Pole Triangles

This is a pole layout I did a few weeks ago now with clients, which had numerous exercises within it to benefit a wide range of horses and riders. Lay out a triangle of poles, then place a pole four foot away from each pole. Then build another triangle with outer poles next to it, so that there are three trotting poles in the centre.

The first exercise I used with my riders was in their warm up, getting them to trot and canter between a pair of poles. This really helped identify any crookedness in the horse, and encouraged the riders to minimise their inside rein aids. Initially, I only had them riding through one pair of poles but towards the end of the warm up I got some riders to ride an arc through the two tramlines on one side of the formation, a bit like a shallow loop. This started to get the horses stepping under with the inside hind and using it correctly because they couldn’t drift through their outside shoulder due to the second pair of poles.

Just by using these poles in the warm up I found both horse and rider were more focused and their way of going improved by making them straighter.

The next exercise I utilised was getting my combinations to trot over the tramlines and then over the apex of the triangle. The tramlines were set as trot poles, and both horse and rider had to be accurate to the apex. I had my riders ride across the pole layout from various points, integrating the poles into their flatwork circles and shapes. This means the horses are less likely to anticipate the exercise and the rider can then take the benefit of the polework onto their flatwork and feel the improvement immediately.

If a horse persistently drifts one way or the other over the poles it tells you which hind leg is stronger, which leads me to developing some exercises to improve them. Likewise, it can help to identify any asymmetry in the rider’s seat or aids.

You can also ride from the apex to the trot poles, which is a harder accuracy question because the poles draw the horse away from the point, rather then funnelling them towards the apex.

With my more balanced horses and riders I rolled the tramlines out so they were nine foot apart, which meant they could canter over the poles and apexes.

To add a layer of difficulty to this route, some riders rode curves through the triangles, entering over the trot poles of one triangle, trotting the three trot poles in the centre before either trotting out over the apex, or left or right over another pair of poles.

The final route I had my riders take was along the length of the pole formation; trotting over an apex, over three trot poles and then over the other apex. This was a good test of their straightness, and by removing the middle pole of the trio it could be cantered.

Basically, have a play around with these pole triangles, taking as many different routes as you can, focusing on riding rhythmically, accurately, aiming to the centre of each pole, and straight. You should feel your horse’s cadence and balance improve as they start to lift their feet higher over the poles, lift through their abdominals, lighten the forehand, improve their proprioception and become more interested in their work.

Circles and Circles

This week I was challenged to teach a joint jumping lesson to a mother and daughter – Mum is a happy hacker, dressage enthusiast whilst daughter mainly does jumping and eventing, with some dressage thrown in under duress. So I had two different abilities. Well four really, because the two ponies are very different too.

Luckily I had a couple of days to plan this lesson, and I came up with jumping on a circle. Yes, I`ve done it before, but it always catches people out.

Four poles were set out at 3, 6, 9, 12 o`clock on a twenty metre circle. Slightly smaller in this case as they were only ponies. After a warm up on serpentines, quick transitions and lots of circles we began with cantering over the poles on the circle.

I wanted my riders to take some responsibility for the task, so told them that they needed to enter the circle over a different pole each time, stay on the circle for a lap or two, but exit the circle when appropriate – i.e. when they felt they had had a good couple of poles. This is to increase my riders` awareness of the importance of not over-doing an exercise.

My younger rider and her jumping pony managed the poles easily; the pony is supple enough that he can maintain the circle and jump with a slight curve to his body. The mother and cob were focusing too much on riding to the poles, so lost the canter rhythm and didn`t have a smooth curve between poles.

Once we`d done the circles on both reins I put the opposite fences up as cross poles – crosses to help guide my riders to the centre of the jumps. Having alternate poles and crosses gave my riders time to correct or rebalance while they got used to the exercise. Now both ponies were starting to maintain a smoother canter around the circle and my riders weren’t trying to over correct, but rather positioning their bodies and keeping a smooth focus so that they glided around the circle, rather than focus on one specific point before moving onto the next focal point.

