Trot Serpentines: Part 1

Use these horse-training tips to get a great trot serpentine in your next trail class.

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:

Starting Out

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.

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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 pole. You can circle right over the third and second pole or change direction again and circle left over just the third pole.

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Once you’ve warmed up and he has 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.

Now that you know how to get started on trot serpentines, take the week to practice and check back next week to find out how AQHA Professional Horseman Robin Frid puts the finishing touches on his trot serpentines in Part 2.