Half a point may not sound like much, but boy can they add up! In Mountain Trail competition, each time your horse nicks a pole it costs you half a point. You lose even more if they try to step around them! Whether poles are short or long, thick or thin, raised up or lying flat, at an angle or straight on, your horse needs to learn to traverse them all carefully and thoughtfully if you want to stop losing those little points that can end up costing you a placing.
Problem: Horse Goes around Poles/Logs
At first, your horse may just try to avoid stepping over anything altogether. Remember, horses are smart. They see they can walk around something that could be potentially dangerous and naturally want to do so. Do not punish them for thinking! Instead, we need to gain their trust so that when we point them toward something, they will go through it, no questions asked.
Since we always start in-hand, do you have your Bolender Bubble? If you’ve read my past articles, you may be tired of reading about this, but it’s so important! Make sure your horse knows to stay out of your space before you start working with them.
Once you have your bubble established, lead your horse up to the poles or logs. If they stop to think, it’s okay. Let them! Look for that head to drop down before asking them to move forward again. If they try to go around the poles on the other side, just lead them back to the front of the pole. If they come over on top of you, your bubble is not established well enough and you need to go back and work on that first.
Otherwise, keep asking for that forward movement over the poles. At first, your horse is likely to trip over them. That’s okay. Reward your horse with a release of pressure for any movement that is over the poles, even if it’s clumsy or fast at first. Some horses may even try to “pop” over larger or raised poles. That’s okay too. Just keep practicing until your horse is calmly and confidently going over the poles.
At that point, it’s time to work on the harder stuff.
Problem: Horse Speeds Up Through Poles/Logs
As I mentioned above, horses may try and go through the obstacle too quickly at first because they are anxious about it. Once you get them actually going through the poles and avoiding them, you can work on slowing them down.
Do this by slowing yourself down as you approach the poles, and look for your horse to have his head down, relaxed. If he doesn’t, slow yourself up even more, even stop. Let your horse think and regain his calm. Once that head is dropped and eyes are soft, you can ask him to move forward again. Praise for calm, deliberate steps forward.
Problem: Horse Trips on Poles/Logs
Some horses may naturally pick up their feet higher, but most of us have to train our horses to not scrape their feet or even trip, when walking over logs.
First check to make sure you are not inhibiting them by keeping their head up high, especially while under saddle. If your lead rope or reins are too short, your horse cannot put his head down to see the log and he is going to have a hard time not stepping on it.
Once you’ve given your horse his head, it’s time to work on picking those feet up! While it may seem counterintuitive, starting with bigger or raised poles sometimes works best because the higher up the log or pole, the more obvious it is to your horse that they need to really pick up their feet. Then, when you go back to ground poles, your horse will pick up his feet higher than is necessary, thus clearing the ground pole easily. Sometimes doing some jump work with cross rails can really help too, both in-hand and in the saddle.
Remember to stop and praise your horse when they do make it over without touching a pole. And start with easy layouts – straight lines and poles at the same height – before graduating to obstacles like the crossbucks or pinwheel that have logs at different heights and/or turns.
Once you have the basics down, you can work on finessing these obstacles, which includes making sure you are straight and centered on the logs or poles when you go over them. No more lost points!
Mark Bolender is the nation’s leading expert in Mountain Trail, Extreme Mountain Trail, and Competitive Trail. He’s a three-time National Champion and one of the most popular trainers in the country. Today, Mark’s unique style of horsemanship has made the Bolender brand synonymous with these disciplines.
Mark has written for numerous national magazines and authored the popular book, Bolender’s Guide to Mastering Mountain and Extreme Trail Riding. Mark and his horse Checkers hold the sport’s all-time highest honors. Checkers was distinguished by becoming the 2020 Breyer Horse.
Mark and Lee Bolender founded the International Mountain Trail Challenge Association (IMTCA) to promote these sports. Today, the IMTCA trains judges, coordinates activities, and maintains certifications around the world.
Mark owns and operates Bolender Horse Park in Washington State. Mark has also designed and built Mountain Trail courses around the world.