Trail Tips from Cynthia Cantleberry

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in WH's September 1992 issue. See the November 2006 print edition for Cantleberry's latest take on conquering the trail class.



A look at any trail class course would reveal certain key maneuvers they all have in common: walking over an obstacle, backing through an obstacle, and side-passing an obstacle. There are other maneuvers to be sure, but these are the standard and most tested. They also happen to be the same situations you have to handle when out on the trail, which a trail course is supposed to simulate.

A veteran competitor for over 35 years, Cynthia Cantleberry shares her ideas on working these obstacles and explains how to handle any problems as they arise.

At her training facility in Paso Robles, California, Cynthia introduces young horses to trail class obstacles, and schools old campaigners who might need tuning up before a show. A major force in AHSA and AQHA trail horse competition, Cynthia has won 11 AQHA world championships and one APHA world championship. For many years running, she had the AHSA's leading trail horses and Western pleasure horses. Her numerous youth and amateur rides have been Pacific Coast champions as well as AQHA world champions.

Since most trail course obstacles are made up of poles of varying types and sizes, Cynthia uses a variety of poles in her training program. Most are poles used in jump courses they are either round and smooth or eight-sided. She also uses 4-inch poles, similar to square fence posts.

Round poles don't hurt when a horse hits one, but they do roll, and that can scare a horse. The octagonal poles don't move as easily, but their edges produce more of a bite when a horse does bump them. The length of the poles runs anywhere from 3 to 12 feet.

Typically, the distance between poles, whether you walk over them or between them, is around 20 inches. When she's training, Cynthia never arranges poles fewer than 18 inches apart, and that's only if she wants to tighten an obstacle to get a horse's attention. She'll place them wider than 20 inches for a green horse whose confidence she wants to build. However, some horse show courses can have obstacles as tight as 15 inches, and it requires a patient and careful horse to negotiate them correctly. A back-through obstacle is usually spaced around 30 inches. Trot-over poles are normally 3 feet apart, and lope-overs, 6 to 7 feet.

Since walk-overs, back-throughs and side-passes are typical obstacles in most trail classes, Cynthia spends a good deal of time preparing her horses for these maneuvers. Before she introduces any obstacle, however, she makes sure the horse has basic handling skills and can perform the maneuvers required. For the purposes of this article, though, we'll assume the horse is performing at the level he should to be a trail horse. He should know how to stop, neck-rein, yield to leg pressure, and do turns on the forehand and hindquarters.

Cynthia goes through a warm-up routine before every training session. Since a good trail horse must have the same abilities as a good pleasure horse, Cynthia perfects the horse's walk, job, and lope on the rail. At the same time, she works the edge off the horse before she asks him to tackle any obstacles. That way, the horse is relaxed and can concentrate on the tasks at hand.

If a trail horse has a problem with walk-over, back-through or side-pass obstacles, it generally involves hitting them or rushing through them. Cynthia does several things to teach her horses to rate (adjust length of stride) and to develop patience.

One thing she stresses, however, is not to try to fix a problem in one day. If a horse is confused about a maneuver or one aspect of an obstacle, don't put too much pressure on him to correct his mistake. Take what small advances you can get and quit for the day or go on to some other obstacle. Return to the problem area the next day and the day after that. Build the horse's confidence through slow, careful work, not rushed, high-pressure work.

Walk-Over

Walking over a pole on the ground is probably the most basic of trail obstacles, but sometimes the hardest to do correctly. Cynthia takes every opportunity she can to walk a horse over all sorts of poles placed in many different positions. That way the horse becomes familiar with poles and learns to rate himself with minimal help.

When you're training a green horse, you have to help, she points out. If you see he's off stride on his approach to the first pole and will be too far away to step over it nicely, encourage him to take another stride before he gets there. If he is too close, slow him down and get him to take smaller steps. In time and with practice over many poles, you won't have to help at all.

"A young or green horse will usually pay attention to the pole on the ground, " she says. "But if he doesn't he'll hit it. It might roll and maybe scare him a little. If he accidentally puts his foot on it, he might slip and that will wake him up, too. I find that after a horse hits a pole several times, he usually starts paying attention to where he puts his feet."

After the horse confidently steps over wide-set poles (20 to 24 inches), Cynthia closes the distance between poles to tighten his strides. By walking over them repeatedly day after day, she lets the horse teach himself to pay attention and rate his speed. That way, when he hits the pole, it's not because of something she did it's something he did to himself. The next time through a tight line of poles, he'll pick up hiss feet and adjust his speed all by himself.

Older horses that have been campaigned can get sloppy. Unlike green horses who scare easily, season trail horses tend to get lazy and don't respect poles as they once did. Cynthia deals with this two ways.

"I set up a walk-over that is fairly solid, " she explains. "I like to use 4 by 4s because their edges have a bite. When a horse hits such an edge, it smarts. In the beginning, I keep them 20 to 22 inches apart. I narrow the distance only if this situation doesn't solve the problem.

"In a horse show, a four-pole walk-over is typical and, after enough shows, the horse knows he's finished after the fourth pole. He hurries and gets sloppy. So at home I set up six, eight, nine poles or whatever it takes to keep him alert and trying. I've even set up 16 pipe poles 20 inches apart. A horse has to slow down with this setup otherwise he'll hit the poles real hard."

Cynthia cautions that although these poles are heavy, they are not stationary. Therefore, a horse cannot get trapped in them. You don't want him to get hurt.

As another solution to sharpen up a lazy campaigner, Cynthia elevates one end of the poles approximately 10 to 12 inches off the ground.

"I fix them so the horse cannot get through them cleanly, " Cynthia says. "As he bangs the poles, some of them will fall and maybe roll toward him, which really wakes him up.

