by Susan Dudasik
Facebook – Misfit Farm Mules
Over the past few years interest has grown in a new type of trail event, the in-hand trail class, in which the equine is led instead of ridden over, through and around various obstacles. While equines of all ages can compete in these events, some shows limit them to youngsters. Usually the classes are divided into weanlings, yearlings and two year-olds with age appropriate obstacles. In the weanling class the equine might be required to lead from both sides, pick up a front hoof, enter a ground pole box then stand still for about 20 seconds and walk over a plywood bridge. Yearlings may be asked to stand quietly as the handler works the gate, back in hand, trot to a specific spot then stop, step over several raised poles and stand while they are being flysprayed, or as the handler puts on a slicker. Contestants in the two year-old class may be required to back between poles, walk across a tarp, turn on the forehand and haunches, sidepass a pole on the ground, and do a 360-degree turn in a small box. For older equines, the obstacle choices are unlimited. They may be required to load into a trailer, sidepass or back through L, Z or W-shaped ground poles, pop over a small jump or ground tie.
Entering your mule foal in an in-hand trail class can be fun and challenging, but if you just want to collect ribbons, this event isn’t in your foal’s best interest. The original idea for in-hand trail was to serve as a fun way to encourage people to spend more time working with their foals and teaching them basic ground manners. Unfortunately, as with most competitive events, some people have forgotten the original purpose and have started creating tougher courses and offering bigger awards, which is fine for older equines. But for weanlings through two year-olds, they are often asking for too much, too soon. The results are that the youngsters are too stressed. So for the sake of your mule, don’t get caught up in the ribbons and points race. Instead use the class as a way to rate your training progress. If at the first show your foal went through the whole course glued to your side or danced around during the standstill obstacle, but at the second one, there was space between the two of you, or he stood still for the entire time-limit, consider those major accomplishments.
Before deciding to enter an in-hand trail class, be sure to do your homework. Watch the class a few times so you have an idea of what kind of obstacles to expect. Set up a small course and practice at home. You just need a few four to six foot poles to make a standing box, some 10 to 12 foot poles for walk-overs and a sheet of plywood for a bridge. Hopefully the show’s course will be designed to focus more on good ground manners than on trying to see how difficult or spooky the obstacle can be. So spend lots of time leading your foal from both sides and having him simply standing still. This is perhaps the most important thing you can do. Notice as you watch any trail class, either in-hand or ridden, that most of the obstacles require the handler to “work” the obstacle: open the gate, take the mail out of the box or take something from a stand. You’ll quickly notice that the most successful partnerships have equines that stand quietly. Spend time asking your foal to stand for short periods in as many different places as possible so he gets used to listening to you, no matter what’s going on around him. Most foals will stand well in the quiet comfort of their home, but you want your foal to behave when there’s lots of activity going on. Also, try playing a radio relatively loudly to prepare him for the show’s loudspeakers.
When at the show, encourage your foal as much as possible. By now, you should be able to read his body language and can tell if he’s really frightened by something or just needs a few seconds to investigate it. If your foal is really spooked by an obstacle, by-pass it and go on to the next one. The showring’s not the place to get into a training session. Instead, go back to the basics by using the in-hand trail class as an opportunity for expanding your foal’s education.