The Garrocha pole is a spanish tradition of the Doma Vaqueros. The long pole was used to both tend cattle and then to perform in the bull fights. The handy vaquero horses had to be able to turn and spin around that pole while the rider intimidated the bull into fighting by poking it with the long stick. The speed and collection demonstrated by the Doma Vaqueros is impressive and awe inspiring and a beauty to watch. In gatherings and expositions of skill the vaquero may perform around a lovely lady who danced while the Vaquero danced around with prancing pony and long pole. Those particularly proficient in performing with the Garrocha pole are called “Garrachista”, a term of respect and honor for the Doma Vaquero.
Today the Garrocha pole is a tool that can be used to help give meaning and purpose to the suppling and lateral maneuvers that we often use in Cowboy Dressage. The dexterity required in handling the pole requires that the rider guide the horse with all the aids and not just the reins. The presence of the pole gives the horse something to focus on in the maneuvers adding bend and suppleness. It’s an excellent cross training tool that you can add to your workouts. And best of all, it’s fun!
It's easy to get started with the Garrocha pole and I recommend it for adding focus to your training program. The Garrocha pole is generally about 13 feet long. A rider that is taller or mounted on a tall horse (over 16 hands, say) may need a bit longer pole at 13 1/2 feet. A shorter rider or one mounted on a short horse (less than 14 hands) may prefer a little shorter pole at 12 1/2 feet. The pole should be relatively rigid. A long PVC pipe has so much bounce that it is difficult to control. A long wooden closet dowel, or even an aluminum pool cleaning pole makes a good lightweight tool for practicing. While a heavier pole is difficult to get used to at first, I prefer the added weight for the stability at faster gaits. My Garrocha pole is a hardwood three piece that screws together like a pool cue. It makes it quite easy to store and travel with but less easy to hoist around when you are first learning!
I introduce the Garrocha pole to my horse on the ground. While I have found that all my horses respond well to the pole, I have also seen a few horses quite troubled in the beginning. I begin the introduction by leading the horse while dragging the pole with the pole in my left hand and the horse in my right. I then switch sides so the horse can see the pole dragging next to him out of both eyes. Once that is accomplished. I begin to have the horse change eyes on the pole by sending him back and forth under the pole. Once he is quietly walking and turning under the pole I will change to yielding his hindquarters under the pole. I will be careful at first to allow the horse to become accustomed to the pole before I become a little less careful of whether the pole is touching the horse or not. As the horse gets used to the pole I will become careless and have the pole touch the hindquarters and forequarters as it is likely to do as you, the rider are trying to master changing the position of the pole from the saddle.
My final exercise from the ground is to send the horse around me with the pole in the position that it will be when being carried by the rider. I do this at the walk, jog and lope finally progressing to resting the pole across the saddle. This ground work session may take several days and it may take 15 minutes. It depends entirely on the horse and rider pair and their experience and agility with introducing the pole to the horse. My best advice is to not rush it and to be sure that the horse is 100% accepting of the pole prior to getting into the saddle.
For your first session with the pole in the saddle it is useful to have a helper to hand you the pole and to take the pole should the horse display some wariness. If you have down your groundwork thoroughly this should result only in your helper handing you the pole. If the horse is nervous with you holding the pole from the saddle I may choose to go back to more groundwork before proceeding with saddle work. But, with a good helper you can go through the same exercises that I described in the groundwork with the helper introducing the pole while you steady and reassure the horse.
Under saddle I begin by dragging the pole behind the horse in a slight leg yield so the horse’s attention and line of sight includes the pole. After dragging for a bit I will change directions under the pole with a turn on the haunches with forward movement then repeat the forward dragging of the pole on the other eye with a slight leg yield.
Now you are ready to start using the Garrocha to create magic between you and your horse. The simplest of the maneuvers with the Garrocha pole and one of the most universally beneficial is to walk a perfect circle holding the pole steady. Just as the Cowboy Dressage markers on the court help you to ride point to point and hold your circle the Garrocha allows you to practice this concept with each stride. Since your hands are preoccupied by holding the pole the job of holding the circle and the bend as well as the cadence become the job of your other aids. The Garrocha pole can truly help you learn to seek the place where your horse is completely within your aids. Most horses will look towards the pole which helps to initiate the lateral flexion in the head and neck. Your seat and legs create the bend through the body. The rider’s balance shifts with each stride helps to balance the horse on the circle and correct for missteps on the circle.
You can make the circle larger or smaller in several ways but the simplest of which is to simply change your balance from the inside to the outside of the horse without changing the horse’s bend. Don’t shove the horse to the inside or outside of the circle but ride the horse to the inside and outside of the circle by using your center of gravity.
Because you necessarily must ride one handed when handling the pole it is important to remember that your reins are connected to the front feet through the horse’s shoulders. Use the outside rein at the junction of the neck and the shoulder to help create bend and initiate the maneuvers of Turn on the Haunches, shoulder in and rollbacks. If you attempt to create these maneuvers with your legs, you will interfere with the bend that the pole has helped you to create.
The Turn on the Forehand can be performed by moving the haunches under the pole or away from the pole. A Turn on the forehand of 180 degrees will result in a change of bend when performed either direction.
You can also change direction and the side of the horse on which the pole is carried by moving the pole behind the horse’s hindquarters when moving forward. This change of bend is a little subtler and encourages forward movement through the change of bend. By using this maneuver, you can either perform figures of 8 or a serpentine series.
Really the maneuvers and ways in which the Garrocha pole can be used is limited only by your imagination. I’ve seen some amazing performances with the Garrocha and each is as unique as the horse and rider performing. Once you and your horse are comfortable with the pole and you can swap from side to side you can begin to add the faster gaits and more intricate turns. Just remember that as always your goal is soft feel and partnership. Build through the maneuvers slowly not pushing too hard in order to prevent the loss of soft feel. I’ve begun to add the Garrocha pole into our lessons for my younger horses as well and they certainly excel at it.
So, head to your local hardware store for a 13 foot dowel and begin your introduction to the Garrocha pole. It’s a great way to celebrate our vaquero roots, ride to some great music and work towards the kind of finesse and partnership we are all after!