If you’ve got a horse or pony that has a "need for speed,” try pole bending. Pole bending is a timed event that often takes place on play days or at rodeos, fairs and other shows. Six poles, made of PVC pile and stuck into a weighted base, are set up in the arena, 21 feet apart.
In pole bending, you gallop to the right or left of the poles in a straight line to the last pole, and then you wind your way in and out of the poles back toward the in-gate. When you reach the last pole, you turn back and wind your way in out and of the poles again. After you round the last pole, you gallop straight back to the in-gate again. The fastest run wins in pole bending. If you knock over a pole, you get a five-second penalty.
Pole bending requires accuracy and agility at top speed. If your horse doesn’t listen to your cues, you’re going to knock down poles.
Here are five tips to help you achieve faster runs and rack up the ribbons:
1. Bending Basics
A good pole bending horse must be flexible if he’s going to weave in and out of the poles quickly. If your horse is stiff, you’re not going to get good times and you’ll knock down poles.
When schooling, do exercises to make your horse more supple. Do tons of circles and serpentines. Keep your inside leg at the girth and your outside leg behind the girth and tilt your horse’s head slightly to the inside by squeezing on the inside rein. Rest the outside rein on your horse’s neck to stop him from veering to the outside. Your horse’s body should be bent around your inside leg. Start by walking in a large circle and then spiral down to a small circle. Then spiral out again. If your horse maintains a good arc in the circle, try it at a jog and lope.
Ask your horse to counter bend as well. Walk him in a small circle, tilting his nose to the inside. Then ask him to tilt his nose to the outside, while continuing to walk around the circle. Your horse may find this difficult at first, but as he becomes more flexible it will become easier. Do these exercises in both directions so your horse doesn’t become "one-sided.”
2. Respond to Leg Pressure
When running poles, your hands shouldn’t do all the steering; your horse should listen to your leg cues as well. When you apply pressure with your lower leg, your horse should move away from it immediately. If he ignores you, give him a sharper cue so he pays attention. To make him more responsive, add leg yielding to your schooling sessions.
Leg yielding is like a side passing, but you move forward at the same time. Your horse moves diagonally across the arena and his front legs cross as he moves sideways.
To ask for a leg yield to the right, tilt your horse’s nose slightly to the left and push him sideways with your left leg. Tap him with your right leg slightly behind the girth to keep him moving forward. Close your right fist and keep a firm hold on the right rein to help keep your horse’s body straight.
3. Rate Your Horse
You must be able to control your horse’s speed when pole bending. If you’re going too fast, you might miss out a pole or a knock a pole down. You have to be able slow down and stop your horse before you try poles. Practice transitions at home. Go from walk to lope and from lope to halt. Go from a halt to a jog. Try asking your horse for different speeds in a gait. Can you ask him to pick up a fast lope and then ask him to slow the lope down? Can you halt your horse or does he jig around? Ask your horse to halt and make him stand still for a minute.
4. Perfect Your Position
Think about your equitation when practicing for poles. Your position affects your horse’s performance. Keep your hands low, level with your belly button. Don’t throw them up in the air and yank your horse in the mouth.
Stay over the center of your horse; leaning too far forward can throw your horse off balance and if he stumbles, you’re going to eat dirt. Slightly raise your seat bones out of the saddle to cue your horse to speed up. When you sit back down, he should slow down.
Concentrate on keeping your legs underneath you and pushing down your heels.
5. Slow Work
It would be too tiring for your horse to gallop poles every day—and it would put too much strain on his legs. But, you can still practice runs at slower speeds. Mix it up when you work your horse. Walk the entire pattern. Walk down to the last pole and then trot back through the poles. Trot down to the last pole, and then slow down and walk the poles. Trot the poles and then walk the straight line to the finish line. Lope the straight lines and walk in and out of the poles. There are a lot of different things you can do without actually galloping the pattern and burning out your horse.