be asked to cross the side of two directions and it may not be just 1 straight pole you have to cross! Side pass hurdles can be placed in an L or V, where the handler must turn the horse into the cover or hand into the corner. The best handler won’t even need to touch the horse to make it pass correctly, even over these difficult obstacles!
On most horses, you can begin to learn the side pass by holding the lead firmly (to prevent forward movement) and pushing the horse to the side (far enough where your heel or pommel would go if you were riding) until he a small step to the side. Every time he leaves you have to release the pressure on his side, that’s his reward! Again, practice, practice, practice! Eventually you’ll be able to just keep your hand close to him, and he’ll start to move sideways.
Mailbox or raincoat:
This is a fairly simple halter, but it requires the horse to stay calm and trust you. If you come across a mailbox on your trail pattern, you must walk (or pattern walk) your horse up to the mailbox and stop with the horse with its 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, then replaces it. A raincoat is made in a very similar way. Stop the horse next to the raincoat (which will probably be hanging on a bending pole or similar strong object), remove it and place it over the horse’s back, then return the raincoat to its original position.
To prepare for these obstacles your horse must stay calm when asked and be desensitized to you moving around him. I always 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 closed. I do the same with the slicker working up to the point where I can throw the raincoat roughly over the horse and even pull it over my horse’s head! Of course, you won’t do this in the show ring, but it’s always better to be overprepared. That way nothing will bother your horse when you are in the ring.
The bridge is the path obstacle most often seen in photographs and recognized by all. However, when showing the tracks in hand, the handler must not cross the bridge with his horse! While walking along the bridge, the horse should travel straight and centered on the bridge. He should not appear nervous or try to cross quickly, but the horse is allowed to smell the bridge and/or lower his head as he crosses 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 can take hours to get your horse to calmly walk a full bridge, but it’s worth the effort. Doing this work will make your horse more comfortable walking around strange footings when attending shows, such as grates, metal areas, or entering/exiting arenas!
Return to a box:
As easy as this sounds, this is a problem area for many exhibitors when it comes to the trail. Most shows set up the 6’x6′ box, which is not small, but also not so big that you can turn your horse around or walk in a circle. This means that the handler has to move both the horse’s shoulder and his hindquarters! …And, this must be done without entering the box (except that you can get inside the corners of the box while turning)!
This is an obstacle that I actually find easier to do from the saddle than on the ground. When riding, you can use your legs to steer 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 you turn right), you can move the horse’s shoulder by walking towards him as if you were looking for a show turn. Every couple of strides you will need to stop and ask the horse to move his hip towards you. This takes some practice and every horse responds differently!
Walk and walk through:
The last obstacle you may encounter on the trail loop is the walking and hiking trails. These can be set in combination with a walk/trot-over, but generally consist of several cones that are placed for the handler to walk or move the horse between (in a serpentine or a series of circles/figure-eights).
Depending on the distance between the 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 stand to one side and simply push or pull the horse around the cones. If you have to make a deeper S to be able to get over the hurdle, then the handler will probably want to weave with their horse!
Common among all these obstacles is the need for patience and practice. Handprints is not a class you can go to in the cold. It takes hours of homework to prepare your horse for difficult maneuvers and possibly scary obstacles. Also, don’t try to get everything in one lesson! Every horse is different and while one horse may “get it” right away, another horse may take a week to catch the same obstacle.
Just remember, your horse will be no better in the show ring than his average day at home!
One last word of encouragement though: Trail is a very rewarding class and although it takes a lot of work, your horse will be much better for it. The work you do will not only help you perform better in the trail class show ring, but it will also make for a more enjoyable 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 harder for you whenever you ask him to!
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