A recent article I wrote for The Rider…
Building your horse’s skill and confidence over poles is like building any structure – first, lay a solid foundation. Nothing shakes a prey animal’s confidence like getting his feet tangled as he leaps over and lands on the rails.
As with jumping, the building blocks of this foundation are stride adjustment , lateral control and collection before cantering or loping obstacles.
Slower is faster. A logical progression of trotting rails first, before you begin loping or cantering is the key. Rider error can incite horses to hurry through trail obstacles. Like those who rush fences, horses who don’t trust their rider’s judgement just want to get it over with! Though riders may confuse this with eagerness, rushing is actually an automatic response, triggered by fear. With every mistake, confidence erodes and a horse’s flight instinct takes over. Slow and steady is the best insurance policy.
So here’s your checklist on the approach to every obstacle. As long as you get your horse to the pole straight, in the right length of stride and with enough spring or cadence in the stride – the rest is your horse’s responsibility.
1. STRIDE LENGTH. You should be able to adjust your horse’s lope as evenly and smoothly as an elastic band, between six and ten feet. Trail courses are built on a six foot lope stride. If your horse gets excited when you lengthen or breaks gait when you shorten, return to developing this skill without the rails. Know what your horse’s six foot stride feels like and keep it the same, stride after stride. Keep your rhythm like a metronome – I always have a drum beat going in my head.
2. STRAIGHTNESS . Is your horse laterally responsive- guiding easily from your leg and subtle neck rein? To cross the pole cleanly, your horse’s spine needs to be aligned straight from nose to tail, with front and back feet straddling the line of travel.
3. SHAPE. The quality and outline of the stride is the final ingredient. With suspension or (“bounce to the ounce”) in the gait, the horse has enough energy to adjust to make even an awkward approach work out. And he must be allowed to stretch to look down at the pole. A horse’s line of bilateral vision is down the plane of his face. If his head is in the air, he’s going to hit the rails.
Start by loping single poles, scattered around your arena at distances far enough away from each other that you have time to think in between. Approach each pole at a six foot stride, on a perpendicular path, with your horse’s body aligned straight. See if you can count three strides before each pole. This is the process of developing your “eye”. And that’ll be our topic for the next article!