This is part two of a three part series on training and tips for the Garrocha pole as used in Work Equitation. This article will be focusing on desensitizing horses to the “targets” used in Working Equitation Ease of Handling and the Speed Test.
The Ring & The Bull
The most common target seen in Working Equtation competition is the ring. In competition the ring is often attached to the “bull’s” back. The ring may be balanced on a cone that is sitting on a barrel or suspended from a pole with Velcro magnents. Sometimes there will be a series of rings suspended at different heights.
The silhouette of a bull is a very intimidating part of the obstacle for a lot of horses. Generally the bull is made out of wood and is quite flat sided. Due to the horse’s poor depth perception and the fact that the obstacle is generally completed in a straight line, a lot of horses do not see the bull well until they are close to passing by it. This causes a lot of horses to spook off the straight line the rider is trying to maintain. Working Equitation bulls come in all different shapes, colors and sizes in the competition ring. They are generally custom made, rarely do two bulls look alike. Even horses that are used to live cows are not sure about these two dimensional “bulls”. Therefore, desensitizing the horse to the bull must be accomplished before a rider can focus on the ring.
Introducing the bull
Introduce the horse to the bull while lunging the horse in a large circle, keeping the bull near the handler in the center. As the horse gets comfortable travelling around the bull, shorten the lunging circle and change directions. Once the horse becomes comfortable travelling around the bull, move it to the outside of the circle so the horse can see the bull from another perspective. It is important to complete the exercise in this order, if this exercise is started with the bull to the outside of the circle the horse will tend to shy toward the center where the handler is standing. This puts the handler in danger of being run over. As the horse becomes comfortable, let them approach and investigate the bull.
Introducing the rings.
The ring itself is not bothersome to the horse. However, once the ring is on the pole, the noise may alarm some horses. Rings come in plastic, metal, straw, wood, and any other material that can be engineered into a 6 inch circle. Each material makes a different sound when sliding down the pole. The loudest and most disturbing seems to be the metal. The ring will slide down the pole when you first catch it and again when you replace the pole in the drum. A metal ring sliding down a pole and settling in a metal drum makes a lot of racket that may be worrisome to some horses.
To desensitize the horse, start from the ground, holding the pole and allowing the ring to slide up and down the pole. I may allow them to work in a circle around me while sliding the ring up and down the pole until they are comfortable enough to stay with me. This generally does not take long with most horses.
When the horse is comfortable with the sound of the ring on the pole walk over to the barrel and return the pole to the barrel, allow the ring to slide down and hit the drum. As stated above, metal on metal makes the most noise. If possible practicing with a metal ring and a metal barrel is the best for desensitization. If the horse is concerned with the noise, try to lunge them in small circles around the barrel while running the ring along the top of the barrel to get them used to the sound. They only get to stand quietly next to the barrel. If they can’t stand quietly with the handler, they need to put their feet to work around the barrel until they release some anxiety and can relax while standing next to the barrel.
In the saddle (without the pole in hand)
Once the horse is confident seeing the bull in various locations and is not concerned about it, introduce the bull while mounted, riding different size circles around the bull both directions. Keep the horse focused on the circle, not the bull. They need to focus on the work that they are being asked to perform and accept the bull being there, the same as they would a tree or a rock. When the horse is able to perform the work without a reaction, attempt approaching the bull at a perpendicular angle and let the horse touch and investigate the bull. Some horses are very curious and others very reactive. If at any time on the approach the horse gets tense, go back to the last step of working around the bull again, but not acknowledging the bull. The reward is getting to investigate the bull and if the horse is not able to quietly do that, put them back to work. Don’t get upset or start a fight, just work on direction, rhythm and suppleness until they are able to relax again.
When the horse can approach and investigate the bull without being anxious, start traveling a line parallel to the bull. Because the bull is generally two dimensional, the horse doesn’t really see it until they are almost beside it. In competition you have to pass close enough to the bull to get the ring with the pole. Start the lines 12 to 15ft away from the bull and work closer to it as the horse’s comfort level increases. The goal is to be able to work close enough to barely avoid the rider’s leg touching the bull. It is advisable to allow the rider’s leg to brush the bull a couple times to accustom the horse to the sound so they won’t be surprised if it happens in competition. It is important that the horse can willingly pass close enough to the bull to allow the rider to collect the ring without leaning off the horse. Leaning off the horse throws the horse off balance and causes them to lose straightness, bend and rhythm.
