Does you horse rush, ignore half-halts, and struggle to maintain rhythm over fences? Does he lack flexibility and bend through his turns? Here’s a handy exercise to improve your horse’s rideability, and all you need is four poles and some committed riding.
Many years ago, I watched legendary George Morris working with riders at the United States Event Team (USET) winter training sessions and this is one of his exercises. Nearly any horse can benefit from this pattern – it’s demanding enough for Advanced horses and riders, but can be made simple enough for greenies, too.
In a large arena or field, place four poles on the ground end-to-end, in a zig-zag pattern. Using shorter rails will increase the difficulty; I recommend starting with standard 10′ or 12′ rails. Try to be spaced about 10-15m from the rail, especially for greener horses. This exercise is great for horses who anticipate, as the frequent turns keep them guessing about where to go and they can’t build up steam.
The pattern consists of cantering over a rail, followed by a circle to change direction, over another rail, and circle in the opposite direction. In the above diagram, start on the left lead, canter over the red pole. Go straight a few strides, then circle left and canter over the orange pole. Circle right, and canter over the yellow pole. Circle left, and finally over the green pole. Reverse the pattern to go in both directions (starting over the green pole).
Experienced horses and riders can make smaller circles, down to 10m or less. Less-advanced horses, still struggling with balance, may make larger circles up to 20m or more. Start at the trot, until you are comfortable with the pattern and where to make your turns. Green horses may break to the trot when they lose their balance; no worry, just pick up a canter again, complete the circle, and keep going.
To make the most of this exercise:
- Use the turns to balance the horse and package him to get to the base of the rail. Don’t let your horse dive around the circle, keep his shoulders up and hindquarters beneath him.
- Keep the horse very straight on approach and landing, do not let his shoulders fall in or out. Don’t be tempted to circle too early.
- Make your circles round and even, at a size appropriate to your horse’s level, while arriving at the center of the next pole.
- Concentrate on maintaining a consistent, rhythmic canter.
- Ideally, perform a flying change of lead over the pole. If not, keep your horse straight and ask again; or, quickly transition to trot or walk and perform a simple change. This exercise is NOT about flying changes, so if your horse is green at changes, plan on prompt simple changes instead.
- Keep your body position quiet – it’s just a pole on the ground, don’t throw yourself at it like it’s a real jump!
- When your horse is quite accomplished, turn the poles into low jumps and repeat the exercise. Nothing should change because they are fences: maintain a steady rhythm and focus on the quality of the circle and the horse’s straightness.
- Do you have a brave, catty horse? Canter through the zig-zag in a straight line, bouncing over the four rails at an angle.