Tuesday, February 24, 2015


Coming out of the show world, I'm a huge proponent of cross-training for the endurance horse. It's not just about getting them fit and going down the trail: I expect my horses to be responsive to seat, leg, and rein aids, to give to the bit, the use their hind end to provide impulsion, to carry themselves comfortably, and be solid and comfortable at a walk/trot/canter.

It probably helps that I actually like doing schooling and arena work. There is something predictable and immediate about it...a mix of instant gratification (well, sometimes...) and long-term results. I'm not talking about just drilling endless circles around the ring...that's boring. I'm talking about mixing it up, incorporating things like trot poles, cones, barrels, and other brain exercises into schooling routines that help create a more supple, responsive, endurance horse.

I've been fortunate enough that all of the barns I have boarded at have been performance oriented, so I have always had access to things like cavaletti poles, jumps, cones, barrels...and arena space. Some places have had larger arenas than others...currently, I have access to about a 180'x75' sand arena, which is plenty of space to do w/t/c drills, as well as all sorts of trot pole patterns or weave cones.

Basically, the faster you want to school, the more space you need...but basic trot poles can be done at a walk in a pretty small space...and if you're just starting out, most of what you're going to do is at a walk or trot anyway.

I've pulled a lot of inspiration and schooling exercises from patterns learned during my time in the show ring. Reining and gymkhana patterns, or modified versions of parts of them, are great bending and suppling exercises.

Traffic cones and trot poles are usually the easiest things to come by, and take the least amount of room to store, so that's what I've used as my illustrations. For trot poles, I like finding the heaviest wood ones that are still manageable -- they're less likely to bounce  and roll if the horse hits them, and I've had enough occasions where a solid whack of the hoof on the pole was enough to get them to start lifting their hooves. PVC gets brittle here in the sun -- one tap of the hoof and it will shatter -- plus, they're lightweight and roll at the slightest tap, so you'll be constantly resetting poles.

It's really nice to have a helper on the ground when it comes to setting poles, but after a time or two, you'll learn what the best spacing is for poles and what your horse's stride length is most comfortable at. I don't get too worked up over having things perfectly spaced and aligned, either...because I'm also trying to teach them to pay attention to the ground and their feet, and adjust their stride accordingly, which may mean imperfectly spaced poles/uneven ground surface.

Just some (bad) illustrations of some of my favorites: (Disclaimer: My horse-schooling skills are better than my Paint drawing skills.)

Flat Poles
The basic flat trot poles: Great for working on straightness, paying attention to their feet, and using their hind end for impulsion. The spacing given for each gait is a rough guideline and place to start: you may have to fine-tune the spacing for your individual horse's stride.

The Circle:
 This one is fun. Great for working a circle, and on bending and impulsion at the same time. The faster you go, the larger you'll want to make the circle/space the poles. Definitely a challenging one...start slow and work up.

 Staggered Poles
Similar to the straight poles, but really gets them lifting their feet and driving forward. Having jump standards or pole blocks of some sort really work the best here to lift the end of the pole. In a pinch, I've scraped sand into a pile on one end, or have used concrete blocks (just be aware that if you stick the pole in the inside of the block, it won't go anywhere should the horse hit it and they could trip/catch themselves).

The Box
Endless possibilities! You can do loops around and cross through the box, stop inside of it, work on turns inside, use it as a transition point (walk in/trot out, trot in/canter out, and the inverse -- which is harder to go fast and then slow down). One of the best all-around exercises and leaves a lot of room for creativity.

The Fan
Like a combo of flat poles and the circle...works them on foot awareness and lifting their backs. Would only recommend at the walk/trot...spacing on these is really tricky at the canter and requires a lot of room.

 The L
Stolen from the dreaded trail course back-through obstacle, if spaced wide enough, can be walked or even trotted through, or use the poles as trot poles and make loops and circles around/over the poles.

Figure 8 Cones
The cones aren't really necessary to do circles and shapes schooling, but sometimes it helps give a good visual aid, especially on keeping circles even and consistent.

Circle/Spiral Cone
 The basic exercise is just a circle around the cone -- work on consistent size and even distance from the cone. Great for flexibility, bending, working off leg, and even pacing. To make it more challenging, start at the cone and gradually spiral out, then spiral back in.

Weave Cones
Two exercises, one drawing. The light purple path shows an exercise that will work on more exaggerated bending and straightening, while the light green path would be more working off leg and efficiently moving through the cones. Goal on that is to get close to the cones and move off of leg, versus over-steering with the reins. (May save your knee from slamming into a tree trunk.)

Not illustrated is the rail exercises (which do need more of an area/larger space: the beauty of a lot of suppling/pole work is unless you're working at speed, it can be done in a smaller space): a common one I've encountered is to speed the horse up on the long side of the area, then ask them to slow on the short side. This is supposed to help with the speed up/slow down requests on trail...Mimi, in typically Mimi fashion, likes the speed up part...but not so much the slow down part.

I also do a lot of circles off the rail, direction changes, leg yield off the rail and back on, ride deep into corners to work on bending, lots of transitions and gait changes...basically, try to keep things interesting and make an arena schooling session count towards "putting something in the bank" that will be beneficial on the trail.

If you have questions/need clarification, let me know...and if you have your favorite arena exercises, please share!!


  1. *saved* for later reference! Great post, lady!

  2. I loved this post Ashley! I've played with several of these, both under saddle and on the lunge. The fan and staggered poles are two of my favorites! I've used the box as well. The possibilities are endless when you add lateral movement as well! : you can side pass around the box like they do in some trail obstacle classes; while staying within the confines of the box, walk forward down one long side, side pass parallel to a short side, back up up the other long side, side pass down the other short side. If you make the box big enough, you can do leg yield Xs across the box. There is soooo much you an do with it!

    I think some of the best horse and rider partnerships are the ones that cross train, regardless of what main sport they have chosen. A lot of runners cross train to strengthen assisting muscles, whether the cross training is cycling, swimming or just basic strength training. It is the same for horses. A horse that can carry himself correctly and is supple and strong will have much longer-lasting soundness than one who only does one thing.

    Thank you for this post!

    1. Ooo, yes...great suggestions on lateral work! I love having the poles as a"visual" guideline, both for myself and the horse...really seems to help with straightness and evenness.

      Excellent point on cross-training across disciplines...and that's so true! My riding, running, and some basic strength training all form a complementary trifecta of cross-training that all benefit each other.

  3. Aww how nice, you wrote this just for me right? :) ;) Just worked Sheza in the arena for the first time since scraping it, poles and cones are next!

    1. It did cross my mind! ;) Can't wait to hear what works for her! (You could do this stuff in hand with Rory, too!)