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Finding the joy in schooling...

Developing ourselves and our horses is something that most of us are thinking about a lot, at least to some degree, but it can get overwhelming and tedious at times. We can put too much pressure on ourselves and on our horses, often resulting in taking the joy out of our time with our horses. Although I’m a huge believer in constantly striving to improve one’s self, I’m also an even bigger believer in the idea that it has to be fun. After all, if you’re not loving every minute you spend in the saddle, you can be sure that your horse isn’t either.

Over the years, I’ve been a competitive rider, a professional rider and a recreational rider. Of the three, my years in competition were my least favorite. There were times during my competitive career that I completely lost my passion for riding and looking back, I’m certain my horses were less than inspired as well. When I reflect back on the experience I have no doubt why that was.

Aside from the inevitable anxiety and stress that I’d begin to feel as a result of the impending competition, it was just never very much fun drilling our exercises in preparation for the show. It wasn’t until years later and after swearing off horse shows completely, that I discovered how incredibly helpful and enjoyable finding alternative ways to “school” my horse could be and how many alternative options there actually were!

Nowadays, there are dozens of activities available to us that will both: provide a bit of variety to a sometimes repetitive training program and keep things fun and enjoyable for both the horse and rider. All of this while still providing an opportunity to develop those skills we might need in the show ring or at work.

For example, one of my all-time favorite ways to test and challenge my equitation, my horsemanship and develop partnership with my mount is through practicing the art of Garrocha. This traditional form of stockmanship was developed hundreds of years ago by the Spanish Vaqueros after adopting the discarded Lance of the Middle Ages. When the lance was replaced in battle with fire arms, the long, thirteen to fifteen foot pole, sometimes tipped with a sharp point, was adopted for used as a cattle and bull handling tool. Later, it was replaced by a number of other tools, eventually evolving into the ropes and riatas we see in use with livestock today.

The Garrocha is still used on some ranches as a stock handling tool but mostly, it’s developed into an Equestrian art form used to showcase high levels of training and as an element in the Doma Vaquera (Working Equitation) Ease of Handling or Cattle tests.

Playing with a Garrocha pole provides an enormous number of benefits to both the horse and rider, not to mention, it’s a ton of fun and looks amazing! One of the first things it does for the horse/human team is that it changes the dynamics of the lesson from human vs horse to human + horse vs Garrocha pole! If simply developing your horse’s confidence to be able to accept the long pole being dragged, carried, spun, rolled or dropped from their back doesn’t sound like enough of a benefit, maybe having an activity that provides a way of making improving circles or developing one handed riding fun and exciting will.

It seems to come across as intimidating at first and one of the most common things I hear from people I’ve suggested playing with a Garrocha pole to is that they don’t think they have enough riding skills to try it. I’ll admit, it is not something one should try for the first time without the support of a trained professional but with a little bit of guidance, it provides the perfect activity to develop those skills! It is virtually impossible not to sit up straight when you’re handling the pole and it gives both the horse and rider a focal point that supports correct positioning as well as helping the horse to understand the point, size or shape of any given maneuver with the pole.

My very good friend and another of my long time mentors, Natalie Vonk and I have taught a number of Garrocha clinics together and I’m always blown away by how much improvement we see in each and every rider and horse. I’ve also taught a number of progressive lesson series’ on both Garrocha and Doma Vaquera (and Hoof Ball, Mountain Trail and a few other fun alternatives to schooling drills) at my home, The Rock’n Star Ranch in Aldergrove BC, as well as a number of private sessions and it never ceases to amaze me how only a few lessons with the pole can improve a horse and rider’s communication and poise so quickly and completely.

Taking the riders focus off of the horse and placing it on a task seems to create space for the horse to seek the connection to the rider. Developing a brand new skill also creates a bit of humility in the rider which, in turn, improves the rider’s patience with their horse. Working with the Garrocha pole provides purpose and reason for: Circles, halts, turns on the haunch, turns on the forehand, side pass, leg yield, backups, shoulder-in, haunches-in and so many other gymnastic activities that without the pole can feel tedious and frustrating. And let’s face it, if you can perform a perfect fifteen meter circle while riding one handed and holding on to a thirteen foot pole, doing it without the pole is a piece of cake!

I started playing with the Garrocha pole years ago as something new and interesting to do with my horse and quickly discovered all the benefits it possessed. It was not my intention to improve my circles, work on lateral moves or develop my equitation when I picked up my first pole but it didn’t take long for me to realize that that’s just what was happening and I was having a blast! Even more exciting was the discovery that thanks to finding an enjoyable way to develop all of these things, I was creating a stronger partnership and a deeper connection with my horse. Better still, my horse was gaining confidence, learning to become lighter and more responsive and having fun as well!

Living in a climate where much of the year is spent riding in an indoor, it can be a challenge to keep exercising our horses and keeping them fit through the bad weather interesting and enjoyable, to say the least. Whether you’re preparing for an upcoming season of competition or simply trying to keep your horse exercised, it is essential to find a way to keep things fun and interesting.


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