Trail can be one of the most enjoyable classes to take part in, and is a real test of the training of your horse. As in so many things, the degree of success and enjoyment you derive as a trail competitor is directly proportionate to the amount of effort you invest! For the purposes of this article we're assuming that you have a novice horse and that you're riding in either a snaffle bit or bosal. As a novice you'll usually be asked to negotiate a push gate, though from time to time a pull gate will be used. You'll notice that in the detailed illustration below we've used the example of a left-hand gate. For the right hand push (see picture opposite) you just need to think of the mirror-image of each manoeuvre.
What equipment do you need?
To start your training you'll need a trail gate. You can buy these on the internet or, if you're lucky, you can get one made for you by a friend. Typically these cost around £125 to £150 brand new, and delivery can be in the region of £25. Make sure it's 4’ high by 4’ wide and well supported so it will stay upright. If you don’t have access to a gate you can use two jump stands or similar uprights, again 4' apart, with a rope safely strung between them.
Is your horse ready?
Before you jog over to the gate and get started, you need to be sure that you and your horse or pony can negotiate some basic manoeuvres. Ask yourself if your horse or pony can:
stand quietly and patiently beside obstacles
turn on the haunches
turn on the forehand, and
You need to be able to do all of these things one step at a time and one handed. Without these skills in place, adding the gate to the mix will only cause frustration, confusion and anxiety to your horse. So our advice is simple - be honest with yourself, and don't even think about attempting the gate until you've perfected each component manoeuvre.
Are you ready?
Face the fact that you'll need buckets of patience! This sounds obvious, but if your horse becomes anxious in any way around the obstacle you'll put back your training by weeks or months. Remember, if your horse knew how to manoeuvre through the gate he'd do it, but he wasn’t born knowing and you have to be the teacher. That means you have to know what you're doing and give him time to learn.
And most important of all - before you even think about entering any WES competition - do your homework! Read your rule-book and make it your business to have watched more experienced competitors taking part in competition. If you can't be bothered to prepare, don't expect to do well, and don't blame the judge (or your horse) if you're not placed or get disqualified!
Negotiating the left-hand push gate
We've illustrated this with pictures of Judith riding Woody (Forest Jac). He was 3 at the time and all the basic elements of his schooling were well established. One thing to mention though, is that Judith reckons his small stature is a bit of an advantage in trail classes as he fits so well in all the obstacles!
Here Woody is just standing alongside the gate. The aim is not to open it and ride through but only to repeatedly walk up and stand still, completely relaxed, before placing the reins in the right hand and practising un-latching and re-latching without moving. Once you've achieved that, keep your left hand on the gate whilst at the same time backing up. If you have good control for the back up, without your horse fidgeting or becoming tense, then - and only then - proceed to open the gate.
In this next picture Judith has un-latched and opened the gate, Woody has completed the back up and has turned on the haunches to the left. This puts him on the correct angle to pass through the gate. Remember that your job in the trail class is to prevent stock from entering or escaping as you negotiate the gate. You'll notice here that the gap between Woody and the gate is small, and that Judith is clearly controlling every step he makes.
Next we see the turn on the forehand as Woody moves his quarters from left to right. This is the time when it is very easy for the rider to lose control of the gate and start clocking up penalties. (Just think how many cows could come through the gate if you have to let go!) Again you can see that there is hardly any gap between Woody and the gate, and that Judith doesn’t need to reach or lean over to keep her hand on the gate. This shows why one-step control is essential!
Here we see the transition, where Woody is moving his shoulders to the left away from Judith's right leg. This enables her to keep control of the gate at all times.
In this picture we see that Judith has closed the gate, and Woody is now standing quietly on a loose rein allowing her to re-latch it.
Having closed the gate, Judith returns to two hands on the reins and makes sure that Woody is fully attentive, before finally....
...asking Woody to move off her left leg and side-pass to the right, away from the gate. At this point, and indeed throughout the obstacle, Judith is aiming for smoothness and a sense of flow. It's important not to rush the obstacle, but equally not to give the impression that you're "stuck" at any point.
What if it starts to go wrong?
Any time your horse starts to anticipate the next move or shows any sign of tension make sure you return to a position of relaxation, with him waiting for your signal rather than allowing him to take over. However, you will find that after a few successful practice sessions your horse will begin to know where you're going. This is the time to stop practising, pat yourself on the back and leave it all for the show pen.
Once your horse has become confident with the push gates you can try right and left hand pull gates as well. Sometimes in competition you will find the traditional gate replaced with a rope gate – it's worth trying this at home to familiarise you horse with a slightly different setup.