Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Arena Obstacles: Ground Poles

It's hard to compete in any obstacle related event where you don't have the requirement of trotting or even loping over ground poles. Some of the ground pole obstacles will have specified distances between poles, sometimes basing the distance between poles to the required gait they have to be negotiated at. And sometimes you may see ground poles arranged like the spoke of a wheel, much narrower space closer to the center of the wheel and also elevated to add to the degree of difficulty.

A year or so ago, I was demonstrating riding an obstacle course that had three ground poles laid out before you had to cross over a wooden pallet bridge. The horse I was on riding did just fine, not nicking any poles and crossing the bridge in stride. The riders asked me to explain how I got my horse to do so well. My reply was "well you'll have to ask my horse. All I did was give him his head, direct him forward on a loose rein and he did the rest." I got the impression they thought I was giving a flippant answer, but really all I did was just get out of his way, thinking that he would likely not want to step on this poles.

A few days ago at a horse show this topic came up again when I was asked by someone how to get their horse trotting over ground poles without clipping them with their feet. The person explained that no matter how many times they tried to go over ground poles her horse would clip the poles with his feet. She also asked what was the exact distance apart they should be putting these ground poles. What I told her was as far as distance apart, pole to pole, she should look at the rule books for the type of competition she was doing - sort of like rehearsing that obstacle. Otherwise I'd vary the distance as it's likely to improve the horse's thinking and timing.   I asked them how much she practice traversing ground poles and she replied once or twice a week she would take her horse over the ground poles a few times, but her horse would clip so many of them she would stop not wanting to sore up her horse's feet.

I asked her if she was using 4 inch oilfield pipe for ground poles. She said they were PVC pipe, so I replied I wouldn't worry so much about your horse hitting the PVC ground poles, it's really only annoying the horse and that annoyance will work in your favor if you ask your horse to go over the ground poles more than a few times he'll get tired of hitting his hooves and have more attention  picking up his feet and maintaining suspension over the pole. 

She asked me what signals I'm doing with the reins and my legs to get the horse to pickup his feet. I told her that while I'm diligently working on connecting the reins to a horse's feet, I'm just not good enough to do to influence a horse when crossing ground poles. I just give the horse it's head via a loose rein, and use my legs and seat to keep his momentum up to maintain the gait across the poles.

Ground poles are something you'll likely have to do more than once a week to get good at, and just a few attempts at crossing these poles probably ain't enough either. I know ground poles are boring but they don't have to be. In the diagram below, I've attempted to depict crossing a set of ground poles, then adding a turn on the forehand or turn on the hocks to get set up for a repeat run over the poles.

You could also double your horse to bring him back over the poles. I'll just bet that after six or eight passes over the poles, the amount of times a horse clips the poles will decrease. I also like to mix up the tempo as well. After each pass over the poles and turn around, whether it's a turn on the forehand or hocks or whatever, sometimes I'll stop for 30 seconds or so before I ask the horse to go, and sometimes we'll move right out after the turn around.

Just remember that crossing ground poles is much harder for the horse when the rider is in contact with the horse's mouth as the horse needs to see what he needs to be stepping over. Riding over the poles on a loose rein, allowing the horse from freedom with his head or having a horse that will soften at the poll when asked is not only an asset, usually just plain necessary to negotiating the poles. Your seat and balance can affect the horse's timing as well. Bouncing around the seat, or being pulled forward if you are riding in contact as the horse drops his head to see the poles is not giving the horse the best chance either.

One pole obstacle that I have been doing lately adds small turns at the trot, stop, side pass one pole in one direction and another pole in another direction.  It's kind of hard to pass up a chance to work on lateral movement. 

So when training or if running an arena obstacles challenge consider adding tasks to that obstacles whether they are just ground poles or not.  If you have an arena or field with an obstacle course you have probably figured out that it gets boring to both you and the horse to do the same obstacles, the same way all the time. Plus nobody wants to spend a lot of time setting up obstacles, so it becomes necessary to getting the most value out of each obstacle. Figure out different ways to negotiate the same obstacle, keeping your horse and you mentally fresh as well as challenging your leadership and the horse's abilities.

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