Pole Power: Teach Your Horse to Focus on the Pole

Avoid costly pole hits by teaching your horse to notice the ground.

Question: My all-around horse has a tendency to hit the lope-over pole in Western riding classes, which is a points-off fault. Can you suggest a fix?

John Melcher
Cincinnati, Ohio

Answer: You need to teach your horse to focus on the pole, which will encourage him to clear it. I use a simple method that works by maximizing a horse’s tendency to avoid unpleasant experiences. You’ll ask your horse to back over the pole, a challenging and unnatural task for him. Then, when you ask him for an immediate lope over, he’ll pay attention to–and clear–it.

Place a pole on the ground. Establish a lope on either lead, then ask your horse to lope over the pole. If he touches it, quietly ask him to stop. Pause for 1 or 2 seconds to keep him relaxed. (You want to fix him, not fight him!) 

Now ask your horse to back over the pole. First, shorten your reins to establish a bit barrier. Wait for him to shift his weight rearward, then back him by using equal leg pressure and keeping steady rein contact. If he hesitates when he feels the pole with his hind foot, simply continue your calm back-up cues, increasing your leg pressure to encourage him to lift his hind legs. 

(Note: Avoid backing your horse too quickly, or he may become upset and forget about the pole altogether. Go slowly to give him an opportunity to think. This is a learning experience, not a punishment.) 

Once your horse completely backs over the pole, continue to back him until you’re 1 or 2 horse lengths behind it. Cease your cues, then ask him for a lope departure on the same lead you used initially. He should focus on the pole as he carefully lopes over it. 

From her facility in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., Cathy Hanson coaches a successful group of amateur and youth riders. Her resume includes an AQHA reserve world championship in junior Western riding, as well as the award-winning Horse & Rider series Train Along (February ’95 to April ’96), which focused on training a young horse from halter breaking through the first ride.

This article first appeared in the December 1999 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.

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