The In-Hand Trail Course – Obstacle by Obstacle

In-hand trail is a relatively new class that has been added to many breed associations and some open shows as well. It is a class that, just as the name implies, allows you to lead your horse through the trail obstacles. This class is usually open to yearlings and 2 year olds who are not being shown under saddle yet. The obstacles are generally the same as for standard trail classes with the exception of lope-overs.

I think that in-hand trail is a great addition to the show bill and training of any horse and is an excellent way to start teaching your horse how to maneuver obstacles. It gives young horses an additional area to focus on that isn’t as hard on their legs as lounging and teaches them to work with their handler. Not only does it prepare your horse for the usual, under saddle trail classes, it is also a great way to start teaching showmanship!

The in-hand trail class usually includes the following obstacles: a gate, walk and trot-overs, back throughs, side passing, a mail box or raincoat, a bridge, turning in a box, and walking and/or trotting through and around cones. The course may include all or just some of these obstacles and in general the bigger the show, the more and harder the obstacles! Let’s go through these obstacles one at a time and look at what has to be done and the best way to go at it.

The Gate:

Most shows now use a rope gate rather than a true wooden gate. Generally this is made of 2 jump standards set about 6 feet apart with a thick rope tied to one side and looped over the other. In the most basic form, the handler must lead the horse next to the gate, pick up the loop end, lead the horse through the gate (the opening between the jump standards) and replace the loop end to close the gate. While doing this the horse should stand calmly and walk forward willingly when asked.

The best performance of this obstacle is done when the horse is moved in the exact positions that he would be in, were someone on his back opening the gate. That means that he should stop parallel to the gate, with just enough distance for the handler to not be crowded. After being led through the gate opening, the handler should back the horse so he is again parallel to the gate and his whithers even with the spot the loop hooks over.


These consist of 3 or more ground poles that are laid a set distance apart (2 feet for walk-overs, 3 feet for trot-overs). The horse should make his way over without bumping any of the poles with his feet and ideally should set each foot halfway between the pole he is stepping over and the next pole in line. The toughest part for some handlers is the fact that they should not go over the poles with the horse! The handler should be able to walk along the side of the poles while the horse travels over the center of them. This takes a lot of practice. At home the handler should gradually work up to this by becoming farther away each time they practice their walk/trot-overs. I find that teaching a horse to lounge well assists in helping the horse feel comfortable working further away from you.

This obstacle is truly a “practice makes perfect” situation! Most horses will learn to pick their feet up after they have bumped a few logs. Once your horse is good at not knocking any poles you may want to try raising them slightly off the ground. If he can easily go over 4-6″ raise poles, he will have no problem at the shows making it over the flat poles!

Back Throughs:

Back throughs at shows maybe set up straight, L shaped, T shaped or in a zigzag. Back throughs may also consist of a triangle of cones or barrels that the horse has to back between or around. The horse should travel evenly spaced between the obstacle, turning when the handler asks. This is an obstacle that is best to take slowly!

Start your work by just asking your horse to back in a straight line. Don’t worry about ground poles or cones, just teach the horse to back up as you ask, with no resistance. Work your way up to backing straight between 2 ground poles. Build up from there, but don’t rush. Patience is 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 get to a back through.

Side Passing:

Side passing seems to be the hardest obstacle for most people. At a show you may be asked to side pass either direction and it may not be just 1 straight pole you have to go over! Side pass obstacles may be set up in an L or V where the handler must turn the horse on the haunches or forehand at the corner. The best handler will not even need to touch the horse to get him to side pass correctly, even in these difficult obstacles!

On most horses you can start teaching the side pass by holding the lead firmly (to prevent forward motion) and poking the horse in the side (right where your heel or spur would go if you were riding) until he takes a small step to the side. Every time he moves away you should release the pressure on his side, this is his reward! Again, practice, practice, practice! Eventually you will be able to just hold your hand out, by his side, and he will start to side pass.

Mail Box or Raincoat:

This is a fairly simple obstacle, but requires the horse to stand calmly and trust you. If you encounter a mail box in your trail pattern you should walk (or trot according to the pattern) your horse right up to the mail box and stop with the horse with his barrel about a foot from the mail box. The handler then opens the mail box, removes the envelope and holds it up for the judge to see and then replaces it. A raincoat is done very similarly. Stop the horse next to the raincoat (which will probably be hung over a pole bending pole or similar sturdy item), remove it and lay it across the horse’s back and then replace the raincoat to its original position.

To prepare for these obstacles your horse should stand calmly when asked and should be desensitized to you moving around him. I always over prepare my horses for these things. At home I will take the mail and raise my arm very quickly or slam the mail box open and closed. I do the same with the slicker by working up to the point where I can toss the raincoat roughly on top of the horse and even pull it over my horse’s head! Of course, you won’t do this in the show ring, but it is always better to be over prepared. That way nothing will bother your horse when in the ring.

The Bridge:

The bridge is the trail obstacle that is most commonly seen in photographs and known by all. When showing in-hand trail though, the handler is not supposed to go over the bridge with their horse! While walking along side the bridge the horse should travel straight across and centered on the bridge. He should not appear nervous or try to go quickly across but it is allowed that the horse sniff the bridge and/or puts his head low while crossing it.

Although many shows have heavy arched bridges you can start by laying a piece of plywood on the ground. This requires gradual work and may take hours to get your horse to calmly cross a full bridge, but is worth the effort. Doing this work will make your horse more comfortable walking across strange footings when you attend shows, such as grates, metal areas or entrances/exits to arenas!

Turning in a Box:

As easy as this sounds, this is a problem area for many exhibitors when it comes to trail. Most shows set up the box 6’x6′ which is not tiny, but is also not large enough for you to pivot the horse or walk in a circle. That means the handler must move both the shoulder of the horse and his hind end! …And, this must be done without entering the box (with the exception that you can step inside the corners of the box as you turn)!

This is one obstacle that I actually find easier to perform from the saddle than on the ground. When riding you can use your legs to guide 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 turning to the right), you can move the horse’s shoulder by walking toward him like you are asking for a showmanship turn. Every couple steps you will need to pause and ask the horse to move his hip toward you. This takes some practice and each horse responds differently!

Walk and Trot Throughs:

The final obstacle that you may encounter in the trail ring are walk and trot throughs. These may be set up in combination with walk/trot-overs, but generally consist of several cones being set out for the handler to walk or trot the horse between (in a serpentine or series of circles/figure eights).

Depending on the distance between cones the handler may or may not want to go around the cones as well. If they are set further apart and the horse can handle weaving through the cones, the handler should stay on one side and simply push or pull the horse around the cones. If you need to make a deeper S to be able to get through the obstacle, then the handler will probably want to weave with their horse!

The commonality between all these obstacles is the need for patience and practice. In-hand trail is not a class you can go into cold. It requires hours of hard work at home to prepare your horse for the difficult maneuvers and possibly scary obstacles. Also, don’t try to get everything into one lesson! Each horse is different and while one horse may “get it” right away, another horse may take a week to get the hang of the same obstacle.

Just remember, your horse will not do any better in the show ring than his average day at home!

A final word of encouragement though: Trail is a very rewarding class and although it takes lots of hard work your horse will be that much better for it. The work you put in will not only help you perform better in the trail class show ring, but will also create a more pleasant horse to be around. Your horse will learn to respect you and work with you and if you remain patient he will learn to try his hardest for you every time you ask him!