In this excerpt from his book Arena Tracks, Christian Baier of Southern Blues Equestrian Center gives us two foundational exercises that help teach horse and rider to adjust stride length and balance and find the ideal approach to an obstacle or combination.
Exercise 1: Canter Poles to Support Rhythm in the Approach
This setup of poles and obstacles builds on the basic exercise with canter poles on the long sides and diagonals. Utilizing the canter poles helps the horse and rider not only determine suitable rhythm for the situation, but also maintain a suitable and steady rhythm in the approach to the obstacle. The canter poles provide the rider with valuable feedback to determine if the strides are too long and fast, just right, too short and slow, or if the rhythm is changing within the canter poles themselves.
The circles on the short ends can, if needed, be very helpful for horse and rider to make necessary adjustments to the canter stride length and balance to achieve a more ideal approach and rhythm to the next obstacle.
The tracks by themselves are very basic so when the understanding for these are established in dressage work as well as over ground poles, they should not cause any difficulties. When difficulties are present, the solution is generally to go back and review the dressage tracks again and practice them over poles to determine where the source of the problem is. Ideally, the horse should not have to change length of canter stride or speed over the canter poles, assuming the rider established an ideal rhythm for the measured distance between the poles.
When the canter strides are a bit short, the horse will have to lengthen them to reach across the poles, and if the canter strides are a bit long, the horse will have to shorten them to fit the strides in before the obstacle.
• Purpose: Training rhythm in the approach to the obstacle while using canter poles for feedback regarding stride length and speed.
This course can be set in most arena sizes. Setting the poles and obstacles in a way that allows for circles to be ridden on the short ends (as illustrated) can be very helpful for horse and rider in establishing or reestablishing suitable rhythm. The distances used here and in Exercise 2 are generally suitable for the typical Warmblood horse. Distances between the canter poles and the poles and obstacles are 3 meters (9.8 feet). Note: Different types of footing, different arena sizes, and different heights of obstacles require adjustments to the measured distances.
Exercise 2: Awareness of Rhythm and Track
This setup of obstacles is a good checkup regarding how rhythm is maintained throughout the course without the help of canter poles as in the previous exercise. Here, instead, the related distance will be a gauge and source of feedback for how the rhythm and length of stride is managed by the rider. Good tracks are important for the course to ride in a harmonious way, while the placement of the obstacles in this course will help the rider in making appropriate choices in regards to the track without the use of cones.
Thinking of this course in three sections, with each section teaching a different set of skills, will help with both warm-up jumping and the later work with the complete course. The first of the three sections of the course is basic level with two single obstacles on the long side, Obstacles 1 and 5, both of which should be built in a way that they are able to be jumped from either direction. The next section is the obstacle in the center that can be ridden on the circle and as change of direction out of the circle. The last described section is the related distance on the opposite long side from the two single obstacles, these are Obstacles 3 and 4, which also should be built in a way that they safely can be jumped from either direction. The three sections can be used in any order, depending what is most suitable for horse and rider. The course itself can also be divided into two sections: Obstacles 1 through 5, and Obstacles 6 through 10. Dividing the course into sections as described can be very helpful for both the trainer teaching the course and the rider learning the course.
• Purpose: To demonstrate awareness of rhythm and basic tracks.
This course can be set in most arena sizes with only minor modifications. For a longer arena, lengthening the related distance and spreading obstacles 1 and 5 farther apart is recommended. The related distance as illustrated here measures 20 meters (65.6 feet) and is suitable for five strides if ridden with normal-sized Warmbloods over low obstacle height.