AQHA Professional Horsemen Jim and Deanna Searles share horse-showing strategies to help you compete in trail.
By Jim and Deanna Searles in The American Quarter Horse Journal
“Every trail course is always a little different. It’s never the same twice, even on the same horse,” says AQHA Professional Horsewoman Deanna Searles. “It’s always challenging.”
That’s why Deanna and her husband, AQHA Professional Horseman Jim Searles, love trail. They’ve competed successfully in the class for years, as have their clients, training from their Circle S Ranch in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Jim and Deanna know that a good walk-through before a trail class can go a long way toward ensuring that the time and effort you put into preparing for the class won’t go to waste.
Here’s their strategy for a winning walk-through.
Really Memorize the Pattern
Deanna: Memorizing where you’re supposed to be going is the name of the game.
Everyone has to figure out how they best memorize a pattern. The night before, take 10 minutes or the whole night if you need it to get the course into your head.
If your nerves get the best of you during the ride, at least you know where you’re going. But if you forget where you’re supposed to be going, you just have to stop. We’ve all been there.
Find Your Walk-Through “Style”
Jim: At the (AQHA) World (Championship) Show, everyone runs to the front to be the first to get through. I like to hang back, let the crowd go through and walk it myself. I like to focus on my own and get my own thought process.
Deanna: Everybody is different and has his own style. I hate walking in the crowd. I have to get out in front so I can see where I’m going. I like to talk about things. Sometimes you get pointers from other people as you’re walking.
Walk the Path You’re Going to Ride
Deanna: I try to find a “chalk line,” like when you mark out a baseball diamond. I envision that somebody has drawn one through the trail course, and I follow that exact path in the dirt, even between obstacles, so I know what path I need to ride to hit a certain spot.
I pretend like I’m actually on the horse when I’m walking it. I pretend like I’m steering, and I ride it with my shoulders so I get
the whole big feel of being on the horse in the pattern.
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Know Your Strides
Jim: As I’m walking, I make sure my strides are right, and I see where I need to hit my spots. Count in your mind as you feel your horse’s stride. That way, you can feel the rhythm of your horse and whether or not you need to increase your stride or rate back.
That’s what’s so unique about trail is that every horse is different, yet they have to meet a 6- to 7-foot ratio. Most lope-over strides are 6-foot, but they can go up to 7-foot. If you have a short-strided horse, 7 feet is a long stride, and you’ve got to know if you need to move your horse up. Or rate back and not push him as much if you have a long-strided horse.
Deanna: On an arch, you can move in a little bit toward the center with a short-strided horse and move out on the arch with a long-strided horse.
Watch a Go if You Can
Jim: The most important thing I tell my amateurs or youth to do is if you draw a go past the first five, go up and watch how the pattern is ridden. Even though you’ve walked it and walked it, it doesn’t always ride the same. If you sit there and watch a couple of horses go through, you see the rhythm and the spots where people are having trouble.
Deanna: Another rider might make the mistake that you don’t have to. You might think, “I was going to turn right there, too, and that angle didn’t work.” Or you can see if it’s prettier to do a fan in three strides like someone else rode it, rather than the two you had planned.
Don’t Overdo the Schooling Pattern
Jim: When we prepare the night before at a big show, we don’t let our clients ride the practice course over and over. And we don’t do it ourselves.
We go through and ride the whole thing one time to get a feel for the ride. And then we go back and school a couple of obstacles and then let it be. We might school a little outside or walk the course.
I feel our horses stay a little fresher and crisper on a pattern when they’ve done it just once. If you repeat it too much, then when you show, it’s not a big deal to them, and they’ll have a couple of hits.
Deanna: Usually the first time you ride a trail pattern, you ride it better than you do if you’ve ridden it a whole bunch of times, especially over a hard obstacle.
As a rider, you ride without thinking about it that first time. When you start thinking about it too much or analyzing it a little too much, you mess yourself up. If you just let yourself ride without thinking about it, you don’t think about brushing anything. It’s a habit. You just ride it, and you know exactly where you are.