Thursday, February 2, 2017

Arena Exercises #3: Challenge court

One of the great things about Cowboy Dressage is that I've learned to make better use of my arena time.  The Cowboy Dressage Court and Cowboy Dressage Challenge Court are our playgrounds and classrooms.  This is where we help our horses learn to be better balanced and have better cadence.  This is where we learn to be better riders by riding with accuracy and using a real system of concrete markers to gauge our success in our communication and guidance of our equine partners.

While the tests will definitely school your horse, it is helpful to have exercises that include maneuvers required in the tests that we can use to "work" the court as we help our horses with whatever they need help with during that particular ride.  Exercises that allow you to concentrate on a certain aspect of timing or feel will help your horse better understand what is being asked when the action, response and reward are repeated a few times.

Obviously we do not advocate over drilling our horses in Cowboy Dressage.  Recognize when your horse has tried and reward that try by changing things up for him.  A nice free walk across the diagonal or maybe just stopping for a soak in the octagon are great rewards for a job well done.

In this third installment of the Cowboy Dressage arena exercises we will utilize the ground poles of the Cowboy Dressage Challenge Court.  The Cowboy Dressage Challenge Court is an excellent tool for you and your horse.  Besides providing a nice visual for much of the geometry that we use while riding maneuvers the Challenge Court provides the added exercise of crossing ground poles.  The ground poles are essential for helping the horse develop self carriage, cadence, length of stride and reach.  They are also excellent markers for riding straight lines.  If you can hit dead center of the ground poles you must be traveling straight!  The Challenge Court includes a 12' octogon centered in the middle of the court at 8 with 4 diaganol ground poles on the short diagonals at R-8-V and S-8-P.  On the quarter lines we find a set of 4 ground poles spaced 3 feet apart.   We will use all of these ground poles in the following exercises.
Straight Lines:  The Challenge Court is an excellent tool for practicing straight lines because of the addition of the ground poles.  As you are warming up your horse or even as a break between some of these other exercises, working the straight lines of the court at the free walk can be very useful.  Enter at A at a free walk and continue up the mid line.  At C (which we understand to mean begin your 10 m bend at G) turn right.  Continue in the free walk to R.  At R, change directions R8V.  Continue to P at P change directions P8S.  At Y (which we understand to mean at C begin your 10 m bend) turn right down the quarter line over the ground poles.  Continue to N.  At N turn right at J turn right and continue over the ground poles to Q.  At Q turn Right and stop at C.

Using the Challenge Court to practice straight lines.  

There are a few things to keep in mind while using this exercise whether it be for warm up or between other exercises.  Keep your hands wide and low in the free walk so you create a triangle with the horse's head at the top of the triangle.  Keep the horse's head pointed straight towards the middle of the ground pole and ride straight over the pole.  Look up to your next marker to keep your energy focused on moving straight.  For example, when you ride from R to V look straight over the middle of the ground poles and the octagon right at V instead of looking at each ground pole as you come to it.  This will help to keep your focus straight and keep the horse straight beneath you.  Prepare for your 10 m bends well in advance so you and your horse are not surprised.  Your horse should already be thinking about the bend at least 5 meters before it needs to happen.  Create the bend with your body and ride the bend forward.  When I am riding this particular exercise I do not transition to the working frame for the 10 m bend.  I keep my horse moving straight and forward in the free frame all the way through all the straight lines on the court.  

For horses that are really struggling with staying straight, you can try giving them an additional point of focus.  Cones spaced about 3 feet apart right in the middle of the ground poles may help to keep your horse straight beneath you and looking to the middle of the pole.  Remember that when you turn off the court onto the short diagonal you do a mini turn on the haunches.  Push the shoulder over to the new line of travel.  When you turn off the diagonal back onto the track that is a mini turn on the forehand.  Push the haunches back onto the track.  

20 meter Oval over Ground Poles:  If you have a horse that struggles with ground poles, sometimes repetition is your best recourse. For horses that are really struggling I will do this exercise as part of our groundwork at both the walk and then the jog when the horse is ready for it.  This is a 20 meter oval ridden on the quarter lines over the ground poles.  There is a 10 m bend at each end with one end traveling through the octagon adding an additional challenge to this exercise.  This exercise may be ridden at either the free walk or the working jog.  I recommend starting with the free  walk to build the horse's confidence then transitioning to the working jog.  You may even want to transition to the jog just through the 10 m bend and then back to the walk over the ground poles depending on which part of the exercise your horse is struggling with.  Begin at the walk at C and turn left down the quarter line at Q.  Remember that this is a 10 m bend to get onto the quarter line.  Ride straight over the ground poles asking the horse to place one foot between each pole.  At the intersection of the blank and the quarter line (blue dots on the diagram) begin your 10 m bend to the middle of the octagon crossing into and out of the octagon right about where the pieces are joined (yellow stars on the diagram).  Your 10 m bend is complete when you meet the blank and the quarter line on the other side.  Ride straight over the ground poles and repeat the 10 m half circle from M-Y to Q-H.  
20 meter oval over ground poles

This is one of the few times that drilling and repetition may help your horse to find his stride and become comfortable over the ground poles.  If you find your horse is getting worried or rushing the poles you can vary this exercise by stopping and resting right in the middle of the section of quarter line ground poles or in the octagon.  We want the horses to wait on us and feel comfortable with the poles and not feel like they are something that needs to just get over with.  Be sensitive to the specific challenge your horse is facing and make sure your approach to each of these exercises is helping your horse build confidence both in himself and in your partnership.  Again, if your horse is really struggling, going back to groundwork is always a good choice.  I will long line my horses over the ground poles standing at I.  That way they can navigate the poles without undue interference until they are more confident and cadenced.  

