Trail Obstacle for Pennies on the Dollar

Imagine a horse and rider combination navigating a beautiful covered bridge, hooves echoing over the babbling of a soft moving creek below. The horse calmly crosses over on a loose rein, stepping down with poise and polish. The pair seems to have emerged from the photo shoot of a magazine, but instead they turn to the next obstacle in the trail obstacle competition.

The equine industry has transformed the trail obstacle course from simple logs and bridges to breath taking, complicated patterns that require timing, thought and harmony between horse and rider. Even if a rider is not planning on going to a sanctioned show, with the addition of the trail program and pairing with ACTHA, there are many ways for trail riders to get involved.  The issue is; equipment is required to practice, and it can come at a price. It is fantastic to dream of luxurious bridges crossing tranquil brooks, covered bridges, exquisite gates set into posts and deep pools of water set in an arena. However, for the average owner, that easily becomes a bit cost prohibitive. To reduce expenses, is easier to simplify and piece together basic obstacles.



First and foremost consider safety when making any obstacle. It will do no good if a horse puts a leg through a bridge constructed of inferior materials and incurs an expensive vet bill, or worse; is permanently injured or killed. Look at every item used with intense scrutiny and double check to ensure no object has sharp edges that may cut horse or rider. If the horse attempts an obstacle and they are injured in the process, it may make them more reactive and less likely to attempt it again. It is imperative to continue to watch these obstacles as repetitive use, sun and weather wear the object down. Don’t assume that the object is as safe as it was the day it was placed out there – continually evaluate it when being used to determine when it needs to be repaired or replaced. It may seem tedious, but it will save time in the long run and may save horse or rider as well.

There are certain things not to skimp on. Pedestals and bridges are things that come to mind. Certain posts around the Internet will mention using pallets as pedestals or bridges, but if the horse steps down on it and it cracks, they may get a hoof stuck and drag it with them. If the object isn’t heavy enough to stay put as they walk away, they may flee backwards and take both rider and object with them. Anything the horse will stand or put weight on needs to be built to hold that much weight on it consistently and not be destroyed by the elements. For instance, a beautiful bridge at a trail obstacle course broke during one of the competition and the horse put its back leg through it. Thankfully the horse on the bridge was sensible and not young or reactive, otherwise it could have been a disaster. Instead, he picked his leg up out of the hole and continued off the bridge. Any handrails should be sturdy and firmly attached if the bridge is raised, so if the horse brushes against it they will not break and the horse will not fall.


The Basics

There are several basics that are easy to acquire for cheap. Items such as tarps, plastic bags, barrels, and feedbags are all things that can be utilized and transformed into other projects as time goes on. Cheap drags are easily designed from a feedbag full of cans and a length of rope. Pool Noodles are inexpensive and can be tied together with rope to make a different type of drag that is frequently used in trail obstacle competition, or tied between two high posts or trees and hung as a cowboy shower. Pool noodles typically create a very different response when dragged by a horse for the first time. Balloons filled with helium can be held by a weight and then moved from barrel to barrel.

Barrels can be purchased from several different places for cheap. If they are purchased straight from the places that use them filled, ensure they are completely washed, and double check to confirm they have not been carrying hazardous materials. There will be pictograms on the outside – if there are any that say hazardous materials, pass and move to something else. You and your horse will be handling it, and horses are very mouthy animals. They will touch, lick, and grab them. It will rain on them and leak into the environment. Those should not be available to the general public on a regular basis normally anyway, but always verify to be certain before purchasing.

Wooden Items

Wood is always useful to have in different lengths and thickness. Landscaping timbers are excellent for trot (gait) poles, and if they are flat on two sides they will not roll. They are also good for using to set for sidepassing over and backing through poles. Round poles can be used for jumping small obstacles. Posts can be purchased and set into buckets with concrete for moveable gates or mailbox obstacles, or set into the ground for more permanent use. PVC poles can be used for trot/gait poles as well, but they will break more often if the horse steps on them, and can splinter, so be careful. They are also lighter and the horse can learn to knock them and become lazy. They are cheaper, however so it can be easier to accumulate them.

Natural objects are free and can be easily used as objects. If a tree branch is knocked down, determine if it is safe and then tie a rope around it and use it as a drag. There will often be simulated deadfall, which is a set of branches that a horse will have to step through to get to the other side. To achieve this, put branches in a jumble that the horse has to navigate but not so close that they might not be able to get out. Tree trunks make fabulous and beautiful step overs or small jumping obstacles, as well as pedestals if cut down short enough.


Noisemakers and Decorations

Noisemakers are also excellent items for bombproofing, if used wisely. Things used in competitions have been air horns, flares, cap guns, bells, and clown horns. There are other things that are large and considered frightening such as giant stuffed teddy bears, spotted plywood cutouts of cows (which surprisingly can be scarier than they sound), tents with fake campfires and coolers, and they may have to stand still while someone else drags a large, colorful item up in a tree beside them. It can be very different when they are not responsible for that item moving. All of these items can be picked up relatively cheaply online or at big box stores, with the exception of a tent. That can be simulated with a tarp.  Umbrellas are also useful because it is inevitable that when the rain starts, someone will open one, and it is also possible that it may be used in the competition as well.

Decorations are a fun way to add color, movement and change up the obstacles. The best time to purchase decorations is after the holiday, not before, because they will be on sale for a fraction of the price. Things that move, shine, sparkle and make noise are perfect because they will allow the horse to overcome fear at home and make things look a lot easier out at the competition. They also make the obstacles look festive and fun.

In Conclusion

There are some indoor competitions that have waterfalls, hills and valleys. While this may be slightly extreme, there are ways to make fun and interesting courses by purchasing the basics. Before purchasing items, always scrutinize and confirm the item is safe and can hold up to the rigors of holding an enormous prey animal that can and will paw, bite and step on it. Said animal will step on, bump into, and knock over that item at some point or another, it is fairly well guaranteed. It is better to be safe than sorry and keep both horse and rider safe. Fleshing out the basic items of barrels, tarps, drags, poles, and natural objects can be combined and made into different obstacles and moved around constantly. Adding noisemakers and decorations can add versatility and diversity to the program. From there, the obstacles are only limited by the imagination.