Building your horse’s skill and confidence over poles is like building any secure structure – you must first lay a solid foundation. This includes stride adjustment, lateral control and collection before crossing obstacles.

Also, keep in mind that “slower is faster” – a logical progression of trotting rails first, before you begin loping, is the key to penalty-free performances in trail and western riding classes.

Rider error can cause horses to hurry through obstacles. Like those who rush fences, horses who don’t trust their riders’ judgement just want to get it over with. Some people confuse this with eagerness, but it’s actually adrenaline triggered by fear. With every mistake, confidence erodes and a horse’s flight instinct takes over. So, slow and steady is the best insurance policy.

To cross poles cleanly, a rider’s “eye” must be developed. In other words, when loping rhythmically to an obstacle, the rider will sense whether he needs to shorten or lengthen the stride a bit in order to meet the obstacle smoothly. Seeing this take-off spot several strides away will enable you to make small adjustments on each of the strides preceding the rail and avoid the last minute, adrenaline-raising, “chip in” or “big lurch.”

Here is a checklist for elements of the approach to every obstacle. As long as you get your horse to the pole straight, in the right length of stride and with enough spring or energy in the stride, the rest is your horse’s responsibility.


You should be able to adjust your horse’s lope as evenly and smoothly as an elastic band, between six and 10 feet. Trail courses are built on a six-foot lope stride. If your horse gets excited when you lengthen, or breaks gait when you shorten, return to developing this skill without the rails. Know what your horse’s six-foot stride feels like and keep it the same, stride after stride. Keep your rhythm like a metronome – I always have a drum beat going in my head.


Is your horse laterally responsive, guiding easily from your leg and subtle neck rein? To cross the pole cleanly, your horse’s spine needs to be aligned straight from nose to tail, with front and back feet straddling the line of travel.


The quality and outline of the stride is the final ingredient. With suspension in the gait, the horse has enough energy to adjust to make even an awkward approach work out. And he must be allowed to stretch to look down at the pole. A horse’s line of bilateral vision is down the plane of his face. If his head is in the air, he’s going to hit the rails.

Start by loping single poles, scattered around your arena at distances far enough away from each other that you have time to think in between. Approach each pole with a six-foot stride, on a perpendicular path, with your horse’s body aligned straight. See if you can count three strides before each pole. If you miscalculate, ask yourself if you should have lengthened or shortened the stride, and file that in your mental computer for the next pole. After loping hundreds of poles, your brain will start to make automatic decisions, just like it learned to do when driving a car or riding a bike.

When your eye is correctly finding the distance to single poles, start loping multiple poles, boxes and fan shapes. I like to set up a grid, combining rails in squares and rectangles that I can lope from any direction – lengthwise and crossways. Build the grid gradually and larger, one pole at a time so as not to overwhelm your horse

I find it helpful to look at the crossing point of each pole on the approach. I encourage riders to be decisive with their eyes, identifying the crossing points and points on the line of travel, without wavering. Where you will look you will go! When I get “soft” with my eyes, I start to make mistakes.

Many shows offer a walk/trot and green division in trail – a perfect place to start when you’re ready to take the show on the road.

Sample Patterns

The AQHA (also Equine Canada General Performance, etc.) has sample trail patterns/obstacles/fans with recommended distances in their rule book online.

  • Walk poles are set at 2 ft.
  • Trot poles are set at 3 ft.
  • Lope poles 6 ft. apart (1 stride)
  • A 12 ft. box would be 2 strides – 6 ft. box would be 1 stride.