Once all four jumps up the cob mare was keeping a much better canter rhythm, not backing off the fences, and taking off slightly further away and not chipping in. Then her rider started to relax and go with the mare more. The jumping pony did it perfectly on the right rein, but on the left he kept changing his canter lead over the jumps.

He`s always favoured the left lead, so its important that each jump is met on a good, close stride as close to perpendicular as possible, because any long jumps, or jumps on an angle give him a good excuse to change his lead. We spent quite a lot of time trying to correct my rider`s lines to fences, her body position and aids, so that the pony maintained right canter for longer. He started to and my rider felt there was some improvement, although she still found it frustrating when he seemingly changed for no reason.

Now this is where the exercise steps up a level.

I introduced changes of canter lead over the jumps. On the left rein, they needed to enter the circle over, let`s say the blue jump. Canter around the circle and then the next time they jumped the blue jump they needed to turn right on landing, canter a 15m circle, jumping the blue jump again before continuing around the circle in left canter.

The cob mare and Mum went first. By now, the canter was a lot freer and consistent, but I wasn`t sure how she would cope with the change of lead. Starting on the left rein, I was pleased that they managed a flying change over the fence onto right canter, and then again back onto left lead to finish the exercise. The right handed circle needed a bit of work as it was a bit big, but overall they understood the concept. The jumping pony, I knew, would find this small, right circle hard, but I hoped that riding a smaller circle would encourage his change of lead. The first attempt he landed left lead. This is where the exercise is so useful for improving the rider`s awareness because that canter needs correcting immediately. The second time they tried my rider really turned, forcing herself into position right and being very clear with her aids, and the pony changed!

Using this new found feeling, I immediately sent my young rider on a change of rein and told her to canter right rein around the circle of poles exaggerating her turn over each fence, as she had for the small circle. They rode a whole circle and then some maintaining right canter. I left the lesson there for these two as I wanted them to retain the feeling and understanding of riding in position right over fences. The other pair finished the lesson repeating the exercise on the other rein.

Both pairs looked much better by the end; the canter was more rhythmical and the jumps more even, with both riders planning their route and riding more discreetly and subtly. In the future I want to progress to doing a small circle around each jump, so that in one lap of the circle there are four smaller circles, with each jump being jumped twice and a change of canter lead over each jump.

The next day I had a similar client; a young boy and his pony who love jumping but lack fluency and often get refusals. When working with boys I find it`s important to be “doing” rather than talking, and to choose your battles wisely. For example, we were doing three loop serpentines and the it was an erratic rhythm and more of a zig zag. So first of all we tried to keep the trot the same. When this had improved we tried to go straight across the arena … and ended up with a four loop serpentine! I didn’t correct him because the loops were much better than the first attempt!

Anyway, we did the circle exercise, focusing on looking up and around to the next fence. Immediately the circle became rounder and the pony stopped chipping in. His rider was quite analytical about the exercise, telling me when things went right or wrong, and how he needed to change the way he rode it the next time to improve. Repetition is the key to teaching the body to work automatically and to build muscle memory. With this client I also did the change of lead and small circle exercise. The pony knew to sort himself out, but I wanted my rider to get used to looking up whilst changing direction, and making sure he sat up on the smaller circles to help his pony keep his balance. Then of course the exercise flowed much better, which should help him in any showjumping competitions and when he goes hunting on the weekend!



Whilst chatting around the dinner table the other day it came up that in the equestrian world, we have more than our fair share of odd people. “O double D” used to be the catch-phrase at my yard. I did question about our level of normal. But the counter argument was interesting …

“You may be odd, but do you take your horse for a run along the gallops because you can`t ride due to a back injury? When not running alongside your horse, do you meditate in your field with her?” This got me thinking. Whilst I am in no position to claim to be the full shilling, I like to think that I am without these few quirks.

I know a man who goes up to poo pick his horse; not to ride or feed him, just to poo pick. I`ve even seen him poo-picking on a Sunday IN THE DARK! Mad, I hear you saying. Poo-picking is at the bottom of my job list.

