Borrow A Trainer
Working on trot serpentines
Our end goal for a trot serpentine trail maneuver is to be able to go through it almost in a straight line, where you go forward and almost sideways over the poles as you go over them. The ideal horse is fluid and forward in his movement, and he stays square in his body and up in his shoulders.
But it takes a lot of time to get there. Weaving a really nice trot serpentine begins with teaching your horse to keep his body square in a circle over a single pole.
The series of exercises I use to work on the trot serpentine are a fundamental warm-up for any trail work, and useful in any discipline – because they work on developing that square, collected frame, where your horse is lifting his back and shoulders and driving forward from his hindquarters. Here’s what I do.
Set up three poles in a line, end-to-end. (use nothing shorter than 12-foot poles, or use two 8-foot poles together to create 16-foot poles.) Then, kick the bottom pole over to the right, so it’s at a slight angle; leave the center pole straight; and kick the top pole over to the left, at a slight angle. Put a cone on the end of each pole.
The idea is to practice doing very large circles that turn into figure 8s over the poles. You can do this two-handed or one-handed. Starting out, I like to ride this two-handed.
Start with the bottom pole, circling to the right in a very round, pretty circle. Your circle should take you over the pole on a true 90-degree angle.
In the circle, I hold the horse’s body with my leg and hold his face with slight hand pressure, and I maintain that feel as he goes over the pole.
A lot of people tend to hold and then release right when they get to the pole, but that defeats the purpose of the exercise. The purpose of the exercise is to help the horse go over the pole, encouraging him to keep his back up and move forward. You want your hand and leg to be there to correct him when he tries to lean.
When you’re warming up and the horse goes over the pole the first time, he’ll tend to lean to the outside of the circle (in this case, to the left), falling out with his shoulder. If you’re on a released rein, you’re not going to completely feel that lean. But if you’re holding him, you’ll feel where he leans and can correct it.
At this point, your goal is to teach the horse keep his body square and use his back as he goes over the pole. You want to go over the pole like it does not even exist.
Once you get comfortable with the first pole – big, pretty circles, staying square over the pole – add the second (middle) pole. Circle the first pole to the right and then turn to make a left circle over the second pole.
You’ve added a direction change, but you’re still holding, supporting your horse and keeping his body square over the pole. I go one direction until my horse feels comfortable in that direction.
Really focus on using your space to create beautiful circles, and don’t do little sharp turns that make the horse dive into the pole. The moment you dive in at the pole, your horse is no longer square; he will be leaning somewhere in his body. That’s why it’s important to use poles no shorter than 12 feet, so you can make big circles.
I randomly switch up my circles. You definitely don’t want to change directions after every circle – circle the first pole to the right two or three times, then the second pole to the left a few times and back to the first and so on. I might circle 10 times before I change directions. You don’t want your horse to anticipate a direction change – keep his mind on staying square over the pole.
Then, when those circles are nice, add another direction change and circle over the third (top) pole. You can circle right over the third and second pole or change direction again and circle left over just the third pole.
Once you’ve warmed up and he’s stayed correct and square, you can release your horse on a loose rein and continue the exercise.
Concentrate on making really pretty circles. It’s no different than when you are making figure 8s, where the circles are almost two back-to-back Ds, because there is a point where your horse is straight where the figure 8 circles meet – in this exercise, that’s the point you are going over a pole. You should go over every pole at a 90-degree angle.
Step It Up
Once your horse stays square through the circles and over the poles, then you move to taking the poles at a less than 90-degree angle, and you practice steering with large, circular corners.
So, if I’m circling the first pole to the right and I want to go to the second, I practice turning strong to the right over the first pole – where I go over it closer to a 45-degree angle – and then I make another strong turn to the left back over the second pole, and then I just open up and continue circling to the left again over the first two poles.
I make a strong turn, a more aggressive move, to increase the level of difficulty, but then I immediately go back to the circles, the more basic move, to reinforce the horse’s confidence level, and to reinforce the square frame in his body.
I just move through all the poles that way – making one or two strong turns followed by opening up to the large circles again.
What I want as I ask for the stronger turn is for him to maintain his squareness. I don’t want to feel his body lean into the stronger turn, but to stay up in his shoulders and straight, just as we have been doing.
It is repetition and reinforcement, challenging and returning to confidence, holding the horse between my hand and leg to encourage straightness in his body.
I also start to be aware of his feet. If I’m circling right, the goal is for him to step over with his right front first; circling left, the goal is for the left front to go over first. When he starts leading with the foot closest to the pole, he’s advancing.
Finally, I ask for an even stronger turn over one pole, where the horse is almost parallel to the pole with his body.
The first part of that stage is practicing just the first pole. The first pole is the most important because you always have to enter an obstacle well to get through it well.
I start with circling to the right, and then I approach the first pole at closer to a 20-degree angle, up beside the pole, and ask him to step over the pole leading with his right front foot, and then I continue riding straight ahead for five or six strides before circling around and approaching that first pole again.
Again, you have to hold your horse over the pole and help him stay straight. Once he’s comfortable with the first pole, then I add the second and, eventually, the third. If you need to, go back to circles to reinforce your horse’s confidence.
The trick is getting him to lead with the inside foot, to step over the pole with the foot closest to the pole. To get that, you have to have forward motion, strong, not fast, but forward with impulsion, not a pleasure horse jog.
The hard part for the rider is getting the “feel” of the correct inside foot stepping over the pole. You can’t look down and get it. You have to practice and learn what it feels like. That’s where having a good ground person with you helps, to tell you when the step is correct and you can incorporate that into what you feel as you ride.
When your horse goes over with the incorrect foot, generally, he will use his neck a little bit more and lift his head more than when he goes over with the correct foot.
The most work should be spent in the earlier stages – circles and staying square over one pole. I continue to go through those stages with my broke horses, too. At home, I spend my time practicing those circles and keeping my horse square. Then at the show, it’s nothing to weave through the poles.
This is my go-to warm-up trail exercise – I always work the circles over these poles before I do any kind of trail poles. I just work the circles and then I might leave it and go do lope-overs or walk-overs.
Remember, the real goal is to keep your horse collected and square through the circles and over the poles. You ride from your leg to your hand, that’s the only way to maintain balance and forward motion. You want your horse to lift his back and shoulders and use his hind end – your hand only helps guide him square.