Using Ground Poles for Fun and Challenging Rides

by Susan Dudasik, Salmon, Idaho

Published in the May 2016 Mules and More

Straight lines, corners and circles. Are you tired of doing the same old thing every time you ride? Weather riding in the arena or down the trail, this is a lot of what you do. In the arena you follow the rail, on the trail you might be going up and down hills and ravines, but you’re still basically going in a straight line. Even if you’re chasing barrels, it’s straight lines and turns. 

A few years ago some of my clients and I went to “The Event”, a three-day event held at Rebecca Farm in Kallispell, MT. It was the first time my riders had seen eventing, which consisted of dressage, cross-country jumping and stadium jumping. Though they   are novice riders who prefer walk/trot riding, they were really excited to see the versatility of the horses and were saying, “Can you imagine what it would be like to ride a jumper or cross-country course?” 

So, that got me to thinking, why not let them experience a course by using ground poles that they could walk and trot over. The idea was a hit and proved to be more beneficial than I ever dreamed. For the course, we used regular white PVC 10 foot pipe and 8 to 10 foot wooden poles. To make it more challenging, we had milk jugs filled with colored water to use as markers. At first we kept the “course” simple. Two poles on the long sides of the arena and one pole at each end. Basically they rode around the arena and walked over the poles. Simple enough. Then to spice it up the poles were placed randomly around the arena, some parallel with the rail, others angled toward or away from the rail. Some were spaced close together and others far apart. The goal was to have the riders hit the center of each pole as they went over them. 

At first the riders had a hard time hitting the center marks. Through these exercises they learned that they had to think ahead, plan how to position their equines, and ride with intent over the pole. If they didn’t continue to communicate with their equine right over the pole, the equine would tend to veer off center or sidestep the pole completely. At first the riders had all kinds of excuses as to why they missed the pole, but eventually they began to understand they were the reason their equine veered off, they are the ones who quit riding and just left everything up to their equine. Doing this type of pole work helped show the rider that she had to stay completely focused on the task at hand. She couldn’t get two or three strides from the pole and assume the equine would go over it on its own.

As the riders progressed the pattern was changed to include big open flowing half circles, turns and changes of direction. Again, the riders had to concentrate to be able to hit the center marks of each pole. They had to plan the angle of approach on the turns, use their leg and seat aids to maneuver their equines straight over the poles and look up where they were going. But most importantly, they had to plan ahead so they could hit their marks. As the riders became more confident in their planning and communication skills, the poles were moved closer together and the turns were made tighter. Though the riders were still walking, the time they had to plan and react between poles had become quicker and they had to be more active and focused to get the job done. As they worked on this goal, their riding and control greatly improved. They no longer had to think about using their legs to keep their equine moving straight, if the animal started to veer off, they automatically felt the veer and simply corrected it before the equine had time to miss the pole. They were developing timing and feel. As the riders advanced, their equines also became more attentive and responsive. At first the riders would make wide, sloppy turns, pulling their equines around to go over the poles. Now they were able to come off one pole, do a tight pivot turn and go right back over the same pole, hitting center in both directions. 

The next challenge was to arrange three widely spaced poles in a straight line. Two jugs were placed about two feet apart on each pole. The first set on the far left side of the pole, the second set in the center of the pole and the third set on the far right of the third pole. The object was to start over the poles and go through the jugs on each pole. Thus an introduction to lateral work as the equine had to continue going straight, but move diagonally to get through the jugs.

Another challenge was to lay the poles, widely spaced, like a big W and have the riders go down the center hitting all four poles in a straight line. Then the riders would approach the first pole at an angle so they had to weave over the poles to hit the centers. The object is to go slow and make the bends smooth while hitting the center marks.

All of these exercises are easy to set up and ride. They help the rider with their timing and feel, give the equine something more exciting to think about, and help with trust and communication between the two. Once you and your equine become proficient at walking through these patterns, go back to the wider spaced poles and try trotting through them. At first these exercises look simple, but to do them correctly by constantly hitting the center mark is very challenging and will make a big difference in your teamwork.

Susan Dudasik is an equine journalist, PATH Intl. Certified riding instructor and a mule enthusiast. She's competed in numerous trail class events, holds clinics and teaches groundwork and trail classes at Misfit Farm in Salmon, Idaho. The advice given here is meant only as a guide. A professional trainer should handle any serious horse training problems.