By Cathy Hanson


Lesson Two

Obstacles Needed to Train a Trail Horse


          You must have trail obstacles to train for trail.

          The more obstacles you construct, the better, because you need to set up a series of obstacles so your horse can learn to negotiate the course with the correct number of steps in the obstacle and between obstacles. 


          Poles – You can never have too many poles.

          The poles you use should be made of wood.

          Using plastic poles or plastic pipe is not recommended. Although easy for you to move around, they are also too easy for your horse to move.

          It is important to have the distance between poles correctly measured and plastic poles will not stay in place if bumped or touched.  And during initial training, there will be plenty of bumps, ticks and thumps that move a pole.  In addition to being more stable, heavier wood poles provide more “feel” for the horse when he hits them.  Because he doesn’t like to hit things that are solid, your horse will learn more quickly to “clear the poles.”

          When first starting, you don’t have to have fancy poles.  Your horse will be hitting and chipping them, so finding used poles is a money saver.  If you’re lucky and are near a hunter/jumper barn, you may be able to acquire some old poles at a good price.  Poles used by jumpers will be painted which is also a plus.  New poles are not painted, so you have additional work and expense when acquiring new poles.

          Select only two colors per pole, and paint alternating stripes.  It doesn’t matter the length of the pole.   What you must do is adjust the width of the colors along the pole so the ends are always the same color.  If you are painting a 12-foot pole, for example you can start with a two-foot wide red end.  Then paint a two-foot wide white stripe followed by a four-foot wide red center stripe.  The next stripe will be two-foot wide white followed by a two-foot wide red at the end of the pole.

          All poles should have the same color at each end. In the sample picture you will note that each end is the same color; the center stripes are adjusted to fit.  You must make the necessary mathematical adjustments for the interior stripes after you decide how wide the end stripes will be on the selected length pole.  Inside the two end stripes you can adjust the interior stripes any way wish.  It is best, however, if your center stripe is at least two-feet wide so you and the horse can easily determine the center of the pole.


our red and white pole

A painted eight-foot landscape timber


          The stripes are not just for looks, but important practice tools.

          You group like colors at each obstacle (all red and white poles). This helps you to easily identify each obstacle within the pattern, and helps you to memorize the order of the obstacles.  (The next obstacle may be blue and white poles, and the third obstacle may be green and white poles).

          The pole colors also help in learning to see the correct place to cross over the pole. 

          It is ideal to have lots of 12-foot poles. Twelve-foot poles will be used most often.

          Always buy 12-foot poles as they can be cut in half to make 6 foot poles or in thirds for 4-foot poles.  The 6-foot and 4-foot poles will be used for boxes and walkovers.  A 12-foot pole can be cut at 8 feet, leaving a 4-foot pole for walkovers and an 8-foot pole for serpentines.


          Bridge – You will need a bridge.   Bridges can be purchased, but if you are able to build your own, it will be a money saver.

          The bridge must be very sturdy.  It should be at least 8 feet long and 4 feet wide and 8 inches high.


Cherie going over bridge


          We are seeing more 8-foot bridges in competition, because the steps flow better when adding walkovers on the bridge.   Having several bridges is fun and helpful because you can make shapes with the bridges (an L) and build interesting obstacles to challenge your horse.

Click here to see a bridge under construction.


          Gate - A gate is a must. The gate is a required obstacle for some associations.

           You may use the gate to your arena or corral if it is safe, but you will also need a free standing gate which can be moved to different places within any course you design.

           Two jump standards with a rope between work well and can be moved easily.

          Building a free standing gate is difficult in two ways.  You have to be a pretty good carpenter to build the standards, and the standards are often heavy, making them difficult to move around.

          When measuring the gate opening, make sure the opening is wide enough for you and your horse to pass through easily.  If a rider gets a stirrup or horse hung up in the gate, it will delay your horse’s training.  A 6-foot gate is sufficient.   Click here for pictures of gates.


          Cones – Cones are a great item to have for your trail course.  They can be used in many ways.  Have at least a dozen.  Cones can be found at most tack stores, at Wal-Mart or at pet stores. Cones can be used as they are, or you can have distractions sticking out of them like small flags, flowers or hay.



          Barrels – Barrels can be used for several obstacles.  They can be used to back around or be set up as barriers.  The height of a barrel works well for placing a rain slicker or basket to be picked up and carried and placed on another barrel.



          Risers – Risers are blocks of wood used to raise your poles.  Notches should be cut into the block so the pole is secure.  It is not safe to have a pole roll and tangle with a horse’s feet.  Such accidents are especially bad with a young inexperienced horse as it can scare them enough to severely delay training.

pole riser 1           Pole riser dimensions


          The more advanced your horse becomes the more risers you will want to use.  Risers can be made with 4x6s and be 1 foot in length. Risers are used with experienced horses…do not ride a green horse over raised poles.



