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Most Common Trail Class Mistake 
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California’s Cynthia Cantleberry, the First Lady of trail, identifies the most common mistake made in trail classes and tells you how to prevent it.

Cynthia Cantleberry

What is the most common mistake made in the trail class?

The most common mistake is looking down at the obstacle you’re on and not looking where you’re going. When you look down at the current obstacle, you can make your horse make a mistake by trying to help him too much. You may think you can correct a position problem if you look down at the obstacle, but the truth is it’s too late to fix it once you get there.

Here’s an example: If your horse isn’t lined up properly and is instead in position to hit that log, he’s going to hit it. But sometimes he’s not going to hit it and you make him hit it by looking down at it. Because you get there and look down and say, "He’s off," and you take hold of him just enough to make him step on it. Whereas if you’d left him alone to do it, everything would have been fine. You’ve trained him to do it, so let him do it.

I’ve done this more than once. I’ll be riding a green horse and I’ll say, "Boy, this horse is really cruising. Let’s see, we’re doing so good, maybe I better jump in here and help," and about that time it’s all over.

What should you have done instead?
Instead of looking down you should have looked ahead, and then you wouldn’t have touched your horse.

If you’re at this point, and your next obstacle is over there, and you’re already headed that way, just look over there. Just look where you’re going to go, look where you want to be. Your hand will follow your eyes.

When you walk your courses (on foot, before the class starts), find out where you should be, the paths you should take between obstacles. Remember that some horses neck-rein better, some make short distances better, and some make wide distances better. Know your horse. Know your course.

I have always trained my horses to let them do it. So as they’re young horses, I let them clobber the poles, and pretty soon they learn to rate themselves. Pretty soon after they’ve clobbered this stuff enough they’ll come up and they’ll either chip into it or they’ll learn to reach for it. And as they become seasoned horses you can’t see the chip, you can barely feel the chip, and you can’t see them leap at it, because they’ll bring themselves into it right, and that’s what you’re after.

Is there any way to fix this problem once it’s happened?

If you try to fix it once you’re there, it’s too late, unless you’re a heck of a hand and on a really, really broke horse. Normally, if you let your horse alone, he’ll bail you out. If you put him in wrong, a good seasoned horse will bail you out. It may not look pretty, but he’ll take care of you. But when you’re up on top of these poles, it’s too late to fix it.

Once you’re there and you’ve made a wrong decision, it’s too late. Unless you’re on a real seasoned horse, there’s no correction involved.

What other mistakes or problems have you seen?

Amateurs and kids have a tendency to talk each other into problems. "Oh, gosh, look at that, isn’t that terrible?" Well, the other rider had never even thought of it, and they wouldn’t have had a problem with it. Don’t let your friends talk you into things.

And don’t focus on one thing. I do it myself, sometimes. I think, "Oh no, this horse doesn’t like to neck rein this way or this horse doesn’t like a sharp turn." You get to thinking about it: "Well, this is my bad direction and this is what I have to do to make it right." But if you keep dwelling on it, I guarantee you’re going to have a problem with it. So don’t dwell on something.

What advice do you have to help people be prepared for trail class competition?

Walk the course on foot if you can. If you have trouble with courses, walk them. That way you know where you’re supposed to be, whether you have to make a wide turn or short turn.

Watch the horse in front of you go. If you watch two or three horses through the course–if you don’t have to be first–you get to see where the mistakes are being made. You can say to yourself: "Oh, the distance is wrong on that, they’re going too wide, that’s giving them too many strides, or, they’re going too tight, they don’t have enough strides." Out here in California we have so many trail horses that if you go in the middle of the pack there’s usually a path to follow, so you kind of know where to go. But sometimes you’ll see that the tracks went too far out on one obstacle. So know your course.

If you don’t have the opportunity to watch somebody else go, study the course, walk the course, know where you belong. Know your spots. Lots of the amateurs and most of the kids have trainers that will walk the course with them and help them know where to go.

Plan ahead. Plan where you’re going, where your spots are.
Every horse is a little different and is in a little different stage of training. Some of them need a little more help going to the left than they do to the right. Maybe some of them neck rein a little better to the right than to the left. Know your horse.

Final Thoughts
Trail is a very humbling event. You can be a superstar one day and you can be an idiot the next. It happens that fast. Sometimes the course defeats you, sometimes you defeat yourself, sometimes your horse defeats you. It builds character, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s something people can go home and play around with. It’s always more fun when there’s more people and somebody to guide you. It’s like jumpers and hunters; if you have a ground person, it makes it a lot easier because they can spot for you.

Trail horses have to have a really good rein on them nowadays, and they have to have a really good stop on them. In some of the courses, we jog or lope through three boxes and in the fourth one we have to stop. So trail horses have to be pretty well broke and have a good handle on them. They’re one of the brokest horses there are, and it’s not all gimmick-broke either–it’s not all leg cue or head cue. You have to take a hold of the reins and use them.

In the August 2001 issue of Western Horseman, Cynthia Cantleberry will show you how to set up a practice trail class course and tell you how to make the most of your daily rides.

About Cynthia Cantleberry

Cynthia Cantleberry won her first American Quarter Horse Association trail world championship in 1976 on Hi Mabel, owned by her husband Red Cantleberry, and Cynthia has been a top trainer and competitor in the event ever since. Hi Mabel produced one of Cynthia’s superstar horses, Hicando, who repeated his dam’s open senior trail world championship 20 years later in 1976 and is AQHA’s all-time leading point-earner in trail. Cynthia continues to train, show, and coach amateur riders from her ranch in Paso Robles, California.


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