This is a lesson that Andrew taught me a few weeks ago, and if you ride with me at Harwood Hall you will recognise it well. Pole work isn’t something that I naturally think of doing very often, but there are a lot of benefits to using poles in training, the main one being that they demand accuracy. One little fall or poorly prepared turn and you get the distinctive clunk of failure. No one likes that noise.
I was in the very best of equine company for my lesson; Rois has featured in several articles previously (he’s the bay horse in the Parade ‘episode’) and he’s one of my favourites. He’s 19 this time, a fairly complex and understated character, and a real grafter; he’s a long horse with a straight hind leg, so I start him off with lots of reverse turns, parades, and shoulder-in/leg yield patterns. Andrew spoke about maximising the effect of the reverse turn (recap, a reverse turn is when you leave the horse on the outside aids when you change the rein, and then gradually change the bend once you are on the new rein), which meant making sure the horse was absolutely through on the outside rein before rolling him round to the inside.
That sounds incredibly obvious, but sometimes I can be a little bit superficial about things and don’t get into the horse enough. The line between doing something a bit and doing it enough can seem thin, but it makes a world of difference; learning to feel throughness is a long journey, because like anything with horses there are different requirements at certain stages of training, which are distinct for each horse, naturally, and depend on many things, including whether the moon is in Scorpio or Virgo. But here’s a starter for ten; you can tell when the horse is through enough because the line of top-line muscle runs in a continuous tube all the way into the shoulder. It shouldn’t disappear before the wither, or get thinner at any point. There is also a distinctly different feeling about the horse’s back when it’s properly through; the best way I can describe it is like sitting on a rising tide that lifts up your inside seat bone (or outside, if you’re on the outside aids). After working on this for a few minutes, and adding in lateral steps, Rois felt rather glorious and I was very pleased with myself. For now.
While all this was happening, Andrew was laying out the below exercise:
The square is only as wide as one pole, and you can imagine what happened the first time I tried to walk Rois through it. Clunk. Curse. Clunk. Curse. Clunk. When he stopped laughing, Andrew explained that I needed a balance of three things; number one was a balance between the slow and the go. If I had my way I’d spend my life in school trot, but apparently that’s not how it works, and in order for me to be really able to place the horse I needed to have the walk more active but also under my seat. I got this by using a vertical half halt accompanied by feather light touches of the whip on his croup – I used my legs to guide his body and keep him straight.
It surprised me that the walk I needed, once I had myself organised, wasn’t particularly slow. Number two was an accurate turning aid. I say this to people all the time and one can’t hear it enough; your shoulders have to go where you want your horse’s shoulders to go. This will mean that the outside hand is slightly over the neck, if the figure is small. The inside seat bone is the anchor. The outside leg is in canter position. The third thing was a more elevated hand position – there were many points to the exercise but one of them was to help the horse to engage the hind leg and take more weight behind, which results in a higher, open neck carriage. Therefore the hands have to heighten accordingly. Remember the image of the Number Six Stretch – the horse is like a number 6 on its side: the barrel of the six is the hind end and the tail of the 6 is the horse’s back and neck. The arching out of the neck remains the same, but as the hind end loads and tucks more, the height of the neck is raised. The neck does not shorten in collection; it is elevated.
But I digress; you were watching me wobble and cuss my way through a pole exercise. Well you’ll be glad to know that having implemented the above corrections, it was going really well, even in spite of Andrew’s dastardly attempt at narrowing the poles. Ha. Then naturally it was time to change the rein. Shoot. Clunk. After some more giggling we got it right on that rein as well, and then the really interesting part began; Andrew said “ok, now take him out onto the circle and just tell me what you notice”. What I noticed, dear reader, was that outside of the square the horse wobbled left and right like a drunk person on Maidstone high street. This was, of course, my fault. The mistake I made was leaving the poles behind mentally was well as physically. In order to be able to properly place the horse, I, you, all of us, have to ride as if we are aiming between two poles all the time. All the time. I rode back into the square and got myself together before venturing out into the wild expanse of the rest of the arena – but this time, I didn’t allow my riding to change. Aha, now we were cooking with gas. Rois stayed immaculately through, but there was also no fall at all. We were pinpoint accurate every stride (apart from the bit at B where I lost it but we won’t talk about that).
The next challenge was to ride through the square and then come out and do shoulder in up the three quarter line. And I achieved some of the best shoulder-in I’ve ever ridden, because the square forced me to prepare properly. I now always carry that square in my mind.
This pleased Andrew, and so naturally he made everything more difficult. He told me to step into the middle of the square, and then shut me in:
We were trapped. The inside of four jump poles is a pretty small circle, let me tell you, and the first couple of rotations passed in a blur of screaming abs and gritted teeth. But sure enough Rois and I organised ourselves, and bit at a time the space started to feel bigger, until actually it was very comfortable. The key was the half halt. This didn’t necessarily mean slowing down – remember that the half halt is a pause in the middle of a stride, not necessarily a slowing down of that stride – but just giving us the time it took to organise and keep our ducks in a row. Then Andrew told me to introduce quarters in, and we had the humble beginnings of a walk pirouette. We didn’t know ourselves.
After this came some trot, which was so through and swinging and suspended that I briefly future predicted to Tokyo 2020, but that wasn’t really the point of this lesson. The point of the lesson was that we, the rider, have to take responsibility for where we place the horse. To quote Andrew, horses don’t fall, they are pushed. Unless one can say where the inside fore will land every stride, then one doesn’t have everything they need. And there is always another level of throughness. And although slowing down is often appropriate at the start of the training, it doesn’t pay to stay there too long. Slow work is a land which we must all travel through before we arrive at the shores of engagement, and there the sun rises.