Nine years ago I wrote a comprehensive article detailing the
various pole and board configurations we use as part of the
leading exercises. We have a large outdoor arena on the inside
of our 200-meter track. This allows us to set up and leave the
playground ready for work.
What to call it?
Awareness course or
Confidence Course or
Playground of higher learning
One main criteria of a TTEAM exercise is that is possible to
"chunk" it down into smaller parts.
Looks a bit like an agility course, in the exercises for
dogs, but is done slowly.
Why do it?
Focus and think – 2 legged & 4 legged
When we move slowly the nervous system pays more attention
to what it is doing – uses different parts of the brain and
it uses different muscles
Moves it into a real situation – bringing into function
Allows an animal to explore non-habitual ways of moving
Must be in own balance to benefit the most
Overcomes fears by having ways to keep the experience
The more the animal can be in balance the more they will
learn about themselves
Movement increases proprioceptive input = awareness of where
your body parts are in space – proprioceptive input increase
dopamine (neuro-transmitter which helps influence emotional
LABYRINTH - our most often used obstacle. Ideally we use
12' rails but when in need be creative. I have used shorter
poles including 7’ or 8' fence posts that you could then put
two together to make the outside parameter 14'and make three
turns inside; or 2 x 4's; or PVC pipe; or even rope.
The distance between the rails is usually four feet (the length
of the wand, which can make a handy measuring stick). However,
if your horse has trouble staying within the boundary of
poles; is nervous or you are riding through it; make the distance
wider to start with.
Benefits: teaches obedience, coordination, flexibility, patience,
self-control, balance, focus and helps in overcoming
the fear of poles.
Leading positions most often used - Elegant Elephant, Dancing
Cobra, Dingo with Cuing the Camel or the Homing Pigeon.
We usually start the labyrinth from the Elegant Elephant or
Homing Pigeon. Be sure to stop the horse before the end of
the pole he will be turning around so he can take a step forward
before asking for the turn.
The idea of this obstacle is to stop and start before each turn.
Notice if your horse's hindquarters follow his front end
around the comers. Is it the same in both directions? If a horse
has trouble bending correctly around a corner the next time
through use the Dingo and stroke him with the wand along his
back as he steps around the corner.
Variations: Using the half-walk (taking steps half the length
of a normal walk) go through the labyrinth. This helps improve
balance especially with horses who fall in on corners
when ridden and requires focus and concentration of both
horse and handler.
When your horse is very good at the labyrinth you can make
it narrower and ride through it slowly
Go across the labyrinth as walking or trotting poles. You have
the choice of going straight over two or four poles or going
diagonally across them.
Can be used ground driving and under saddle as well. When
you are riding through the labyrinth be sure to turn through
the center of your body and avoid leaning into a turn.
Photo 1: Faxi going through the Labyrinth in the Elegant Elephant.
DOGS -Benefits: teaches obedience, focus, self-control, balance
Leading positions -usually started in the Homing Pigeon or
the Cheetah when done with one person.
Photo 2: using the
Homing Pigeon helps
keep the dog straight
and in balance.
Zig Zagged Poles - Using six or eight poles set them in a
shallow zig zag. This is easier than the labyrinth, especially
for riding through. Very useful in therapeutic riding programs
because it is easier for the riders to maintain their balance
because the turns can be made less abrupt than in the labyrinth,
but it still gives horse, rider and leader an interesting
exercise that improves balance and focus.
Photo 3: Riding through the Star the rider’s seat is light and the
contact light to encourage the horse to use his back.
STAR (or fan) - three to five poles are raised at one end
on tires, bale, milk crate or feed bucket etc. The ends of the
poles resting on the ground are usually placed about four feet
apart. Adjust this distance as necessary so the horse can successfully
negotiate the poles. You may need to make the distance
wider, lower the poles at the raised end, or place every
other pole flat on the ground in the beginning.
Benefits - improves flexibility and balance, teaches the horse
to wait for a signal, useful with horses who are stiff at the
canter or who stumble.
