You can practice maneuvers you might see in a trail class, like a sidepass, or you can work on body position, and approach and exit to a pole. It’s also a great way to check in with your horse and test his responsiveness to your riding cues.
You can spend your entire session practicing pole work, or just take a couple of minutes at the end of your ride to test his ability; it’s completely up to you. But remember, whatever you decide to do, make sure you give yourself enough time to go both directions.
I like to start at a walk, because if my horse isn’t approaching the pole correctly at the walk, I can’t expect him to do it at a jog or lope. This also gives me a chance to check in with my horse and see what he’s doing. Is he dropping his head and shoulders when I approach the pole or is he staying round? I also get a feel for the rhythm he’s creating. He should have a nice fluid walk that helps me have full range of motion of his hind legs and front legs. He should also willingly go forward and carry himself without me having to kick him every step of the way.
Remember, every time you ride over a trail pole you need to ride all four feet over it. You don’t want to clear it with your horse’s front feet and then stop riding, because he’ll be more likely to hit the pole with his hind legs.
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I’ll stay on a medium-sized circle and pick up the jog. If my horse doesn’t go into a jog how I want, I might go to two hands, and work on his body position and cadence before he gets to the pole. If he’s not moving how I want off the pole, he’s not going to go over the pole the way I want. When I’m jogging, I count my horse’s strides in a one-two beat. This helps me keep a steady rhythm, which is going to help my horse find his spot over the pole a little easier.
I keep my eyes forward, and I don’t look for the pole too far in advance, especially because I don’t want to lean into my circle trying to see it. Instead, I look above my horse’s ears so I know where my path will be and try to feel where the pole is.
After I clear the pole at a jog, I ask my horse to lope. As he lopes off, I pay attention to his transition. I want him to stay in the bridle and be responsive to my leg cues. I also keep counting—one, two, three, four—as I lope, to keep a steady rhythm and keep his strides consistent. I want the pole to split the lope through the stride, as shown in this photo.
The sidepass is something you can easily master using one pole in your arena. This obstacle might be one of the slower obstacles you see in a trail class. But it’s also extremely challenging, and a lot of people end up in the penalty box trying to rush through it. Your pole should be in the center of your horse, so he can cross his feet without hitting it. Take your time when practicing at home. You might take one or two steps and then stop and settle.
Once my horse is warmed up going over the pole at a straight line, I might change it up and put him in tight positions to see how quickly he can figure out how to get over it. This is a great way to change it up and keep his interest. I will do serpentines and a figure-eight pattern, and increase the difficulty and tightness as I go.
I’ll also ask my horse to do different speed transitions with only a few strides to react before reaching the pole. I might ask him to go from a jog to a lope, and see how quickly he can respond to my cue and find his rhythm before reaching the pole. I also might go from a lope and down to a trot to see if we can get that nice two-beat rhythm in time to successfully get over the pole.