Basics. Basics. Basics. How often have you heard those seemingly simple, somewhat obnoxious, and occasionally irritating words? Although, jumping a course of fences is more fun than practicing transitions or working over poles; we can’t progress in our training without building a proper foundation. Yes, it can be frustrating and perhaps a bit tedious at times, but it is necessary in order to progress. Sometimes it is essential to take a step backward in order to move forward. Typically, the more time we spend on the basics, the easier it is to advance later on. Following are three of my favorite simple – notice that I don’t say easy – exercises, to help establish a strong foundation.
1) Circle of Death – Place two poles across from each other on a 20 meter circle (this exercise can be made more difficult by using 4 poles spaced evenly around the circle, or by using cavaletti instead of poles). Canter a 20 meter circle over the two poles; paying attention to your rhythm and length of stride. Did you get the same number of strides between each pole? Once this becomes easy, play around with adding and subtracting strides. If you had 7 strides the first time, then try shortening for 8, then lengthening for 6. This is a great exercise for focusing on accurate riding, rhythm, and adjustability.
2) Count Down – This exercise can be done with a pole on the ground, a cavaletti, or a small vertical. As you canter to the pole, try to see your distance and count down from 5. It’s hard. Is your eye perfect? Probably not. But this exercise is great for two things. One, counting forces you to maintain a set rhythm. And two, it makes you aware of what your eye sees. Don’t get discouraged; keep playing with the exercise until you can accurately see your distance.
3) Raised Canter Poles/Cavaletti – Set four or five raised poles about 9 feet apart, and canter through them. Approach in a nice quiet “show jumpy” canter and allow the poles to do the balancing and to encourage the horse to keep a steady rhythm throughout. For an added challenge, try placing the poles on a curved line. Or, keep the poles in a straight line and set a fence somewhere around a bending 6 strides after the exercise. There are multiple ways to add variation to this exercise, keeping in mind that the goal of the exercise is to help obtain a more consistent canter rhythm.
Don’t get defeated if these exercises are challenging at first. They are meant to be. By setting up exercises such as these, you are forcing yourself to ride with a plan, to hold yourself accountable. And by having a strategy, you can make the most of your training sessions. When you use pole work, as a means by which to focus on the basics, you are not only saving your horse’s legs, but you are also laying the necessary groundwork for fun and productive future jump schools. Enjoy the ride!