Leading positions: Most often used are Elegant Elephant
(with the lead held 8 - 12" from the halter); Grace of the
Cheetah or Homing Pigeon. On occasion you may need to ask
a horse to come forward using the Dingo and then switch to
the Cheetah to avoid getting too far back. Start with the handler
on the inside. Stop the horse in front of the first pole, the
horse waits while the handler steps over one or two poles and
then asks the horse to come across. You may find the horse's
hindquarters swing out and may even miss the last poles. If
this is the case, be sure the horse is starting at the lowest end
of the pole and the angle of the turn is gradual. When asking
the horse to come forward be sure to make the signal a
smooth and light ask and release.
Lead the horse through with the handler on the outside of the
Variations: Ground drive or ride through the star. When riding
be sure to use a half seat to free the horse's back. To help
improve balance on corners lay three to five poles in a fan
shape around a corner with the inside ends about 9' apart.
Ride or lunge at the walk, trot and canter over the poles, the
distances and number of poles should be varied depending on
the horse's stride.
DOGS: Benefits: improves balance, confidence, coordination,
awareness, focus, and obedience. Variations: Short PVC
pipe can be used instead of poles - the end raised with a tire,
box or milk crate.
POLES RAISED AT ONE END - either the same side or
Set up - ends may be raised at heights ranging from six inches
to 24 inches using nearly anything - tires, jump standards,
cavaletti, milk crates, buckets, bales, boxes. Distance-start
with poles about 4 ½ feet apart. Can be set narrower or wider
and raised or lowered at the ends.
Benefits- improves balance, helps to free tight backs, shoulders
and hips, differentiates movement, help with horses who
Leading positions - Long Elephant (8 - 12" from halter);
Homing Pigeon or Cheetah. For variation use the Dingo to go
forward and stop the horse using Cuing the Camel with a pole
between the front and hind legs.
DOGS: Benefits: improves balance, confidence, gait, coordination,
focus and way of going.
Photo 4: Shows leading through the uneven poles using the Cheetah
position. Notice the handier is well ahead of the horse which allows
the horse to bring his head down and lengthen his back. Should the
horse hit the poles with his feet, stroke his legs and tap his hooves,
bring his head up a little or exaggerate the height of your own step
over the poles.
Photo 5: The poles are set quite close together, notice the handler is
right at the dog’s head and allowing the dog freedom to move in
CAVALETTI - (or poles raised at both ends) - height between
six inches and 18 inches - 2 ½’- 4 ½’ apart depending
the height of the cavaletti and the size of the horse.
Benefits - this is one of the exercises to free the neck, shoulders,
back and hips.
Caution: When using this exercise with five cavaletti set 12"
or higher and set close together only go through this exercise
three -six times in a session as it can be very tiring for the
DOGS: With dogs the cavaletti should be started lying on the
ground. They should be spaced so the dog lands in the middle
of the poles. Two or three inch PVC pipe can be used instead
of poles which may be too high for small dogs. The cavaletti
can be raised to about six inches off the ground for mid to
large sized dogs. They need not be high to be of benefit
Benefits: Improves balance, focus, coordination, preparation
for jumping, gait improvement, fun.
Photo 6: Shows Christine riding through the cavaletti, her seat is
light and Ragnar has lengthened his topline and is well balanced.
TEETER-TOTTER - was built from 2 x 4's on top with 2 x
6's on edge as the frame with a notch for the pole in the middle.
To start with horses can be walked over plywood, or the
teeter-totter can be taken off the pole and is simply a low
Benefit: improves balance, establishes trust, teaches obedience,
gives a horse a new experience, good preparation for
trailering when the horse steps up onto hollow sounding
Leading positions: Elegant Elephant; Dingo (used to encourage
the horse who is unsure or stuck) or Homing Pigeon
Variations - the bridge could be raised up onto 4 x 4's or
placed on tires to simulate a step-in trailer.
