With so many of today’s top barrel racing events held in indoor arenas or coliseums with solid walls, it’s important to have a horse that is willing to run as far up into the turn as possible to avoid hit barrels or the dreaded ducked turn.
Multiple All-American Quarter Horse Congress and aged-event champion Sue Bologna of Fombell, Pennsylvania, uses her Pass Through Poles drill to improve the confidence level of both horses and riders in preparation for running toward a fence or wall.
“A common problem in many smaller arenas is that the horse and rider will commit to the barrel too soon,” Bologna said. “This exercise will help build their confidence.”
For young and problem horses, the drill emphasizes correct maneuvers and suppleness. For beginner and less confident riders, it improves horsemanship skills, which translates into better communication with their horses for a more confident ride.
Benefits: The Pass Through Poles drill helps riders understand proper use of their legs, seat and hand positions while performing a correct arc at one wall or fence, a reverse arc (also called a counter arc) at the opposite wall and straight line in between, Bologna says.
“This really teaches you to ride tail to head,” Bologna said. “It makes you think about what that horse’s hind end is doing the entire time.”
It encourages riders to aim forward with their vision while using their lower bodies to push the horse as far into the turn as possible while maintaining a soft fluid motion.
Drill Basics: For the Pass Through Poles drill you will need six poles set in a regulation pole bending pattern with the poles set 21 feet apart. Sometimes Bologna positions the pole pattern slightly offset from the middle of the arena and other times she sets them up in the middle of the arena, depending upon her agenda for the training session.
To desensitize young or spooky horses, she finds it useful to place banners, flags or other “spooky” objects along the arena walls or fences. (Note: You can often get free banners from local tack or western stores. During an election year, candidate signs made of coated cardboard and plastic also make for good arena art and can be obtained rather easily after elections.) Dirt clods hitting the firmer material also aids in desensitization.
To begin the exercise, start in the corner opposite the pole pattern as shown in the diagram. (The diagram shown here displays a slightly offset pole pattern.) Ride as straight and as far up to the fence as you can without crowding the horse. Ask the horse to shape for the turn with a correct arc to his body—head tipped to the inside, shoulder up and hip driving. After completing the turn, straighten your horse’s body and pass through the middle of the first two poles.
At the opposite wall, ask your horse to counter arc. You want the horse moving forward with his shoulder up, but in the counter arc your horse will have his head, hip and shoulder bent toward the wall.
Weave your way wall to wall through the poles and when you have ridden between the last two poles, you will turn and complete the regular pole bending pattern.
“When the exercise is complete, my riders will continue with collection through the pole pattern,” Bologna said. “The end-pole turn will be the same as the direction you’re working your horse through the Pass Through Poles drill. If you’ve been working on the horse’s left side, work the pole pattern to the left (with two left turns on the end pole and one right turn in between the weave through), and work the pole pattern to the right if you’ve been working the horse’s right side. As riders and horses advance at slower gaits (walk and jog) speed will be added Ultimately, horses will transition from a trot to a canter, while turning the correct arc, and transition from a canter to a trot to perform the reverse (or counter) arc.”
Bologna notes that the horse will be in the correct body position—shoulders lifted and the hindquarters to the inside— for the desired lead after completing the previous reverse arc.
“This is a really good exercise for riders to learn how to feel their horse’s position for picking up leads and approaching turns,” Bologna said.
This article was originally published in the April 2012 issue of BHN