Teaching a Horse to Pole Bend

Teaching a Horse to Pole Bend

Start your speed event horses on poles with these pole bending training tips from AQHA Professional Horseman Doug Leasor.

A woman on a black horse competes in pole bending at the 2020 AQHA World Championship Show.

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Pole bending can be beneficial to more than just pole bending horses. AQHA Professional Horseman Doug Leasor starts all his speed event horses out on poles.

“It’s hard to make a barrel horse a pole horse because they’ve got so much run in them already,” Doug says. “Most horses aren’t broke before they begin on barrels. A horse knows he’s going to run, but when you get to a barrel, he doesn’t know he’s supposed to turn. So, he gets yanked around the barrel and gets to run to the next one.”

Doug finds it a natural step to take the barrel horses through poles first.

“After poles, they’ve got all the basics down,” he says. “Then, I can just point them at a barrel, and they turn.”

Doug explains that barrel racing and pole bending require the same basic turns: You have a left and two rights, or a right and two lefts. The difference is that in poles, you have control of the horse’s head.

“You have to have control as you’re going through the weave to get him where you want him,” Doug continues. “Whereas in barrels, it’s 90 yards to the second barrel, and all the horse is thinking about is running.”

Determining If Your Horse is Right or Left Handed

An important step in speed event training is to determine whether your horse is right or left handed.

“Since you’ve got two turns one way and one the other, you want your best turn twice,” he says. “You should let your horse choose.”

You can do this by riding circles. Doug explains that all horses will give more one way than they do the other. As you ride, determine which side is more comfortable for your horse. (Here WPRA barrel racing world champion Nellie Miller shares her exercise for riding perfect circles.)

Introducing a Horse to a Pole Bending Pattern

Now, it’s time to introduce your horse to the pole bending pattern.

pole bending pattern
Pole bending features a series of six poles spaced 21 feet apart. Horses and riders weave through the poles at a high rate of speed. Horses run to the far end of the series of poles, turn and weave in and out as they work their way back to the front. Horses then complete a turn around the front pole and maneuver through the series again. At the last pole, they complete that turn and race toward the finish line at full speed.

Doug advises to set your poles up out in the open.

“I want the horses to run to the pole, not to the fence,” he says.

Doug emphasizes that if you don’t make your first pole bending turn, you’re likely to get outrun. So, you need to practice correctly to avoid bad turns.

“If we are training a horse, I always walk them into the arena and let them look around,” Doug says. “I’ll walk them off in a circle, and I’ll go to the end.

“When I get to the end pole, I’ll stop and let him stand there a second, then I’ll turn. As I make the end turn, I’m going to grab hold of the saddle horn, slide my hand down the rein and pull. The only time in pole bending we pull is on the end turn. You’ll pull the horse around and make the horse bend around your inside leg. I want to turn so close to the pole that the horse’s hip could touch it, if I moved the horse over a step.”

If you’ve turned close to the end pole, you’re in line with your pattern, he says. But, if you come off a turn too wide, you will continue to be too wide on your turn and cost yourself time.

“Everything is done just like you were going to be running,” he explains. He continues his horses at a walk until they’re comfortable. Then he speeds them up to a trot. “But even when we are loping the pattern, we always stop them on the end.”

Now, turn No.2 is a little different.

“In the second turn you are on the other side of the pole, so you need to step the horse over as quickly as you can and give it a little more room,” he says. “Then, you slide your hands down the rein, drop the outside rein, pull the horse around and grab the saddle horn.”

Reach for the saddle horn even if you’re going slowly. You want to make it a habit so you don’t accidentally pull with the reins when the horse takes off quickly during a fast pattern. Then, you come around the corner with your horse’s hip just like the first turn, and you’re lined up with the pattern again.

Now for turn No. 3.

“Make sure you pull your horse around the third turn,” Doug says. “Some riders drift out and make a big arc. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. So, when I’m training my horses, they always turn the third turn and go back to the middle of the poles. I will stop them to make sure that they finish the turn. You see so many horses that just plant their front feet and run their back end around. They’re all strung out and can’t gather themselves to run forward. I want my horses to set and turn."

So, to recap, “We walk in to the arena, walk in a preparatory circle, walk to pattern, stop and repeat until they are comfortable with it,” he says. “I’ll run the pattern one time with them, and that’s it. They’re ready to show. Once our horses know what the pattern is, they don’t see it unless they go to a show.”

However, this doesn’t mean the horses are left out in the pasture to fend for themselves.

“We still ride them every day, but it is either in the field or just trotting around,” he adds. “It’s only when they start giving us trouble that we bring them back on the pattern.”