Hitting The Trail- Making The Most of Your Trail Warm-up

July 26th, 2018 4:21 PM | No Comments

By APHA trainer, Blake Carney with Melinda Davisontrail3

It’s happened to every  trail competitor at least once. You get your pattern, head to the pen to practice, and a dozen thoughts run through your head. The pattern looks different than on the paper… Where do I even begin? There must be 30 horses out here; how do I stay out of their way?

The trail warm-up can be an overwhelming experience for even the most seasoned competitor. You want to make sure you’re making the most of your time, especially if it’s a paid/timed warm-up. You also want to make sure that you don’t get in anyone’s way and don’t over-school your horse.

While most people are already thinking ahead to the actual trail class, the warm-up is a very important step in preparation for both the horse and the rider. APHA trainer Blake Carney, of Carney Performance Horses,

breaks down the most important parts of the warm-up process, explains how riders can prepare mentally as well as physically, and outlines some trail warm-up etiquette.

Once you get the pattern for a trail class, how do you prepare yourself and your clients?

The first thing I suggest is to find the things you understand, and know you are capable of, first.  Don’t just dwell on something you’ve never seen or something you weren’t good at in the past. If you compare most obstacles to things you have done before, you’ll find that you have probably already done some version of everything.

We’ve all memorized the pattern on paper, and then when we get out to the actual warm-up and see the pattern in “real-life,” it seems totally different. What are some ways people can keep from becoming overwhelmed?

First, it’s important to have the pattern with you in your pocket before you get to the arena. If time allows, go on foot and view the whole pattern from the stands. Watch how it is flowing with others, and have a good plan of attack for when it’s your turn. If you are on a timed trail practice, make sure your horse is warmed up and focused so you can get the most out of your allotted time.

What are your methods of working the pattern in the warm-up? Do you work each obstacle in the order of the pattern or as it is available, or do you use a different method?

Blake likes to spend as much one-on-one time as possible with his students during the warm-up.

My customers always want to do the pattern from beginning to end, but that is nearly impossible in a busy trail warm-up arena, and personally, I think it’s a bad idea anyway. I always find the least busy obstacles first, and then go from there. Waiting to do something is just a waste of your time, which is very valuable if you are in a paid session. I also think it’s a bad idea to let the horse learn too much of the pattern in order, because naturally they will begin to try to do things without their rider!  Sometimes, I practice the pattern pieces and even go through the obstacles backwards or differently just to keep the horses fresh and listening, as long as I’m not interfering with other riders.

How do you keep your focus when there are so many other people practicing their pattern out there at the same time?

I try to stay close with my customers and make them feel like it’s just the two of us. Again, finding the obstacles that are not crowded will really aide in this rather than waiting with the crowd to do just one thing over and over. When I am practicing for myself, I am learning how the horse feels  best going through the obstacles and finding their strengths and weaknesses.  That way I know where I can show off and know where I need to stay conservative.

If you’re unable to work an obstacle to your satisfaction, how does that affect your strategy for the class?

Well, sometimes you just need to go back in your brain and remember that maybe this practice wasn’t the best, but overall you will be fine if you have done your homework. I always tell my clients that if you are going to ride something with a brain, some rides are going to be better than others!
The good news about horses is they probably won’t remember the problem in the warm­up as much as we do, so if we can move on from it and do our best, they will be fine as well. When you get to that trouble obstacle in the class, take a breath, and take it one step at a time. Sometimes your only goal is to forget “plussing” the obstacle and just not minus!

How do you know when you’ve practiced the pattern enough or too much? What are some of the risks of “over-practicing”?

Focus is one of the key factors to a successful trail warm-up

Focus is one of the key factors to a successful trail warm-up

I’m sure my clients are sick of me saying “DON’T DWELL!” When you do the same pieces over and over, it’s only natural that the horse will start to rush through things. Every time you do an obstacle in the warm­up, I suggest doing it slower than the time before, particularly back-throughs, sidepasses, and gates. Whenever I hear people say “my horse backed the back­through without me,” or “but I said whoa, and he wasn’t listening to my spurs:’ I usually account that to repeating the obstacle too much instead of making sure your horse is listening to the cues and aides you actually need to get through an obstacle.

So much of trail is mental as well physical. What are some common things you tell your students, particularly when it comes to things like nerves and mental toughness?

We all want to do our best. This can put a lot of stress in our minds. The important thing is to focus on what you know and go from there. All you can do is put out there what you’ve got, and the rest is up to the judges. Let the success come to you, stay relaxed, and take each obstacle one-at-a-time. Show your strengths, and take your time to get through your weaknesses successfully.

What additional things should people keep in mind?

I think it’s important to do your homework and know your rulebook! So often people look at a box or a back through or a lope­over and say, “That looks small,” or “Is that a normal sized lope over?” The rulebooks have the required dimensions for all of the obstacles. I suggest knowing you can do the smallest measurements at home and that way there is never a surprise when you get to the show!

BONUS – Trail Warm-up Etiquette: Do’s and Don’ts


•    Be aware of your surroundings. Cutting through to repeat an obstacle might be messing up someone else on another obstacle. Be courteous!
•    Step away and let others move on through if you are struggling on an obstacle and need to spend more time in it. You might even learn a helpful hint from them that will help you!
•    Have a strategy to get through your practice efficiently, but have some back up plans too. If it’s busy, editing your plan quickly will keep you on time and ready for the next obstacle that becomes available.


•    Stop in the middle of the course to talk to your coach or check your pattern. Instead, step outside of the course and come back when you are ready.
•    Hog an obstacle to repeat something over and over while others are waiting.
•    Over-train your horse on course, such as pulling your horse backwards through obstacles, jerking and snatching them through places, etc. Have your horse ready for practice before you get on course!


BlakeAbout Blake Carney

Blake owns and operates Carney Performance Horses out of Rome, Georgia, and specializes in APHA all-around events. He has coached youth and amateur exhibitors at the local, regional, and national level to numerous regional and world championships, in addition to national high­point earners.

You can follow Blake and his team by checking out Carney Performance Horses’ Facebook page.

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