Courtesy of America’s Horse Daily
In Developing Good Balance and Track Work: Part 1, Lainie DeBoer explained a series of flat exercises to build a balanced foundation. In Part 2, Lainie introduces ground poles in preparation for jumping fences.
Ground-pole work – Once you’ve mastered all the exercises on the flat, put one pole on a 20-meter circle and canter over it, both leads. If your horse gets quicker one way or the other, or wants to cut a corner, that might be his weaker side to jump.
Then add a second pole on the opposite side of the circle. When you do that, your horse might get unbalanced and get quick. You have to keep working on maintaining a rhythm through the circle to get over the poles and help your horse get over them at a certain spot.
Then add a third pole and a fourth pole on the sides and start to count the strides in between the poles. You can make your circle smaller and do the poles three strides in between or push your circle back out and do four strides.
Adjustability of the stride is key to making this exercise work, and it will help you learn to negotiate around a course correctly when you need to make adjustments. If you can do this exercise well, it will give you an idea of where you are, and you’ll be well on your way to putting together a really good course.
Straight-line exercises – For this exercise, set up two poles on a straight line, 72 feet apart, and canter those, middle to middle, in different strides (for example: five strides, six, seven, and back to five).
Work on lengthening and collecting without getting inverted and too quick or too slow and heavy on the forehand, while keeping a soft mouth. Your goal is to make your course look even and the same, regardless of the stride length.
You can do variations of these straight lines with three or four poles – it’s all about getting your horse to go forward and then come back to you quietly, straight as an arrow, right down the middle.
Putting it all together – The illustration shows the exercise I want to build up to doing. It’s the best exercise for putting together balance and track work. You can set it up with ground poles and then move up to low jumps.
I’ll have a rider start out with a circle to the right, starting with the middle pole, going around that circle over all four poles. When she comes back to the middle pole, she’ll track left. Then I’ll have her canter a straight line down an outside line. We’ll do all kinds of variations around these circles, taking them in different stride numbers, lengthening, collecting, etc.
It’s all just playing with your track work. If you can negotiate variations around this and maintain a steady pace and balance, you’ll be fine over your course.
I eventually work my riders up to doing this exercise with 2-foot jumps instead of the ground poles and then without stirrups. If the riders can do that, they’ve got balance.
If you go through all these steps with the flat work and then you add this last exercise, you can put together any jumping course.
If at any point, you and your horse seem to fall apart in your communication – you get quick, you miss a pole or a jump, you can’t steer or get erratic – go back to the last exercise you did really well and work from there.
Check yourself – if you’ve set your poles evenly, you should be able to get the same number of strides if your rhythm is good. If you’re getting a three-stride, then a four or a five, you know your pace isn’t even. If you are getting quicker and quicker on your circle, your horse is out of balance.
If things suddenly start to go wrong, don’t discount a possible soundness issue – lameness, sore back, etc. – and get a professional’s advice, including your veterinarian. These exercises are meant to develop a progression of both balance and conditioning, so don’t go too fast.
At my farm, these exercises never go away: We rotate through them or some version of them, all the time. I also work on squares. We might do circles one day, squares the next, serpentines one day, the next day figure 8s, then a day on this last exercise.
When I warm up my horses, I always do a little stride lengthening and collecting, and that lets me know what kind of day my horse is having, and I’ll decide what flat work to do from there.
In these exercises or on course, sit deep and stay connected and count the rhythm, every step. It’s amazing, but when you count every step, all of a sudden the pace will get slower and more even, and you’ll feel like you have more time to think. If you have a nice, even rhythm, you’re going to feel like you’ve got a lot of time on course. If you’re unbalanced, you’ll feel like two minutes happened in 10 seconds. A good, steady pace gives you time to make good choices. Just counting every stride settles your thinking.