Pole bending is a class that, in America, runs in conjunction with a Barrel Racing competition. It’s not hard to see why because pole bending requires the same qualities of nimbleness and restrained attack you get with a race around barrels.
On his bad days,George veered between an overenthusiastic mad dash, flailing poles left right and centre. But then, when he was in the mood it was an elegant gallop, drifting gracefully right and left between poles. A delight of flying lead changes. When he did that, because of the length of his stride, he looked as though he did it in slow motion. But he was mere hundredths of a second slower than dedicated “games” horses. Riding him when he was in that mood was just spellbinding.
The pole bending pattern is to be run around six poles. The poles are 21 ft apart and the first pole is 21 ft from the starting line. Poles are set on top of the ground, 6 ft in height and with a base of no more than 14″ in diameter. The horse starts either to the left or the right of the first pole and runs the remainder of the pattern accordingly. Knocking over a pole results in a no-run. Failure to follow the course is also a no-run. The rider must not touch a pole with his or her hand.
What I learned with George
As the pattern in the rule suggests, you’ve got to get from the start line to the furthest pole, turn around that, weave through the poles, turn around the first pole, weave back through the poles, turn around the furthest pole again and then get back to the finish line. As fast as you can.
A good time is 20 seconds. But that comes later. As with all speed classes, introduce your horse to it gently. You build speed into it once he’s completely familiar with the course. George just loved it, positively dancing with anticipation at the start. But we got him to that with quiet walks around the course until he was comfortable with it. Once he knew it, the problem was to rate his speed back so that he didn’t knock the poles over in his enthusiasm!
A quiet walk around the poles
So, we started with a quiet walk around the poles to show him the course. At this stage, I didn’t bother If George wanted to stop and have a lick or a chew of a pole. It got him used to them.
We didn’t have a set of poles just handily lying around the yard but, for practice, made them using broom sticks supported through holes in the top of marker cones. This didn’t give us the full 6 feet height of championship poles but that’s not a bad thing to start. These poles are more easily knocked over and didn’t trouble George when he collided with one.
That’s not to say that championship poles are unforgiving. The idea is that they can be knocked over but it is possible to “lean” into them when you’re getting a move on.
Picking up the pace
Once George had got the picture, we picked the pace up to a jog. At this pace, it’s dressage: half passing through the poles and that’s how we worked our way into it.
A fast time is not done by neck reining alone. Just turning his head without moving his body risked bringing his body into the pole. You have to use your legs to shift his body as well. It helped George a lot at this phase of pole bending practice to spend a bit of time half passing up and down the arena. We did this away from the poles just to get George giving a calm response to my legs. It reminded him what I was expecting and we found a relaxed rhythm.
When he was happy doing that comfortably, I just weaved him through the poles, passing him from one of my legs to the other. This was at the rhythm we’d found doing it in a straight line. It needed to be done giving the poles a wide berth. And it got the pattern firmly in George’s mind. As always teaching a horse something new, I gave George lots of time to stop and think about it.
Moving on – the best lead
When I knew that he’d got the idea and was flowing nicely around the poles, we picked the speed up to a lope.There’s no requirement as to which way you go around the poles and as George was always happiest on a left lead, we started with the poles on our left. That gave him a first turn in the direction that favoured him most.
I gave the poles a reasonably wide berth on the run out so that the first turn at the furthest pole wasn’t too tight to start with. We loped out on a relaxed rein. At the pole before the last one, I got down on my pockets and gave the reins a nudge to check him. This let him know that he was about to change direction.
Body position is everything in pole bending. If I dropped my head to look at the pole I was passing it rounded my shoulders. This unbalanced George and he hit the pole. It’s all about controlled speed and I had to keep my head up and be aware of the poles rather than looking at them. There’s nothing to say that you cannot steady yourself by putting your free hand on your saddle’s pommel. But, then, I had to resist the temptation to pull on it. Doing that lifted me out of the saddle and got my weight in the wrong position. Better to push myself into the seat and keep my weight centred.
Running the poles
After we’d turned the first pole, I passed him from one leg to the other around the poles: just neck reining him to keep him balanced. I found his comfortable pacing between the poles. With George’s stride, it was two beats from pole to pole when many horses take three. We got into a rhythm, getting well clear of one pole before taking one leg off and putting the other on to move him over past the next pole.
Lateral positioning to the pole depends on the speed you’re moving at. To find George’s comfortable number of beats between poles I moved him a little further out if he needed a bit more room to finish his stride. Closer in if he’s reaching for it. We found that speed comes with comfort and getting George into that comfort zone took a little time. But, when he found it, all I had to do was concentrate on keeping all my bits in the right place to help him.
Turning the near pole is almost a roll back and, once again, George needed plenty of room. It never ceased to amaze me how tightly George turned and it was often the case that by the time we’ve got back to the first pole, he was so much into it that he needed to be held off from turning right onto the pole. The worst thing about pole bending is that one slip means game over. You only have to knock over one pole and that’s it. Time out of number we were streaming round the poles and I’d think: “this is going well” and then flattened the next pole. It’s both the joy and the curse of it.
The final pole
Back at the furthest pole again it was another restrained, well placed roll back giving the pole plenty of room. If there was one pole going to go down it was always this one. It was the last turn and it’s too easy to rush and close it. Eventually, we learned to stay clear, relaxed and well seated on my pockets.
If we’d got that far without coming into contact with anything, I would put my reins forward and give him a flat out run to the finish line. As with all speed events, there’s a tendency to ease up and anticipate the finish line. I found that just that can make the difference between a good place and being nowhere. So, we always cross the finish line flat out and reined in after we were over the line…
Fora video to watch, try 2012 AQHYA Pole Bending World Champion