TRUE TRAINING 92 - Canter Poles

Apr 15, 2024 by Janet Jones

True is now comfortable and relaxed trotting ground poles one at a time, in successions of four or six, flat or raised a few inches, and in various patterns. I especially like training with a “sunburst” pattern of trot poles set on a curve. It improves bend and can also be used to teach shortening and lengthening of strides. As I mentioned in my last post (92), he also knows half-seat and two-point positions at a walk, trot, and canter.


Once a horse is quiet with these activities and can trot to a small crosspole, hop over, and canter out, I start to teach the canter approach. True starts with a single pole lying on the ground. I approach in a half seat, at a quiet easy canter. I remain fluid in the half seat and well balanced, quiet in my hands and body. If True arrives at the wrong distance to the pole, I ignore that and remain calm. We just canter slowly back around and try again. As soon as he approaches calmly, crosses the pole from a good distance, and exits equally calmly, I bring him back to a walk, stroking and praising at the same time.


All approaches, even to a single ground pole, should be surrounded by ample space at this time in the young horse’s training. One of the most common mistakes I see in early jump training is making a sharp turn into the jumping line then giving a youngster only 30 or 40 feet in approach. You can teach that later. For now, give babies their best chance at success by allowing them to approach from a long distance with no sharp turns or angles involved.


When your horse is successful and relaxed at cantering a single pole, try a succession of two canter poles. The distance between them should be 9 or 10 feet, depending on the length of your horse’s stride. If you have a horse who is overly enthusiastic, make it easy for her to remain calm by setting the distance a few inches on the shorter side at first. True is now 17.1 hands high (!!), but his most relaxed canter is short, almost a lope, so I started with a 9 foot distance. Because he is prone to excitement with all his Grand Prix jumper genes, I prioritize calmness over stride at this early point.

Later, I’ll extend the distance between poles and teach Trouper to remain calm jumping two poles set 10 feet apart. But if he was a shorter horse, I would stick to canter poles set at about 9 1/2 feet apart. Have a friend watch to see what separation is most comfortable for your horse if her size or stride is quite different from True's. Remember also that ponies (under 14.2 hands) require much shorter distances than horses do.


True trots the two poles several times, to learn that the object of this new game is to cross both poles with a step in between. Then canter again in a half seat, gently, calmly, toward center of the two poles. Keep your hands and elbows soft. The first time or two is usually a little awkward, but that’s OK. We humans don’t learn to run hurdles in a day.


Within a few trials, True is cantering the two poles easily. That’s what I want! The horse’s mindset is more important in brain-based horsemanship than the upward arc of a jump or the touching of a ground pole. He’ll get all the physical training for roundness in the air and pole clearance later. For now, True just needs to remain quiet, straight, and centered over the two canter poles.


I talk a lot about baby steps in horse training because that’s where I see a lot of problems. Most human brains want to take steps in larger increments than equine brains are made to handle. A friend of mine and an excellent horse trainer, Tik Maynard, has quantified these increments. He recommends that whenever we are teaching a horse a goal task, we work up to it in .5% increments. So, the very first step—like cantering one pole on the ground—is increased by only half of one percent in moving to step two. Sounds about right to me.

Another point Tik makes is that horses cannot be trained properly in days and weeks. Instead, they're trained in months and years. I would add to this the advice to correct problems while they are small. If your horse tends to drift left over one canter pole, teach her to approach and follow through at the center. It's much easier to teach that now than to wait until the canter pole is a four-foot oxer. The same is true for approaches that are too fast or too slow, too eager, or too relaxed. Fix the pace and animation at this early point, while the pole is just lying quietly on the ground. 

Go slow and you’ll make better progress for the long term. Your horse will trust you a lot more, too!