Don’t Look Down!

Originally posted in Academie Duello’s blog in August 2012

Back from holidays and back to business. This week our riding skill is:

8. Walk and trot over single ground poles and a group of 3-4 trot poles

Riding over ground poles is the beginning of learning how to jump, but is also a useful exercise in and of itself for improving a horse’s way of going.  A ground pole is just what it sounds like — a jump rail, usually 8 – 12′ long, lying on the the ground.  Trot poles are usually a series of three or more rails, set 4 – 5′ apart depending on the stride of the horse.

A horse going over a series of trot poles must:

  • look where he’s going
  • pick up his feet
  • stay straight
  • keep an even tempo.

If he fails to do any of these he will knock rails with his feet, or perhaps stumble.  Most horses don’t enjoy tripping, and will pretty quickly respond by improving their way of going.

It’s not all on the horse, though.  A rider must:

  • make a straight approach to the centre of the poles
  • once ‘locked on’ to the obstacle, lift her focus to a tall and distant object
  • use her hands and legs to keep the horse straight
  • if rising to the trot, keep an even posting rhythm
  • maintain contact and impulsion, preventing the horse from rushing or stalling out.

Failure to do any one of the these things opens the door for the horse to avoid the rails, break to walk, become crooked or even jump a pair of rails.

This may seem like a lot to think about, but remember you use all these basic riding skills whether there is an obstacle in front of you or not. For example, when turning down the centre line, say from A to C, you:

  • ensure the horse is pointing straight at the letter C
  • focus on a point above and beyond the letter
  • keep your horse straight between your hands and legs
  • keep your rhythm, whether at walk, trot or canter
  • maintain contact and impulsion to regulate your horse’s pace

In fact, the best way to ride over trot poles is to pretend they aren’t there.  A common expression in the riding world is ‘look at the ground, that’s where you’ll end up.’  Looking down at the poles tips your head and body weight forward, ruining your balance and putting more weight on your horse’s forehand. This in turns makes him less able to pick up his forefeet and puts you in a precarious position if he stumbles, decides to stop, or swerves.

Once you’ve pointed your horse at them and set the pace, the poles on the ground become his problem to solve, not yours.  The same is true of jumps, whether they’re cross rails or 6′ puissance walls. Develop this attitude early in your riding career and you’ll have far fewer jumping errors to correct later on!

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