The Octagon: That little 8 sided box in the middle of the Cowboy Dressage court is one of the most useful tools on the court.  It can become an area of rest, it can help the horse to develop bend and it can help a horse that struggles with cadence and stride over ground poles.  There are so many ways that we can use the octagon.  We will often leave the octagon on the court all the time even when we remove the rest of the challenge court to practice the "flat" tests.  

Ground work and the Octagon.  We always warm up our horses with ground work by using the Octagon.  The physical presence of the poles on the ground give the horse a concrete "something" to bend around when walking in a small circle in hand.  We ask the horse to walk around us while we stand in the middle of the octagon then we will transition to using the octagon in the circle by stepping out of the octagon and having the horse travel through the middle of the octagon.  Then you step back into the octagon to have the horse travel around the outside of the octagon again.  This smooth transition into and out of the octagon during groundwork helps to build confidence over ground poles as well as help establish cadence at the walk and the jog.  Making this transition smoothly can be a bit of a challenge for the person in the beginning.  Follow the horse's tail as it passes you and step in a straight line out of the octagon allowing the horse to room to travel through the octagon.  Then follow the horse's tail back into the octagon until he is traveling around you in a fluid circle. 
Working on bend using the octagon for groundwork

In the saddle we can also use the octagon for developing bend from head to tail.  By riding first on the outside of the octagon concentrating on keeping the horse's inside legs as close to the poles as possible, we help the horse understand how to balance in the bend.  Be sure the hindquarters are not drifting by keeping your outside leg back by the flank while your inside leg provides the support for the bend.  Then lift the inside front leg with the inside rein so the horse steps into the inside of the octagon.  Again, keep the horse as close to the poles as possible by making sure his outside legs step by the poles.  If the hindquarters tend to drift the horse may fall to the inside of the small circle or step on or out of the octagon with his hind legs.  Don't do too many circles before letting the horse out of the octagon to walk in a free walk before returning to work on bend. 

Using the octagon to help create bend under saddle

Riding a full circle in the Octagon:  There is a maneuver that is part of some of the challenge tests including the new Walk/Walk challenge test that calls for a full circle in the octagon.  On the surface this sounds like a very simple task, but to ride it properly requires good control of the horse's body parts as well as good bend and timing of the cues.  From mid line enter the octagon and circle to the left.  The horse should already be bending to the left as the front feet cross the middle of the ground pole.  The horse walks one full circle keeping as close to the poles of the octagon as possible until he has completed a full circle.  Then the horse exits the octagon by performing a quarter turn on the haunches and leaves in a straight line.  The beginning and end of the circle occur where the horse's front hooves enter the circle.  The horse exits the octagon traveling on the same straight line that he entered.
Traveling from A to C circle left in the box. 

This exercise can also be ridden from the short diagonals.  This maneuver is generally ridden in a free walk.

Fan Belt Exercise:  This is an elemental exercise with maneuvers that are commonly found on both the Challenge court and the flat Cowboy Dressage court.  This exercise allows horse and rider to practice straight lines, 10 m circles, ground poles and transition between free and working frame.   In this exercise the working gait (walk or jog) is in blue and the free gait (walk or jog) is in green.  Begin this exercise with a 10 m circle left at H through the cones and ground poles in the working frame.   Continue to S.  S8P change direction free frame.  P working frame.  F 10 m circle to the right working frame continue to K.  K 10 m circle to the right working frame continue to V.  V8R change direction free frame. R working frame continue to M.  M 10 m circle to the left working frame.
Fan belt exercise. Blue working frame. Green free frame.

10 meter 20 meter nested circles:  This exercise looks very busy but is one of my go to exercises both on the flat court and on the Challenge court.  There are many benefits to doing these nested circle exercises.  One of the main benefits to the rider is you get a distinct familiarity with the flow and geometry of the court.  One of the most common nested circles that we see on the Cowboy Dressage court is the 20 meter circle at B/E and the 10m circle at B/E.  When you learn to transition smoothly through change of bend through the octagon you can see how you can transition to the other 20 m circles at A and C.   I find it useful in the beginning to place cones or a pole or both at L and I on the court to help horse and rider visualize the geometry of the 10 m circle.  
10 and 20 m nested circles

This exercise is helpful using working walk and free walk transitions as well as working jog and free jog transitions.  The added challenge of changing bend and direction within the octagon requires the rider to prepare the horse adequately for that change of bend.  If you are having trouble visualizing the flow of this exercise, this is how I might call the exercise during a lesson. 

1. Free jog 20 m circle to the left at E.
2. Working jog 10 m circle to the left at E through the box
3. E free jog on the 20 m circle to B
4. B working jog 10 m circle through the box
5. B free jog continue 20 m circle to I
6. I 10 m circle working jog to the left to 8
7. 8 free jog 20 m circle to the left. 
8. At 8 working jog, change bend, change direction 10 m circle working jog to the right
9. 8 Free jog 20 m circle to the right

There are many variations and changes of direction and bend you can do through the octagon landing you on different circles in both working jog and free jog.  This busy exercise requires the rider to plan ahead for the changes in direction and bend.

That's all for now!  Give these exercises a try the next time you find yourself on the Challenge Court.  Remember to always reward the try, ride with kindness in your heart and a song on your lips! Happy trails!

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