"But I don't use this obstacle a lot because the effect wears off, " she cautions. "The horse becomes used to this trap, and doesn't respect the poles. I might use this obstacle once before I go to a show to keep him fresh and alert."

Cynthia has a couple of solutions to slow a horse who rushes through pole obstacles.

"If a horse approaches the poles too quickly, " she says, "and you know he'll wallow his way through, ticking everything as he goes, stop him before he goes over the first pole, stand there and back up. Walk, stop, stand, and back up. Keep doing this until the horse walks up to the poles and actually stops himself. When he does, then let him go through them."

Cynthia added that there are horses who will go over one or two poles slowly, but by the third pole, pick up speed again. When he starts to quicken his pace, say whoa and stop him, she advises. Sit there. Let him got to the fourth pole and stop him again. Sit there. Eventually, he will just tiptoe through the poles. Use standing and doing nothing as a reward for going slowly. A pat on the neck or verbal praise wouldn't hurt either.

Antsy or eager horses have similar problems to those who rush. They're always in a hurry. Some horses just have more patience than others. For those anxious horses who don't have much patience, you have to teach them that standing still is easier than moving.

"When I'm working an obstacle and my horse doesn't want to stand still, and maybe even paws the ground, I give him about three chances to quit" Cynthia says. "If he doesn't, I gallop him around the ring or field two or three times. Then I take him back to the obstacle and try again. If he still acts up, back to galloping we go. Pretty soon, he realizes that galloping is a lot harder than standing still."

Back-Through

For testing a horse's agility, L-shaped obstacles are often used in courses. As popular as they are, however, they also seem to be clobbered the most often. It's hard enough to figure out how to have a horse place his feet carefully going forward, much less going backward.

"I think everyone has his own way of approaching a back-through, " Cynthia says. "I turn around quite a ways from the poles, probably a length or at least half a horse-length from them. This gives me time to line up my horse correctly. Young horses, especially, have a tendency to not back in a straight line, and therefore, might knock a pole. With my method, by the time I have him lined out, he backs straight."

For a horse who backs too fast, Cynthia suggests stopping and walking a couple of steps forward. Every time the horse hurries, stop him and let him advance forward. Soon, he should slow down.

The important thing in backing up, Cynthia says, is the cue for whoa, and her method is a little different from most.

"I want my horse to work off my hands and legs, " she emphasizes. "When I want to back, I pull the reins slightly. When I want to slow down or stop, I release the rein pressure, thereby giving slack, and I also squeeze with my legs. The combination of releasing pressure, giving slack, and squeezing is a signal to my horses to stop."

Since squeezing is usually a cue to go forward, when Cynthia squeezes in a back up, it stops, it stops the horse because it's a cue to go forward. But as soon as he stops, she releases the pressure so he won't go forward.

The typical back-through is L-shaped, so in addition to backing straight, you have to turn a corner. Cynthia's strategy for the L back-through is a three-stage maneuver.

1.She backs into the corner of the L until her horse's hind feet are in the middle of the corner, equidistant between the poles.

2.She turns the corner by keeping the horse's front end stationary as his hindquarters turn. In other words, she does a turn on the forehand. The horse's front feet sometimes move a little, but she tries to minimize the movement.

3.Cynthia applies pressure with her inside leg. For a right-hand turn, this would be her right leg. By keeping her right leg on the horse as she neck-reins his front end around the corner to the left, she prevents the horse from swinging his hindquarters too far to the right. The horse braces against her leg as his front end lines out. Now he's in a straight position to finish backing out.

After much practice, Cynthia says, your horse can learn to do this without stopping his motion. It's impressive to see a horse turn a corner backward, and look like he needed no help in doing it.

Side-Pass

Side-passing anything from poles to hay bales is a favorite obstacle for course designers.

When Cynthia teaches a green horse to side-pass a pole for the first time, she uses a short pole (around 3 to 4 feet). She has her horses step over the pole near one end, so he has to side-pass only two or three steps. She does this to build confidence.

"There's something about being over a pole that makes many horses freeze, " she explains. "They think they can't move over it sideways."

She does this two ore three times on each end of the single pole.

"Remember to side-pass in both directions, " she says. "You don't want your horse thinking he does it only one way.

"Each time I practice this maneuver, I go deeper into the middle of the pole, until the pole does not intimidate the horse anymore. Soon, he'll side-pass the length of the pole."

Young horses often get flustered learning to side-pass. Sideways is not a natural movement for them-and they avoid it when they can. They try to back up or move forward-anything but sideways. With this in mind, Cynthia does not practice side-passing every day. When she gets a few good steps, she considers that enough and goes on to something else or quits the training session on a good note.

To side-pass a pole, you want it directly under the horse to minimize his hitting it with a front or back foot. Most exhibitors use one stirrup as a guide the pole should be directly under the stirrup, or perhaps a little to the rear or front of it, depending on just where the stirrup hangs in relation to the middle of the horse's belly.

For her training sessions, Cynthia sets up poles to form different obstacles, and then teaches her horses to walk, jog, and lope over, around and through them. She likes to use combination obstacles, those that allow horses to do more than one thing, such as walking over, backing through and side-passing the same obstacle.

She says, "One good thing about using this type of obstacle: Your horse never anticipates what you are going to do. One day you might do one maneuver. The next day, another. And by the end of the week, you do something completely different than you did at the beginning of the week. Then you can put them all together in a series of maneuvers that keeps your horse sharp in his response, and light on his feet. He waits for you to tell him what to do.

"I take horses of all ages through this type of obstacle. I've even taken 2-year-olds that bang through it at first. Then, they learn to pick up their feet and put them down right.

"A trail horse is part reiner, part jumper, part pleasure horse, and broke to death, " Cynthia smiles.