          Flower Boxes and Walls – Walls and flower boxes will be used in trail courses in the show arena.  Your horse needs to have experience with them at home.  The flower boxes and walls create barriers which distract your horse.  A barrier will cause your horse to drift away from the barrier and this will place your horse on the incorrect line while working an obstacle.  Horses will have to learn to trust the rider and ride up to a solid wall or next to a solid wall.

          The flowers make a pretty decoration, but they also distract your horse.   Get your horse used to them.   

          Walls can be painted to look like bricks, or stones.


flowers and back through



          Plants - Plants make great obstacles.  Of course, choose plants that are not poisonous to horses.  The plant should be hearty, as they will probable get knocked over and be nibbled.  Plants are used to distract the horse, create barriers and dress up your course.


          Water Box – Build a water box.  It can be used dry for a horse just learning about the bridge and it can be used later with water in it.

          The easiest size water box to build is 4x4, but it is easier to teach a horse to go into a larger water box, such as 4x8.

          Horses would rather go around a box than through it, so the bigger the water box the less likely the horse will attempt to sneak around it.

          Use 4x4’s for the sides and three quarter inch plywood for the bottom.  First, seal the water box with a silicone type product. Second, paint the bottom with a marine base paint.  Third, cut a thin piece of rubber mat to fit the bottom of the water box.  Building a good water box means the box will last longer.  


          Measuring Tape – The trail trainer’s best friend is the measuring tape.  Always have your tape available to measure the distance between poles… want your pole distances to be accurate…no guessing.


pvc measuring stick

A 12 foot three-quarter inch PVC pipe works great for measuring


          There are plenty of things around any barn that can be used to create obstacles.  Be sure they are safe and non-toxic.

          Never use something in which the horse could become tangled.

          A few handy items you can use: a tarp, horse blankets, mailbox and straw bales.

          After you’ve decided on the obstacles you are going to use, place them around your training area.

          Have a free standing gate, a few single poles scattered around and a few poles spaced 6-feet apart and 12-feet apart.  Place your bridge in an open area away from poles.

          Give your horse plenty of room to move around the bridge and not feel trapped.  Ride your horse around the poles and cones just to get him used to having the obstacles in the arena.  Do not feel tempted to go over poles, especially if your horse is uncomfortable.  This process may take several days or a few minutes. 

          When you set your poles, it is very important to measure them correctly.  When first teaching your horse how to go over poles, your horse will not know the correct step needed. It is important your horse start learning from the very beginning on poles that are measured correctly. (Later we may purposely ride over incorrectly measured distances to hone the seasoned trail horse’s focus.) 

          First the horse must learn the correct step distance.


Obstacle Placement

          Trot Overs – The first trail obstacle your horse will learn are trot overs. Once your horse is comfortable going over a single pole then place two or three poles 12-feet apart.

          The horse’s trot step is 3 feet.  When crossing over two poles spaced at 12 feet the horse will place the front feet on the ground for 4 steps.  (3 times 4 is 12).  If the poles are spaced at 6 feet apart the horse will place the front feet for two steps on the ground in between the poles.   (For advanced horses, place the poles 3 feet apart for one step in between poles.)  

          Do not use one-step trot overs for inexperienced horses; it is easier for the horse to trot over 2 poles at 12-feet apart, or 6-feet apart. 

          Do not try to walk a horse over 3-foot trot overs, as this will not help the horse learn the 2-foot walk over step.  If you are limited on the number of poles, use 6-foot and 12-foot distances which allow the horse to walk, trot and lope over.  Click Here To Watch Video.


          Walk Overs--The horse’s foot step for walk overs is two feet.  For walk overs it is better to teach them with 2-foot distances than larger distances as we did for trot overs.  As your horse advances, the distance can increase to 4 feet or 6 feet.  In a 6-foot box the horse must step his front feet down for 3 steps.  (3x2 is 6).   


          Lope Overs--The horse’s lope step is 6 feet.  Measure your poles at 6 feet, 12 feet and 18 feet.  At 6 feet the horse’s front foot will step once in between the poles.  At 12 feet the horse’s front feet will step two times and at 18 feet three times in between the poles.      Click Here to Watch Video.


          Hint – make a box that measures six feet square.  The box can be worked at the trot, lope or walk.  Your horse will also learn to turn around inside of the box. In the intermediate trail course the horse may be asked to trot into and stop inside the box.


          Back-ThroughsThe distance between the poles for the “L” back-through should be set at 3’6”.  As your horse becomes more advanced the distance will be narrowed to 3’3”. 


          Serpentines—You don’t have to make a serpentine obstacle a straight line…they can be different shapes, for example, a curve or half circle.

          For more advanced horses you can put a ground pole between the cones of a serpentine; the horse must work both the serpentine and go over the ground pole at the same time.  Click Here to Watch a Video.


          The AQHA rule book allows for “safe and negotiable obstacles which could reasonably be expected to be encountered on a trail ride and meets with the judge’s approval.  These obstacles can include the putting on and removal of a slicker and the removal and replacement of materials from a mail box.”

          Okay…let’s get started by placing obstacles in our training area.



Send me photos of your bridge, a serpentine with cones, a gate and a back-through.   You can send the pictures by e-mail to: