With one of the teenagers I teach and her jumping pony I did a useful exercise over poles this week. The pony is much stronger in left canter, usually changing to it when jumping, but I wanted to work on improving and strengthening the right canter, whilst also getting my rider to identify the weakness.
I laid out four poles on a twenty metre circle at 3,6,9 and 12 positions and put a plastic block at the end nearest the middle of the circle.
After a warm up she cantered a couple of circles over the poles on the left rein. A quick reminder about maintaining the rhythm, not letting him launch over the poles, and to ride the circle as opposed to letting him drift out, and she had the exercise sussed. On the right rein it took a couple more laps to perfect the poles.
Staying on the right rein I raised the poles onto the lowest height of the blocks, which meant that the pony had to pick up his feet and lift his abdominals and back so that it was more of a bounce, not a glide. We had a couple of odd leaps, wonky circles as he drifted through the outside shoulder, and the rhythm left a lot to be desired initially. They soon found the canter that they needed though, and maintaining it around the circle will help build his muscle – strength and memory. When the canter has enough power coming from behind and isn’t too fast the pony and rider shouldn’t notice the poles, it’s just part of the circle.
I sent her off to canter large and see if she noticed any difference. She did. She said that the new right canter felt like the left canter did, and it wasn’t as flat. Good! It certainly looked better – three time, with a rounder back – but unless she realises the importance of the exercise she won’t practice and aim to rediscover “that canter”.
Another change of rein and we repeated the circle exercise on the left rein. The improvement wasn’t as drastic, but my rider still felt that the raised poles had had a positive effect.
Because they found the exercise relatively easy I increased the height of the raised poles which meant the pony had to round his back a little bit more, flex through his joints, and take a little bit more weight onto his hindquarters in order to clear the poles on the circle. We ran through the exercise on both reins, which really tested the right canter. To finish we had a little Chase-Me-Charlie on the left rein. I didn’t want to upset the right canter because the pony had improved his canter hugely, but I wanted him to retain it and not revert to favouring the left when jumps got involved – once the right canter is stronger we’ll build in the jumping. They jumped a metre upright from a beautiful canter, meeting it perfectly so I finished the lesson!
The circle was still out the next day so I did it with the horses I school. For one mare, the raised poles made her flex her back muscles so her canter and trot stopped being so flat. It was more like sitting on a ball of energy rather than a plank. I’m looking forwards to building on this next time.
Another horse has a very expressive canter, but sometimes forgets his hind legs and can fall out of canter on circles because he is a bit weaker behind the saddle. He found the exercise tricky as he had to collect and not bound exuberantly over the poles. Afterwards I found transitions within the canter much easier to ride and he felt more balanced. I’m going to continue this work with some direct transitions next time to help improve and strengthen his canter further.
Another horse who did this exercise found it very difficult initially because whilst his canter is great in straight lines, he struggles to maintain it on circles less than fifteen metres without hollowing. So combine the raised poles and circle, and it was a tricky exercise. It took a couple of tries, and I started with riding just half the circle, and then taking time to rebalance before trying again. Then the penny dropped and the gelding managed to maintain the circle and bounced more in the canter so it was silent as we circled because he was picking his feet up – I lost count of how many times I had to dismount to pick up poles. I jumped this horse after the exercise and found he basculed more over the fences.
This exercise is invaluable for improving the quality of the canter and for strengthening the hindquarters; which has benefits on the flat and over fences.