So who do you know with some quirky habits? Mine is that crazy moment when I decide to ride before work … it involves a 5.30am alarm call in order to be all ridden by 7am so that he can eat and be mucked out. I can`t face the thought of going to work having not done my stable, or mixed feeds, or filled haynets …

Talking of strange people, we all have those clients that make you wonder what you did in a previous life to deserve this weekly tortuous lesson. At the moment it is my little darlings on Fridays. Last week two were screaming and crying BEFORE they got onto the ponies. I was told to ignore them. At my previous yard there was this client who was renowned for being difficult, and quite often made you feel awkward or embarrassed, and it was almost a rite of passage to teach him. I remember the fear striking our hearts when we looked to see who was riding on the coffee morning and you read his name …
He tended to read a lot of books and quote them to you; ask a lots of questions to test your knowledge (or gift of the gab), and when riding he often forgot the rules of the school and would regularly forget instructions (such as stay on the left rein). Anyway, he was a regular client so we all had to do our best to teach him to the best of our abilities, even if we had already chewed our nails to the quick in anticipation and had started on the fingers during the lesson.

Which reminds me, quite nicely, of the saying “pride comes before fall”. I will always remember one summers day and this client decided that he wanted a jumping lesson. Not a problem, we can do that.
Oh, you want the centre manager to teach you? Of course.
Oh, you want to ride the dressage mare? Of course.

So this bright summers morning, at 11am, our most difficult client arrived for his jumping lesson aboard one of our quirky mares. He loved her, and she made him feel like a proper rider because she could do flying changes for Britain, but she was difficult to jump (believe me, I know) and had a very dirty stop in her. So while the rest of us have a nice long break in the cafeteria watching the lesson, the centre manager starts her lesson. The warm up went smoothly, as did the first cross pole. Then the jump became a 2`6″ upright. I can clearly remember the horse and rider combination cantering round on the left rein, turning away from the cafeteria and approaching the upright. The mare stuttered to a halt, threw up her head before dropping her left shoulder and diving off to the right. Cue client falls off. Straight over the left shoulder.
So the instructor tells her client to remount and try again. And EXACTLY the same thing happened.
And again.
And again.

Seven times in total.

It was the most entertaining tea break we`d ever had.

Afterwards, the centre manager said she was just trying to prove a point. That he couldn`t ride as well as he thought he could. I don`t know if he`s ever had a jumping lesson since …

An Indignant Mare

Last Friday I had a 3pm lesson with one of my favourite mares in the riding school. She`s full of character and always lets everyone know what she thinks, and I had a fairly new client on her for a jumping lesson. As Saturdays are always busy, we`d moved the mares we needed from the valley to the paddock near the arena. As we walked to the arena Clip Clop lifted her head and started walking very quickly with a couple of whinnies, looking at her grazing friends.

We got to the school and she was still marching around, gazing around, giving us absolutely none of her attention. I started putting poles out and said “When you`re ready, go forwards into rising trot” So my client applied her leg and Clip Clop squealed and bucked, before trotting as fast as she can towards her friends in the paddock. She then stopped and stared at them, so I told my client to be firm and ask her to move away, and once she was trotting to engage her brain and do lots of circles and changes of rein as a distraction. So she asked Clip Clop to move on, only to get another squeal of indignation, and then a very slow trot, almost verging on a walk, to the far end of the school, before turning and accelerating into medium trot back towards the other mares. This went on for about five minutes, and finally Clip Clop gave us her attention and settled into some lovely canter and pole work. My client was getting a little nervous about jumping, in case she got a bit of attitude from the mare, but in actual fact, they both jumped beautifully. My client riding straight and accurately, and Clip Clop took her into the jumps, didn`t overjump, and basculed nicely. I was very pleased with my client`s lower leg position and security over the jumps. I`m sure the couple of bucks helped this develop, but it was so funny seeing Clip Clop`s indignant face as she passed her friends grazing away.