If you compete: Use these stride-lengthening exercises to transition an experienced Western pleasure horse into a successful all-around competitor, as well as improve your horse’s handle.
If you don’t: Hone your and your horse’s focus, control, and precision for reliable communication.
The expert: Deanna Searles, Scottsdale, Arizona; successful trainer, exhibitor, and amateur/youth coach.
Most people think that to do pole work, you need a lot of poles, or that it’s only useful if you’ll compete in trail classes. But that’s not the case. Here I’ll show you six exercises that you can do at home with just four 12-foot poles. I purposely use plain, unpainted poles to keep my horse focused on stepping over them.
Work each of these exercises at a jog that has a lot of drive behind it and forces your horse to lengthen his stride. Remember to keep your eyes up, always look at what’s ahead on your path; keep riding, driving your horse over the poles with your seat, even if he makes a mistake; and don’t be afraid to ask for more step—you’ll need more forward motion than a Western pleasure jog offers.
1. Begin working at a trot over a single pole. Approach the pole at its center, cross it, and continue on a straight line. When you first start, expect your horse to tick the pole—or even stumble on it—until you both get your timing down. Use your seat to drive your horse over the pole, and be sure to keep your rein hand pushed forward and down so your horse can balance from his head and neck. Mastering these timing and position elements will help when you work over multiple poles.
Watch your horse for a tendency to “switch feet,” meaning he decides he must cross the pole with either his left or right foot, every single time. Pushing him through that half-step it takes to switch feet will show your horse that he can start with either foot.
2. Once you’ve mastered crossing one pole on a straight line, approach it from an angle, again at a trot. You can see from my horse’s hoofprints that I’m making a flattened figure 8, so that I guide my horse diagonally across the pole. This helps teach your horse to follow his nose and pick up his feet. If your horse struggles with this path, go back to the first exercise, and then return to this one.
Get very comfortable working over one pole before moving on.
3. Lay four poles in a parallel series, spaced 36 inches apart. Trot down the center of the series, keeping your horse on a straight path. It’ll take a few passes for both you and your horse to master the timing. Pay close attention to your horse’s cadence to get in rhythm with him. Counting an even one-two beat can help.
Think about sending your horse over just one pole at a time—don’t rush—to build his confidence and teach him to lead with either foot.
4. Next, jog parallel to the end pole, about five feet away from it, and ask for a sharp turn to trot through the poles. This exercise catches your horse a little off guard and puts his focus back on the obstacle and also helps teach him to lead with either foot. Work this exercise with both left and right turns to approach the poles.
5. Now set up your poles in a square. Trot across the box, straight through, or make a U-turn in the center of the box and go out the way you came. This helps tune your horse’s steering.
6. Work your horse in a circle around one of the box’s corners, working down to the smallest circle your horse can navigate. Then circle one corner, and change direction in the middle of the box to make a figure 8. Both maneuvers will advance your horse’s coordination.
Deanna Searles, alongside her husband, Jim, has produced top Western and English open, amateur, and youth horses and riders from the couple’s Circle S Ranch in Scottsdale, Arizona.