An exercise I like to use to for improving focus, straightness and rating speed is called Post to Post. Compared to some of the other exercises in this series, it may seem fairly simple. It offers many benefits for both you and your horse, however, when executed properly.
For this exercise, all you need are two points to travel between. We will refer to these as point A and point B. An arena with good footing is the best place to do this exercise, although you can do it anywhere. On one side of the arena you will pick point A and on the opposite side of the arena you will pick point B, with a straight line between them. If you don’t have an arena, you can use two objects as markers (e.g. trees, rocks, cones, bushes). Once you get to point B, stop your horse and let him rest. Next, turn around and head from point B to point A. The ideal way to turn around is to move whichever body part was leaning during the stop. For example, if your horse’s shoulder leaned to the right in the stop, move the shoulder to the left for the turn (a turn on the haunches to the left). Then line up at point B in order to head back to point A.
Mount your horse and start the exercise standing at point A, facing point B. Before you leave point A, at a walk, look at point B and keep focused on it as you travel. This will let you know how straight or crooked your horse is going at any gait.
It sounds simple, but at first, you will likely find that your horse will weave slightly from side to side as he travels because he is not sure where exactly you want to go. The first few times you head straight toward your marker (in this case a fence), he may want to veer off to the left or right, just ahead of point B.
As your horse travels across the arena, glance down occasionally to see how your reins are positioned. The horse’s neck should be set evenly between your reins; one rein should not be closer to the neck than the other. If this is the case, it means your horse is leaning to one side and you are keeping your horse straight, rather than your horse “finding” and maintaining straightness on his own.
When this happens, I try to do most of the correcting with my leg. If the horse is leaning to the right, I use more right leg. If my horse is leaning to the left, I use more left leg. I will also use the reins when necessary, but doing most of the corrections with your legs gains better results in the long run. If your horse increases his speed when you use your leg to move him over, slow him down to a walk with your reins, but don’t release your leg until you feel him move sideways (away from your leg).
When you are comfortable, you can gradually increase your speed as you travel from point A to point B either at a walk, trot or lope. Eventually, the goal is to start out at a controlled lope, then slowly increase speed every few strides, until the horse stops at point B with good impulsion. Stopping with good impulsion means that the horse goes straight to the stop from the increase of speed, rather than slowing down, then stopping.
This will help improve your stops as well. The horse will start to learn that he needs to stay straight and the fence (or other marker) will help him stop, rather than the reins. In order for a horse to stop well, he has to lift his shoulders and drive his hindquarters up underneath. By coming to the stop with a slight increase in speed, it helps put your horse into this position naturally. If you slow him down just before you stop, it may encourage him to drop his shoulders and lose the drive in the hindquarters, thus creating a stop of poorer quality.
Once you have progressed to this point in the exercise, your horse will probably start anticipating your next move. If your horse is anticipating turning around and running back to point A immediately after arriving at point B, for example, just walk or trot a few circles before continuing the exercise. You can prevent this anticipation by mixing things up. For example, you can maintain the same speed the entire length of the arena rather than increasing speed, or build speed then decrease it before arriving at the fence.
Asking your horse for an increase in speed, followed by a request for a decrease in speed will help keep him focused on you and your next request. Often, our game plan is to just keep the horse quiet and hope he never get into a fast unpredictable situation. Doing this exercise, there will be times when your horse anticipates extra speed and you will have the opportunity to pick up the reins and bring him back to a walk. This is great practice for both you and your horse to gain confidence with increasing and decreasing speed, so that when you do need to pick up the reins in a real life situation, you will have more success and less resistance.
When first starting this exercise, I normally don’t do it for more than about 10 minutes. Ending on a good note is important. The key to the first few sessions will be:
- working mostly at a trot rather than a run
- not being too critical if the horse gets a little crooked
- resting in between each trip between point A and point B to decrease anticipation in the horse, by walking or trotting circles
Eventually, you can increase sessions to about 20 minutes, after the horse has developed both physical and mental stamina. This may take a month or two, depending on your horse and how often you practice. When you reach this point, you will begin to focus more on:
- insisting on straightness
- building speed to point B more often
- asking for a stop at the fence or just before
- bringing the horse back to a trot or walk if he tries to rush to point B
- using the reins very little, for the run and the stop
They key, again, is to end on a good note. If you do too much, the horse may begin to make mistakes, and you will have to spend time fixing them.
Post to Post is a great exercise to incorporate into your program no matter what your discipline is. Straightness and focus is key for success with any horse. In the next article, we will be discussing one of my favourite exercises – the Daisy Pattern, to develop shoulder control. Until then, enjoy the journey.
When done properly, this exercise helps the horse to:
- travel straight
- stay between the rider’s hands and legs
- steer easily
- accelerate gradually in response to the rider’s cues
- wait for the cues, rather than anticipating
- run correct and straight before stopping
- gain trust in the rider
It helps the rider to:
- learn to focus
- feel when the horse is straight vs. crooked
- be more confident and have more control at faster gaits
- develop increased trust in the horse