You might quickly overlook the trail course’s turnaround box, or wonder what benefit maneuvering your non-show horse through the obstacle might provide. The truth is, it challenges your horse’s guiding abilities, your steering skills, and the spatial awareness and timing of you both.
The ideal: The horse walks (or jogs) into the box without hesitation or intimidation, without hitting any poles; completes the turn (the horse will “swap ends”—it’s impossible to pivot in the 6-foot box); and exits, picking his feet up to avoid the poles. For the greatest degree of difficulty (and the most points-earned), this all should happen in what looks like one fluid motion.
I’ll break down this obstacle and discuss the best way to execute each step of it. To practice, you’ll need four 12-foot poles, set to make a 6-foot square. The smallest box you’ll encounter at a show is this size, so it’s best for at-home practice. The rider in these photos demonstrates with a shanked bit; use a bit your horse prefers, and don’t be afraid to ride with two hands during practice.
1. The rider approaches the box straight and in the center of the first pole he’ll cross. This ensures that his horse will have proper position once inside the box, to allow room for a turn without tapping any of the poles. Notice that the horse shows a lot of forward motion in his jog—this is what we call a “trail trot,” and it’s essential to approach the obstacle with this kicked-up pace, no matter what gait the pattern calls for. It allows the horse to raise his back and pick up his feet.
2. Once the horse’s final leg enters the box, the rider will sit deep and use light rein pressure for a slight stop. The horse’s front feet will be near the pole that’s in front of him, but they won’t tick the pole.
3. The rider has entered the box and fluidly initiated his turn, laying his right rein on his horse’s neck and putting his right leg on his horse’s body to cue for a turn to the left. In trail, it’s OK to show more hand motion than in a horsemanship class, but cues should still be minimal. The rider looks to the 9/8 o’clock position to watch where he’s going. (If he were turning to the right, he’d look at the 3/4 o’clock position.)
4. A turn in the box isn’t like a horsemanship pivot or a reining spin. In both of those maneuvers, the horse sticks his inside hind leg as a pivot point. In the turnaround box, the horse will “swap ends,” meaning he won’t have a pivot foot. This is necessary due to the size constraints inside the box. Instead of setting a pivot and spinning around it, the trail horse arcs his body in a C and takes crossover steps in the direction of the turn with both his front and hind feet.
5. To prepare for a fluid exit, the rider continues to look over his shoulder for his exit point. He sits back and tightens down the turn a little to prepare the horse to exit the box. If he leans forward or to the left, the horse will get too forward and could hit a pole. In practice, if a horse tends to lean, or “flatten out,” at the three-quarter point, the rider should keep turning for another revolution or two so the horse learns to stay in frame through the entire turn.
6. Without hesitation, the horse and rider finish the turn and exit the box with forward motion to avoid ticking any poles. Just as when he entered the box, the horse’s back is up, his eyes are looking where he’s going, and he’s ready for the next obstacle.
Kelly McDowall trains all-around horses for open, amateur, and youth competition in Franktown, Colorado. It’s a family affair, with his wife, Marnie; son, Klay (shown in these photos); and daughter, Claire, all active in the show scene.