When used as a bridge ask the horse to back off one step at a
time which is excellent before trailering or with a horse who
rushes off the trailer or who doesn't want to back out of the
If you don’t have access to plywood or a teeter-totter you
can use a large cardboard box cut open and laid on the ground.
Photo 7: If your horse is nervous about going over a bridge you
can "chunk" the lesson down to a piece of plywood on the ground
or two pieces of plywood
Photo 8: If a horse is hesitant to walk over the length of the teeter
totter ask him to walk across it. You may need to use a bit of grain
on the boards to encourage him to breathe and encourage him to
bring his head down and look at it
Photo 9: The next time over he willingly stepped onto the teeter. I
ask him to wait for a moment and then step forward. Be prepared
should your horse startle when the teeter - totters down the first time.
Photos 10 & 11:
Robyn rides Valur
across the teetertotter.
horse is comfortable
riding over it
you can stop in the
middle and teeter
back and forth by
shifting your weight
and back in
DOGS: A teeter-totter need not be as sturdy for dogs and of
course can be narrower. A 12" to 24" board can also be used
first laid on the ground and then raised at both ends for a walk
over. Some dogs are very nervous about walking across a
board. If this is the case start by walking the dog across the
board and then lie poles on either side of the board to give
more of a parameter.
When using a board as a walk over have people act as spotters
to prevent a dog from failing in case she should lose her balance.
FLAT BOARDS LYING ON THE GROUND - 1" x 6" -
10" rough-cut boards work well - laid side by side to make a
four to eight foot bridge. The boards move slightly as the
horse steps on them, which gives a different experience. This
is a good alternative if you don't have a bridge or plywood.
Benefits: Good preparation for trailering or stepping onto
unstable surfaces such as bridges; improves confidence and
Leading positions: Elegant Elephant, Dingo, Homing Pigeon
Photo 12: Riding
across the boards
not to walk too
close to either end
as the boards could
DOGS: Walk across boards,
a collapsed wire kennel, flattened
chicken wire, corrugated
fiberglass or steel or
any surface that is unusual.
This should always be done
with encouragement with the
voice and stroking with the
wand. Wearing the body
wrap is very helpful to give a
dog confidence when he is
Photo 13: Shadow standing on the
Benefits: Improves confidence, coordination; helps therapy or
service dogs who may be required to walk on a variety of
BARRELS - can be arranged in many patterns - shown as a
U shape which can be lead or ridden through or backed
Set up barrels instead of cones to zig zag around.
Make an alleyway using four barrels and two poles to walk
Lie plastic over the poles as one step in the plastic exercise.
Benefits: improves flexibility, confidence, self-control and
self-image; helps horses who are nervous about going through
doors or gates; or who are nervous about things behind them;
another exercise for trailering.
Variations: With a horse who is nervous about going between
things or through doors set the barrels 8 - I 0 feet apart
If a horse is afraid or hesitant to approach the barrels place a
bit of grain, pieces of carrot or horse crunchies on top of the
barrel and allow him to approach from outside of the barrels
and eat off of the barrels.
Leading positions: Elegant Elephant, Cheetah or homing
Photo 14: These barrel are set in a semi circle about 3 ½’ feet apart
with one barrel in the middle which the horse must bend around. If
the horse is nervous walk him straight between two barrels - if you
use the Cheetah the handier can stay on one side of the barrel and
ask the horse to walk through the barrels alone.
Photo 15: As shown, you can ride between the barrels after the horse
is okay from the ground.
TIRES - can be set in a variety of configurations and walked
across, through or between. It is not necessary for the horse to
step into the tire to be successful. Caution should be taken
about asking a horse to step into a tire - if he is wearing shoes
the heel could get caught on the inside of the tire and scare
Ken & Ro Jelbart of Victoria, Australia had a great idea. They
took a large tractor tire and cut it in half (like a bagel).
It looks like it is buried in the ground, is large enough to step
through and there are no edges for the horse to get caught on.
