Before you start teaching trot poles to your students you’ll need to be sure the horse they ride is confident over trot poles.
Just because your lesson horse is well trained in other areas don’t expect him to automatically accept trot poles. Some horses take to trot poles immediately and others need time to accept their use. And some horses are frightened by trot poles. Trot poles fall in the category of things that don’t make sense to the horse.
Horses that are green and worried about trot poles will have a variety of reactions, from hesitation, refusal or run out; to rushing and jumping through the poles. Make sure that the inexperienced horse is ridden by an experienced rider until he is confirmed with trot poles. If your student will be learning on their own horse, suggest that the horse have a few training sessions before your student begins trot pole work in lessons. Better yet switch to a school horse for the first couple of lessons.
The method I use for training a sound, healthy horse to trot poles always produces a horse who is reliable and happy to do basic trot poles, but only if his other training is correct.
Start with 1 at the Walk
Place a single pole off the rail in your arena. Be sure the footing is free of holes or rocks before and after the pole, as this could cause injury or discomfort to the horse.
Once the horse is warmed up and able to work on a loose rein or light contact, walk him over the center of the pole. Reverse directions continuing to work back and forth over the pole until the horse is working calmly. Do the same in light seat or two point. With the pole off the rail you have the option of taking a nervous horse back to the rail for work, although this is rarely necessary.
If the horse breaks into a trot after the pole, or hops the pole, the rider must be secure and confident enough not to grab the horse’s mouth. The rider should gently slow the nervous horse, waiting several strides after the pole. If difficulties occur later in training/pole work they can almost always be traced back to mishandled fear or excitement with the horse. Fear makes horses anticipate and rush through poles. If fear or pain are met by the rider grabbing at the horse’s mouth the horse will associate pain with trot poles.
Then at the Trot
After the horse has walked the pole calmly in full seat and half seat, the rider can approach with a posting trot, picked up 6 strides away. There is no need to have more than light contact with the horse’s mouth. Keep trotting until 6 strides after the pole, making an easy transition to walk. Continue working the horse at walk and trot over the single pole, gradually lengthening the trotting time before and after the pole, until the the horse is managing the pole quietly in both gaits and directions. I leave sitting trot for advanced work.
A Word About Turns
Encourage your rider to think of working this single pole as a full exercise rather than just a pole. In other words, include smooth, balanced changes of direction and well planned turns as part of the exercise. And aim for the center of the pole. Establishing your boundaries for turning right from the beginning will help prevent problems for students. Don’t rush turns after the pole or the horse may see no reason to continue down a grid later. Plus sharp turns can unseat students.
Move the Pole
Move the pole to the track so that the fence is at one end of the pole. If you have a wing standard you may add it to the other side. (Green line in illustration) Horses should learn poles with and without wings.
Work on the Rail
Have your rider walk the horse over the pole using half seat and full seat in both directions.
At this point it shouldn’t take more than one or two times over the pole before the horse is ready to trot. Calmness is the indicator.
As the horse trots the pole you will need to get a visual for where his front hoof lands. In a soft arena he’ll leave an impression. You’ll use this marker when you add a second pole.
When the horse is comfortable with the pole on the rail, let your horse and rider take a short break while you add the second pole using your visual marker. The visual marker (hoof print) should be exactly in the middle of the space between the two poles. The horse’s opposing hind foot will step in the same spot. Measure this for future poles. (I use my footsteps).
Your horse should walk calmly over the two poles, if he’s been well prepared. Remember the poles are not spaced for walk so he may hit the second pole. This is nothing to worry about. If he knocks it out of place, re-adjust the pole.
Have your rider walk the pole in full seat and two point/half seat, changing direction.
Trot 2 poles
Assuming your horse is going quietly forward, your rider may pick up a soft trot about 6 strides before the pole. Be prepared that the horse may decide to jump the poles this first time. Again always be careful not to inadvertently punish the horse’s mouth or back. If the horse gets excited and jumps or if he picks up the canter on the other side, allow him to canter a bit before asking for a transition to trot and then to walk. Do all things calmly and smoothly. If the horse is not given anything to fear, he will soon go quietly.
Our goal is to have the horse trot the full arena quietly both directions with the rider posting the trot and also riding in 2 point / half seat as the horse trots two correctly spaced poles. Correct spacing is important for the confidence of the horse.
I recommend not exceeding about 20 minutes when introducing something new to the horse. All calm, accepting horse will process quickly. An exuberant horse will benefit from the lesson broken into parts. If you break it into parts, you’ll need to refresh the horse on the previous lesson before adding the next stage.
3, 4, and 5 Poles
Follow the same procedure for adding each new pole. Be sure that your horse is calm in his work before adding another pole. Too many poles at once can cause a horse to panic.
If the striding is too long it will cause your horse to speed up and lengthen over the last 2 poles. Our goal is not to over stimulate or over challenge the horse. We’re merely teaching him the mechanics of trot poles.
You have achieved introducing the horse to trot poles once he is trotting five poles quietly in both directions, with the rider in half seat and full seat posting.
The next step is to confirm his knowledge by using the five trot poles in his schooling on a regular basis. Walk and trot the poles. When he is able to pick up where the last lesson left off, move the poles to the center of the arena and have him ridden without the guide of wing standards or arena rail.
Now he’s ready to test his new skills in a group lesson with an accomplished rider.
Thanks for joining me at The Riding Instructor
Barbara Ellin Fox