Simple, low-stress trail obstacles incorporated into your weekly training routine could improve your jumper’s style, ability and attitude.
Today I am a die-hard eventer (albeit novice), so most people would never guess my secret passion for big saddles, chaps, bling and the slow lope. The truth is, I grew up riding solely western and my specialty was ‘Arena Trail.’
Even now, I still utilize most of what I learned in Trail class with my Eventing horses. The pattern work helps calm horses down and control every stride. Below is an example of a pattern I use at home, but you can set these exercises up in a million different ways. For exact spacing of obstacles you can visit the AQHA Handbook, but it tends to differ from horse to horse so keep a ground person handy.
First we start by walking over poles. Horses used to trotting and cantering over cavaletti may find this simple task difficult at first. The thing you want to remember is calm, calm, calm. Let’s take our time and walk over each and every pole.
Next is the bridge obstacle, which is an excellent start to making horses comfortable on cross country banks. Granted it’s only four inches high, but the idea of stepping up and down is the same.
Then come the lope over poles. Again, this can be very difficult for a horse used to jumping. I had an OTTB that was about as good of a jumper as you could ask for, but he tended to get a little strung out and excited. It was a mind-blowing experience for him to just gently lope over poles. In the end, he learned to control his body and his brain during the exercise.
Next is the trot serpentine. The thing to remember when doing this exercise is to try and rely on your rein aids as little as possible. You want your horse to listen to subtle leg and seat aids when jumping a course, right? Well, practice that jogging through cones. You can up the difficulty level by adding ground poles or dropping your reins entirely.
Finish the course with another set of calming walk over poles and then the gate. This obstacle is great at training horses to move their front and back halves independently because the sidepass, back, turns on the forehand and pivoting on the hind end can all be involved when done correctly.
I personally believe that all horses should know how to perform an open/close gate maneuver, mainly because I’m too lazy to dismount and open them from the ground. If you really don’t want to try this one, though, I would finish the pattern by just making them “squeeze” through a small space. You could mount flags on jump standards or stick pool noodles across the opening. The mental aspects of this challenge are bigger than you might think and important if you ever intend on performing a keyhole jump on a cross country course.