We cut ours using a boxcutter and a linoleum knife.
Benefits: Improves confidence in negotiating new situations
and terrain, obedience and trust. When using the large half
tire use the Dingo to ask the horse to place his/her front feet in
the tire and ask for a turn on the forehand or with the hind feet
in the tire a turn on the haunches.
Photos 16-18: Faxi is led towards
the "half-tire". He is a
bit hesitant so we place poles
on either side of the tire. This
makes a clearer “path” showing
him where we want him to
go. Another example of making
the exercise easier.
Photo 19: Lead your horse up to the tires and as long as the
horse stands quietly the handier can step to the other side of
Notice the distance between handier and horse. Allow the
horse to look at the tires and be careful to avoid having the
horse step into the tire and possibly catch a shoe.
Photo 20: The tires are set apart to allow the horse to step in
between the tires. Be careful to stay on your own track as you
ask the horse to come forward and be prepared, should he
jump forward, to go with him.
Photo 21: The horse steps quietly over the tires. If a horse
rushes over any of the obstacles it is an indication to me that
he is showing concern. This type of horse often has difficulty
stopping and standing straight AFTER an obstacle. Using a
body rope or bandage helps connect a horse back end to front
end and helps with overcoming the fear of things behind.
DOGS: Tires can be used to walk over, between or through.
You can also use a ladder lying flat to walk across.
Photo 22: Using the wand to guide the dog over the tires.
Place a bit of food inside or on the tires if a dog is nervous
about stepping through them. When first negotiating the tires
it doesn't matter if they jump over them or even walk beside
the tires. If a dog (or horse) gets from one side to the other, in
his eyes, that is what we have asked. Encourage and stroke
with the wand regardless of how he gets across and then do it
again. You will be surprised at the improvement even if he
did it "wrong" (in our eyes), the first time.
Benefits: improves confidence, balance, and focus.
Leading positions: Cheetah or Homing Pigeon
PLASTIC - Although I don't keep plastic laid (because of the
wind) out in the ring it is a very useful exercise. Use the barrels
to make an alleyway of plastic; lay two sheets or tarps on
the ground about six feet apart to start with and gradually
move them together in a V; lead the horse under two wands
(or pool noodles) crossed above his head and gradually lower
it. You can then use a piece of plastic rolled up to walk under.
Benefits: Preparation for crossing water or unusual surfaces;
starting gate for race horses; trailering; improving confidence
and obedience; overcoming fear of things about the head such
as the rider when mounting, doorways, trees etc.; overcoming
fear of things behind.
Variations: Use pieces of old carpet as an obstacle - the
color, design and texture gives another experience.
Lead a horse under willow trees, under low branches or
Photo 23: Shows “jumpkins” (jump standards) set up as an alleyway
with two poles across the barrels. You can lay plastic or tarps over
the poles. In lieu of jump standards you could use barrels or a fence
on one side if you had two barrels or standards.
DOGS: Plastic, or tarps, can be used the same way as for the
horses although you may be able to start with the alleyway
closer together or the plastic overhead lower.
confidence especially with dogs who are nervous or
rushy going through doorways or small openings, have
sweaty paws in new situations.
DOUBLE TRIANGLE - is the best way I can describe the
above drawing. Alexandra Kurland showed me this obstacle
which she uses when longeing. An excellent obstacle from the
ground as well as riding it can be used to make a cloverleaf
(patterns to encourage straightness, flexibility and focus;
when longeing you can change the size and ask a horse to go
between the two triangles or by the handler stepping out of
the triangles lunge a horse across two poles, turn and come
across two more.
CONES - can be used as focal points for both horse and rider
or handler when leading. You can slalom through the cones at
the walk, trot or intermediate gait for gaited horses (we do it
at the tölt as well). Vary the distance depending on your speed
and horse's suppleness.
Benefits: Improves flexibility, focus, balance and keeps it
more interesting for the horse and rider instead of simply riding
a shallow serpentine. Very good for gaited horses who are
pacey and unbalanced.
