Friday, January 22, 2010

Circles, Slopes and Pole Bending

My front lawn (the one I'm not supposed to ride on) is about the size of the small dressage ring. It slopes gently up toward the house. It is bordered on one side by the front pasture and on the other by a row of Bradford Pear trees. The trees are a little more than a horse's length apart from one another. Eyeing them today, I had an idea.

Many years ago, when I was a young and daring rodeo wannabe, I participated in an event called Pole Bending. The basic idea is to zig-zag, at a gallop, through a series of poles set up in a straight line. The horse and rider who get through it the fastest win. It was a heck of a lot of fun and pretty challenging, even for a Quarter Horse. I figured it might be a good exercise for a Thoroughbred dressage horse, as well.

Obviously, I was not going to try it at a gallop. We'd never make it. Spider is not much of a "galloper", anyway. He was never raced. He wasn't even bred to be a racehorse, as far as I know (he doesn't have a Jockey Club tattoo). I've attempted to get him to gallop a few times, all he does is stretch his neck out at the canter until he eventually loses his balance and trots. He thinks he's really doing something, though. I don't have the heart to tell him he just looks silly.

Seeing as how this was our first time trying something like this together, I figured we'd start at a nice easy walk. But first, we needed some warm-up exercises. We did some shoulder in and out, then took up some 20 meter circles and spiraled in to 10 meter circles. Not only did this get him supple and onto his haunches, but it also established my Plan Of Attack for the trees. I felt the best way to approach weaving through the trees was to make a tight, maybe 10 meters or so, serpentine around the trees. From our spiraling in, I took up some figure eights, then a bit more shoulder in for suppling. Once I felt like he was supple and moving well off my inside leg we attacked the trees.

It went just as I expected.....terribly. Well, that's a bit unfair. He did the best he could, but it was something new and new things take time to get used to. Our circles weren't terribly even and there was definitely some panicky last minute steering to avoid crashing into trees, but we only ran into one tree. Not bad for the first go.

Still, there was room for improvement. Steering issues often come from the horse not having enough impulsion. Luckily, we had the natural slope of the lawn to work handy! So we went up and down the slope, first at a walk, then at trot. Each time, I was concentrating on pushing his hind end up the slope, then concentrating on maintaining the same feeling down the slope. Eventually, we reached a point where he felt like he was going uphill whether we were going up, down or staying level. That was what I was looking for!

At this point we went back to our "pole bending". At the walk, of course...we weren't ready for the trot. That would take weeks of work, those trees are tight. The first try was a little wonky, he was still getting the hang of it. And I was still getting the hang of the timing needed to avoid hitting the next tree. But as we did it a few more times, we got better and better. I called it a day after we managed to navigate the whole thing with no near-misses and no last minute "Oh Crap" steering moments. Were the serpentines perfect? No. But they were pretty good for a first try.

I like to leave room for improvement, anyway. Training a horse gets pretty boring if you drill something until it's perfect every time you ride.


  1. What a fun idea to add to your riding repertoire. I competed just once in pole bending with my Thoroughbred, Russell. He was fast through but didn't realize we had to spin around at the end and come back through. But, had I trained him once or twice at it, he would have been a star.

    That same say, we won the barrel race trophy--competing against a whole bunch of real gymkhana riders--cowboys all. I was riding English. Russell knew what to do and I just hung on. Can't beat a TB that knows how to run.

    Seriously, the bending is great for Spider.

  2. Awesome! We have a set of 'barrels' set up in our riding paddock and I use them a lot to help with the warm up. Helps with striaght lines and leg yeilding. Also we can practice corners and keeping balanced and if he is a little above himself we trot the 'barrel circuit' a few times and it gives him somthing to focus on and settle down. Adding new things is a great training tool! Great idea of your over half to plant them like that for you! :o)


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