1. Staggered-pole exercise.
What you'll do: Present your horse with something different, therefore keeping his attention and honing his performance.
How you'll do it: Set two poles about 2 feet apart and parallel to each other. Slide one of the poles along the ground so it's staggered from the other pole by about 3 feet, but remains parallel. This arrangement allows you to practice loping over just one pole, and practice jogging over two poles. As your horse lopes the single pole, the other pole's presence will focus his attention and encourage him to pick up his feet. Similarly, jogging the two poles will pique your horse's interest and encourage him to lift his feet--which will help him turn in a clean pole-crossing performance in the show pen.
2. Crossed-pole exercise.
What you'll do: School your horse over a pair of crossed poles, like a very low, jumper-style crossrail. (You'll need two jumping standards to elevate the poles.)
How you'll do it: Cross two poles between the jumping standards, and elevate the poles' ends to about 8 inches. Set the center crossing point at 4 or 5 inches high. This configuration will also stimulate his interest and encourage him to pick up his feet. It also teaches him to cross at the poles' midpoint, because it's the lowest, most inviting spot to cross. School him over the crossed poles at the walk, jog, and lope.
3. Anticipation fix.
What you'll do: Break your horse's routine, so he'll focus his attention on your commands, rather than rushing over the pole.
How you'll do it: At home (or in the warm-up pen), practice crossing a single pole. As you approach it, stop your horse before he crosses it. This will help counteract his expectation to cross the pole, and get his attention back on your cues. Once he's listening, ask him to cross the pole at your cue. Or, back him up, and ask him to perform another maneuver, such as loping on a small circle.
Another fix: Approach the pole and ask your horse him to put only his front feet over it. Position him so the pole is centered underneath his belly, and ask him to sidepass along it in both directions. Again, this will get his mind off crossing the pole, and on to your cues.
Kenny Scott of Scott Performance Horses in Parker, Colorado, is an expert at achieving top Western riding results. He's coached many youth and amateur riders to top-10 finishes at the AQHA World Show. In 1997, he rode to a Western riding world championship on Social Acquisition.