Pole bending is a speed event that requires precision and stamina of both horse and rider. Practicing poles over and over again will reinforce bad habits and bore the horse, so it is important to conduct other exercises that will benefit your performance in pole bending but challenge your horse at the same time. When starting pole bending, focus on exercises that encourage responsiveness and agility.
Halt and Reverse
Practicing only speed for a speed event will yield an unresponsive horse. Your mount must learn to wait for your aids and respond to them immediately, which is why the halt and reverse is one of the best pole bending exercises. Walk, trot or lope your horse in a straight line. Sit back in the saddle and apply light pressure to the reins. If he gives his nose and lifts his shoulders in preparation for a change, reward him by releasing the pressure. If, however, he sets his jaw against the bit and lifts his head, halt him immediately. Back him up by alternating pressure on the left and right reins until he yields his nose and reverses. Then send him forward again. Repeat this exercise two or three times per training session in both directions.
Trotting the Poles
One problem frequently encountered in speed event exercises is the repetition. The horse knows how to weave the proper pattern through the poles, so he does this automatically without listening to his rider. To increase responsiveness, bring your horse to a trot on the first and last poles of your pattern, then complete the rest of the pattern at a lope. Focus on collecting your horse around those crucial poles so he lifts his shoulders and brings his hocks underneath himself. You can also try the entire pattern at an extended trot, then bring him down to a collected trot or a jog on the first and last poles.
Pole pending requires the horse to be flexible at all times, particularly when changing directions. During schooling, expand the pattern to the entire arena and ride several serpentines. Divide the arena into four or six loops, then trot and lope the pattern. Focus on collecting your horse on the ends of the loops and letting him extend down the center. Combine this exercise with the halt and reverse by finishing the serpentine and backing up. When conducting this exercise at a lope, remember to ask for a simple or flying change down the long side of each loop.
Pole bending can stress your horse's joints and tendons, but exercises that increase strength and flexibility will diminish that stress. Start with simple lateral flexion. Warm up your horse at the walk, trot and lope, then bring him to a halt in the center of the arena. Using direct rein, ask your horse to bring his nose toward your right or left boot. When he gives his nose, release the rein pressure and send him forward at the walk. Repeat this exercise in the opposite direction. Once you have mastered lateral flexion, move on to other lateral exercises, such as two-track work and side passes.
Laura College is a former riding instructor, horse trainer and veterinary assistant. She has worked as a writer since 2004, producing articles and sales copy for corporations and nonprofits. College has also published articles in numerous publications, including "On the Bit," "Practical Horseman" and "American Quarter Horse Journal."