In the saddle with the pole.
When the horse has become accepting of bull in all the above exercises repeat with the pole in hand. Do not worry about skewering the ring at this point. Practicing the exercises with the pole helps prepare the mount for catching the ring. This allows the rider to work on controlling the horse’s bend and feet while riding one handed.
When the horse is comfortable with the noise, only then should the rider attempt skewering the ring while mounted. This is where the work from the previous article comes into play. The horse must already be comfortable with retrieving and replacing the pole in the drum without trying to leave the barrels. At this point, start working on stringing the three concepts together (retrieval, skewering ring, and replacing pole) at a walk. The goal being able to complete it at a canter and gallop without having to circle the barrel to retrieve or replace the pole. Collecting the ring is not the focus for this exercise. The focus is on keeping the straight line and maintaining a consistent rhythm while having the horse close enough so the rider can catch the ring without having to lean off the horse. Do not stop the horse or break gait to retrieve the pole, get the ring, or deposit the pole. If you miss the ring, keep riding the straight line. Do not lose the rhythm or the straight line for the sake of the ring. If you miss the pick up or deposit of the lance circle the barrel maintaining the gait and try again. Advance through the gaits from walk to gallop as the horse becomes comfortable and is able to complete the three skills without having to circle the barrels, break gait or lose rhythm.
A Safety Note
Competition rings are 6 inches in diameter which is large enough in diameter to slide over the rider’s forearm to their elbow, effectively attaching the rider to the pole! For this reason it is a good idea to practice with a ring that is 3 to 4 inches in diameter. My thought on this is twofold. First, the rider should become proficient catching a smaller ring so the large one will seem easy to catch in a competition. Secondly, when riders are working with young horses or introducing the ring to a horse, the smaller rings provide a level of safety should the horse become nervous. The smaller ring can’t get around the rider’s arm. Even practicing with the smaller ring, it is advisable to practice putting the thumb up to catch the ring as it slides down the pole. Make this a habit and muscle memory will take over during competition. The rider will automatically extend their thumb to catch the 6 inch ring and prevent it from sliding over their arm.
Moving or pushing objects with the pole.
While pushing objects is not as common in as collecting a ring during a Working Equitation competition, this challenge is worth developing; practicing it at home helps develop the communication with the horse using seat and leg. These obstacles also desensitize the horse to objects falling and hitting the ground, as well as, moving objects on the ground. These exercises help develop hand eye coordination and accuracy with the pole.
Pedestals (PVC pipe in a bucket of cement) are easy to make. The rider can balance balls on them, using different size balls from baseballs to basketballs. The goal of this exercise is to be able to canter and gallop a line while knocking the balls from the pedestal. As with skewering the ring, the horse has to confidently pass close enough to the pedestals to knock the balls without the rider having to lean off the horse.
To prepare the horse for this exercise, start from the ground walking alongside the pedestals knocking the balls off by hand to accustom the horse to the balls falling and rolling. Kicking the balls along the ground while leading the horse and dribbling or bouncing the ball to get the horse used to the ball moving around them is a good way to develop the skills for this exercise. Start by keeping the balls in the horse’s field of vision at all times until they are accepting of the exercise. Horses will often kick out at things that surprise them. By keeping everything where they can see it, it lessens the risk of them feeling the need to protect themselves from the unknown. When the horse is comfortable, purposefully roll the balls under them and behind them. This exercise should only be attempted by experienced horse persons, don’t be afraid to seek the help of a trainer. Some horse will leap, kick, bolt, buck when a ball is rolled under them. It is imperative that the handler know the horse, are working in a safe area and the handler must be experienced and in a safe zone around the horse. This is not recommended with a horse that has not fully accepted the ball rolling and bouncing around them. Bouncing the balls off the horse’s body to accustom them to being touched by the ball is another great exercise. When mounted and knocking the balls off, they will go in various directions sometimes hitting the horse, so try to prepare the horse for this before you are mounted.
Once the horse is showing little or no reaction to the balls from the ground, start working on the obstacle while mounted. Just like in the exercise with the ring, this requires retrieval and depositing of the lance. All the same rules apply…rhythm, straightness, not breaking gait, etc. Start by just walking the line and quietly knocking the balls from the pedestals. As the horse becomes accepting of the exercise at the walk, we progress through the gaits up through the gallop. Do not sacrifice the straight line or the quality of the gait for the targets. Attempt the targets without leaning off the horse or losing the line. It is okay to miss, it is not okay to lose the gait or the line.
