Western Trail Class Article and Photos Copyrighted - see credits below
Originally, the Western Trail discipline or class was designed to confront a horse with obstacles and tasks likely to be encountered when trail riding, such as opening a gate, riding through it and closing it, riding over a bridge, riding through water, negotiating over poles, etc. The trail horse must be finely-tuned to the rider’s cues, and move away from the rider’s legs to side pass, etc. However, in this class judges want to see a horse that displays brains and skill, the capability to negotiate on his own the obstacles of the western trail class.
Negotiating the trail course faultlessly is only one aspect when showing in trail. The judge will also look for a horse that does it in style. Given a horse that did not make any mistakes like touching a pole, showing reluctance to, say, cross a bridge, etc. but appears not to take any particular interest in the task at hand, will lose to another one that is just as correct, but shows attentiveness, displays an interest in the obstacles, points his ears and appears to study the obstacles and to competently pick his own way through the course of the western trail class.
It used to be that horses could win a trail that were not really well-broke, but had been diligently taught to back through an L made with poles lying on the ground, master the gate, the bridge, or even a teeter-totter. Those days are long gone, though. Today’s trail courses always include all three gaits at specified points, ask for great responsiveness and balance in various obstacles, like lope-overs and slalom jog-throughs, etc., and a horse needs to be well advanced to do all that in style.
At the top level today, lead departures are required both ways. Such a western trail class is as much a display of horsemanship and even dressage as are the western riding class or reining, only in a different way.
All trail courses consist of at least six obstacles, three of which must be so-called mandatory obstacles: Mandatory obstacles include:
1) the gate, already mentioned 2) walk-over, trot-over, or lope-over riding over at least four poles, which lie on the ground or may be elevated in advanced classes 3) backing through poles 4) wooden bridge 5) putting on an removing slicker 6) opening and closing mailbox 7) side pass 8) turn around in square box
In the western trail class, many more obstacles may be included, though, and some will really test a horse’s nerves. Regulations vary with different breed and show organizations; some include jumps, some do not; some allow animal hides, some do not; some allow water hazards (or simulated water, like a plastic sheet), some do not; some include the ground tie (where the horse has to stand still with the reins split reins dropped to the ground, or hobbled when shown with romal reins, while the dismounted rider moves away a reasonable distance; some allow drags, or the carrying of objects. Designers of courses for the western trail class have come up with some pretty imaginative and challenging courses.
The system for judging this class has been fashioned after the reining judging system, with 70 denoting an average score, and half points increments up and down the scale. Each obstacle will be evaluated independently, and receive and obstacle score, which will be added or subtracted, on the basis of plus 1 all the way down to minus 1. Obstacle scores are just like in reining determined and assessed independently of penalty points. Penalty points apply for touching a pole or obstacle (1/2). Hitting a pole in a western trail class, or stepping on one, breaking gait will cost one penalty point, knocking down an elevated pole or a cone, breaking gait for more than two strides are penalized three points, dropping an object to be carried, refusals, letting go of the gate, disobedience, etc. are penalized five points.
Credit is given to horses which negotiate the obstacles promptly, cleanly, smoothly, alertly, and with style and competence.
Photos from left to right: 1) Lope-over 2) Back-through 3) Opening, riding through, and closing a simulated gate. The photo at the top of the page shows a walk-over.