The garrocha (a Spanish word for the long pole used in Working Equitation, which comes from its use as a tool of traditional cattle work in Spain) is a fun thing to train your horse to. I’m not sure why I call it fun, but anytime we are doing something new with our horse, it brings a child-like excitement to the picture. Being able to maneuver this pole while controlling your horse is a great test of partnership and trust. I personally start with a short, light PVC piping. (½ inch in diameter) while learning to be comfortable with the pole. If you start with the regulation size for competitions (8 to 11.5 ft.) it tends to add quite a bit of weight, and you might get a little clumsy and accidentally whop your horse in the head. As you might imagine, doing so will only create insecurity for the horse. In this article, I am not focusing on the art of movements as in Doma Vaquera, or the technicalities of judging criteria; there are great handbooks available to explain that. The purpose of my article is to help riders who need guidance introducing the pole to their horse, as well as themselves. You don’t need the bull and ring to train. Just playing around with different things is what will help you and your horse become so comfortable and accustomed to the pole that by the time you work with the bull and ring, it will seem simple!
Start by getting the horse used to the pole while you are standing on the ground. Wave the pole around them and even lightly rub it on their legs. You want the horse to accept this pole as if it were part of the tack. Once this happens, you may move to mounted work. When it’s time for you to try to handle the pole from the saddle, it is good to initially have someone on the ground hand you the pole, but if you are like me and only have a dog as your assistant, then you can lean the pole on the fence and ride over to it. You can take hold of the pole and see how the horse is reacting. If they show any fear at all, I highly suggest going back to the ground work. Spend more time dragging the pole around while leading, stroking the horse and waving the pole. Then carry out these same exercises under saddle. First at walk, then trot, and finally canter. Keep the garrocha tucked under your arm and in line with the horse’s shoulder, but still up toward their neck. Mount and dismount with the pole in hand (If you drop the pole in a competition, excluding Children and Introductory levels, you have to dismount and grab the pole, and then safely mount again. This means you should be practicing this skill in the quiet atmosphere at home until you and your horse are confident with it.)
There are a variety of exercises that can help you improve your precision with the pole. One of my favorites is to set a circular PVC fitting on a barrel and practice skewering it in motion. Again, I start at the walk to make sure my horse is comfortable with the sight and sound of the ring coming at them down the pole. Once my horse is performing this exercise confidently at the walk, I add faster gaits. The PVC fitting is substantially heavier than most bull rings I’ve seen, but it teaches you to remember to watch for that ring sliding on the pole and to get ready to capture it with your thumb as it descends.
A variation on this exercise is to set a tennis ball or bouncy ball (anything, really, that helps guide you to precision and comfort while maneuvering your horse) on the barrel and practice knocking it off. I find that after a bit of practice, the horse begins to understand what needs to be done and actually helps guide you to the target.
Another exercise I do while training is to set the pole in the barrel and circle around while holding on to it. This exercise tests bend, balance, and harmony, all while using seat and leg to help guide the horse. This exercise is also a great way to create a muscle memory of picking up the pole and returning it to the barrel correctly.
When you are ready, you may transition from a light-weight PVC pole to a wood dowel or bamboo pole, getting used to different weights and lengths with a horse that already understands and accepts the pole! Using creativity in obstacle training makes it fun for you and your horse. Before long, you will feel as though you can accomplish anything while carrying a pole!
Featured image, Andiamo 2005, owned by George Domb and ridden by Carlos Carneiro. Photo courtesy of Michael T. Photography