Now that the horse is comfortable with the balls hitting the ground, it is time to begin moving those objects with the pole. Since the horse has already become accustomed to the balls moving around from the ground, this exercise might be able to be attempted mounted without ground work depending on the horse. After knocking the ball from the pedestal, move the ball along the ground with the end of the pole. Start by pushing the ball in a circle. The rider should begin the circle for this exercise with the hand they will carry the pole in for competition to the inside of the circle. For most riders this is the right hand, so circle right and keep the ball to the inside of the circle with the pole. Practice this both directions once the horse is accepting of the first direction.
It is a good exercise to practice pushing the ball along the ground all over the arena. Try to make serpentines and straight lines, with the pole on both sides of the horse. This develops a good seat and leg aids. It also helps develop coordination on the rider’s non-dominate side. In competition a rider may be asked to push the ball through a corridor. By practicing moving the ball in different patterns all over the arena, a rider will become proficient at putting the ball where they want it when they want it there.
Additional exercises. Using the pole to skewer or push objects requires the rider to be able to successfully guide their horse with one hand on the reins and be comfortable holding the pole in the other hand. Riding in a circle is generally the best place to start learning to maintain bend and guide your horse with the seat and leg. I like to use the pole while working on this because it helps me become comfortable with the pole and visualize my circle.
An excellent exercise is to plant the butt end of the pole on the ground and ride a circle. The goal is to be able to maintain the circle without moving the butt of the pole from the pivot point on the ground. Visualizing a circle is easier because the pole can be used to help determine if the horse is falling out of a circle or drifting to the inside of the circle. When the circles are too big the pole is going to have to move along the ground or the rider risks dropping it. If the circle is getting to big you will support the horse with more outside leg and rein while maintaining the bend with their seat and inside leg. When the circles are getting too small the rider will have to lift the pole to get it out of the way of the horse. To correct this the rider needs to support the horse with more inside seat and leg to help maintain the bend and keep the horse from falling in. The rider can also place the butt end of the pole on the top of a barrel and walk circles around the barrel while holding the tapered end of the pole. If the circle size and bend are not correct, the pole will fall off the barrel or the rider will have to lift the pole out of their way. These exercises should be performed both directions.
Being able to maintain bend, rhythm and direction while managing the pole and riding one handed is imperative for the Ease of Handling phase of working equitation. Once the horse and rider are confidently executing the circling exercise with the pole, the rider should progressively increase their speed until they can canter the exercises. At that point it is time to start working other obstacles that may be encountered in working equitation while holding the pole and guiding the horse one handed with seat and leg. This maybe be required in competition, so it is beneficial to start preparing from the beginning of training.
Cool Down and Relaxation
The cool down time after an active ride is a great time to work on guiding and stopping the horse on a long rein as the horse will be quite relaxed. Pick a point in the arena and work on guiding the horse to that point using only seat and leg. Use the rein as the “back up” cue to correct the horse. By working on a long rein, it assures that the first cue is not with the hand but with the rider’s seat, leg and body. The hand is only used to correct the horse if they fail to respond to the seat and leg cue. Working on a long rein will help retrain muscle memory as well, it will help teach the rider to ask with the seat and leg before asking with their hand. This develops a great partnership with your horse. Aspire to get the horse to where they can do these exercises at a canter with backing, stops, pirouettes, spins and on a longer rein. It will definitely help with a rider’s ability to handle the pole and executing other obstacles while riding the horse one handed.
Final Thoughts. Every horse learns at a different speed. This process may take one horse several weeks and another only minutes. Some horses need to see it all from the ground and some will learn better with the rider mounted. The amount of time it takes a horse to accept this challenge is no reflection on how the horse will perform in competition. It is important to remember that all these exercises don’t have to be completed in one session. Some exercises need to be broken up into even smaller exercises to help the horse become accepting of the challenge it is being presented. Don’t be in a hurry, and always quit on a good note. Don’t work the horse until everyone is frustrated. Reward the small tries and the horse will try harder during the next training session. If you are uncomfortable working through these steps with your horse, it is never a failure to seek help from a professional.
In the final segment of training for the pole we will talk about what judges expect in competition and how to work on developing show ring finesse. Until then remember to enjoy the ride! We are lucky to be able to share our lives with such amazing creatures.
Feature Photo Credit to Lisa Marie Photography