Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Starting Your Horse in Arena Trail

As I mentioned last month, Arena Trail is all about a willingness to negotiate obstacles and most importantly, agility.  The Arena Trail horse must negotiate obstacles with style and ideally never touch a thing.  Horses must be able to work over and through obstacles and turn and circle in tight spaces – all of which can be very challenging.  Working up to and through the maneuvers of Arena Trail can be very rewarding for both horse and rider no matter whether you just want to vary your work-out routine or your goal is to show your horse.   

To get off to a good start in this exciting event, your horse must already have solid, consistent gaits.  For Western horses, a lope with a 6 to 6.5 foot stride and a jog trot of 3 to 3.5 feet is ideal; with an English horse I add at least 12” to each.  The walking stride for all disciplines is typically a 1’ to 1.5’ but you should be able to shorten or lengthen your horse’s stride at a walk as needed (and don’t confuse short with slow.  Short means a short stride, possibly even a hoof’s length in distance.).

 The beginning horse should also have all the basic moves you’d expect of a “well broke” horse.  This includes a back-up, side-pass, turns on both the haunches and forehand.  The horse should circle well and turn easily, showing little or no resistance.  The horse will need to be supple in order to do good Arena Trail.

 I like to start my beginning horses with a simple jog/trot obstacle to negotiate.  The jog or trot is a good training gait and helps a horse achieve cadence and well as confidence over poles.  The first time I ride a horse over poles I set out just three poles.  A single pole with two poles about 20’ away that are a jog (3’) or trot (4’) stride in parallel, depending on what horse I’m riding.  Then, I jog/ trot the horse into a well cadenced gait and when I have it, I jog over the single pole and around and through the open space between the two parallel poles.  

This may sound simple but it can prove challenging enough for the beginning horse and the goal is to build confidence.  If all goes well, I’ll start to build on the routine - going over the parallel poles then around and through them, developing a good arc and maintaining cadence.  I may go over the two then loop back around and halt between the parallel poles to work on a balanced halt.  In a later session I may back between the two poles to work on a straight and unresisting back-up.   
These exercises are also good for riders.  The poles can help with your “aim” (always work the center of the poles). Poles help improve rider’s legs to keep their horse arced and striding evenly.  And, riders need to look ahead in Arena Trail so practicing turning your head, but not your body, to look at the next obstacle can help with overall “feel” for a horse.  Look up, look where you’re going next, aim for the center of that pole.  (It’s helpful to paint stripes on your poles or wrap them with colored tape.  This not only helps the rider “aim” for the center, it gets the horse used to seeing and working around different obstacles.)
As my rides develop and I think the horse is ready, I’ll set up a lope obstacle.  Unlike the trot/jog poles, I’ll start with just one pole, somewhere about five or six strides off the rail and at a right angle to one of the arena walls.   When the horse easily lopes that one pole, keeping a correct stride, relaxed frame and of course, not swapping leads, then I’ll add a second parallel pole about 6’ (lope) or 7’ (canter) but I’ll also keep a single pole somewhere nearby to go back to as either a warm-up or as encouragement if the double poles prove to be more of a challenge than I expected.
I like to then add all those poles – the trot/jog and the lope/canter – together as the horse and rider develop and get ready for transitions between the poles.  Jog/trot to lope/canter and vice versa.  And all the poles can be jogged/trotted at any time if you need to back down a bit to rebuild some confidence.

I work all my beginning Arena Trail horses with two hands because I can control their shoulders easily that way.  It’s important that the horse be “good in the bridle”.  If the horse is pulling or rooting with his nose, it will be impossible for him to go over poles in a pleasing manner and as obstacles get more complex, it will just be impossible to do the work.

About this time, I like to set up cones to jog the horse around and through.  I set them up wide, about 9’ apart to begin with, then serpentine through them.  I also add in side passing over a single pole and stopping and standing quietly by the gate.  Until the horse can stop at a gate and stand patiently, I don’t go any further.  The next step will be opening and closing the latch (or rope) while the horse stands still and, separately, side passing up to the gate and standing still.

During this beginning phase, as the horse develops, I add lots of small and large circles with stops and pivots.  I add back-ups in an “L” to both the right and left as.  I’ll continue the serpentines at a jog, setting the cones more narrow as the horse’s skill grows and I’ll start to teach a nice, simple lead change – and later a flying change – because it’s not just great for Arena Trail, I think it’s the hallmark of a “well broke” and “handy” horse!   Talk to you next week, JD

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