Variations: If you don't have cones you can use tires, barrels,
milk crates, standards (without cups), pole bending poles.
Shows riding through the cones. You can make shallow or
deeper turns, vary the distance between the cones and walk,
trot or do a middle gait through the cones. It not only helps
to supple the horse but helps keep ring work more focused
and varied for both horse and rider.
PICKUP STICKS - are set up like a slightly organized
mess of sticks. You can use any length of pole and lay
them out to create different sized spaces for a horse or dog
to step into.
Be careful the poles are not set too high and won't roll into
Benefits: Helps improve balance, focus, confidence and
self-control. Especially good to slow down horses who
Leading positions: Long Elephant, Cheetah or Homing
L - traditionally the L is used in trail horse classes to back
It can be used from the ground or under saddle and is one
of our favorites to use with the free work (as described in
the last newsletter).
Benefits: Teaches focus, obedience; give a parameter for
Variations: The "L" can be used to ask a horse to take one
step over a pole, pause and then step back - first start with a
front foot and then a hind foot.
Use the Dingo and Cuing the Camel for taking one step
forward and back - it requires the handier be very balanced,
focused and clear in the timing.
STRADLING POLES - If you have a horse who is very
base narrow it can help to teach him to straddle a pole.
How? TTEAM Practitioner, Carol Lang first sent these
ideas in 1990.
Benefits: Improves balance, confidence and widens base of
Step 1: Arrange three ground poles about 18" apart. In the
Elegant Elephant, lead the horse toward the center pole,
walk through and observe what the horse does. Usually he
picks one or the other of the aisles and walks through. He
might take one step on each side, but don't ask. I think this
step establishes the pattern of the exercise in the horse's mind.
Step 2: Remove the center pole and lie down a rope. In the
Dancing Cobra, approach the rope. You will be walking backwards
and straddling the rope. Ask the horse to step forward.
Usually he will straddle the rope at least one or two steps the
first time, and gets better each time.
Step 3: Add a pole on top of the rope, half-way into the frame.
Still in the Cobra, lead the horse along the rope; and when the
rope becomes a pole, the horse takes it in stride.
Step 4: Use three poles. It is fine to take several sessions to
get to this step.
Note: If your horse has trouble widening his base of support
you can walk beside him with one hand on the withers. As
you walk rock his withers so he either “tightrope” walks or is
encouraged to take a wider step depending on the timing of
We also do this exercise under saddle. Rock your weight
in the stirrups from one side to the other as the horse’s foot is
either just leaving the ground or just putting a foot down.
Points to remember:
It is not necessary to use all of these exercises nor to use them
on a regular basis. You may, however, find that if you get
"stuck" in training or want a change in routine for you and
your horse remembering the obstacles will improve performance
- mentally, emotionally and physically.
Wearing the body wrap or rope as you are working through
these obstacles can make these exercises easier for your
horse. You may notice improved flexibility, better posture,
less fear of things behind and greater confidence when the
horse wears it - which carries over after it is taken off.
You may ask, "Why would you use such obstacles except
with a trail horse?" Each time we learn something new it
makes it easier to learn the next thing. The same goes for our
horses. When we only use repetition to teach a horse an exercise
it is an example of training. Learning to learn is what
education is about as opposed to training one specific task.
Once trained a horse may be able to perform the specific exercises
in a comfortable environment but when taken away from
home or in a new situation he/she is often unable to perform
in the same way. There are new sights, sounds, people, horses
etc. What we aim to do with the various exercises is expose a
horse to a variety of situations in a safe environment which
allows both horse and handler to learn to act instead of react.
Although the exercise may or may not seem to be related to a
horse's perceived problem it is our experience that the problem
usually resolves even without addressing it specifically.
Example: a gelding was brought to a clinic whose problem
was he was a little difficult to catch and was very reluctant to
go into the wash rack because he didn't like being bathed even
after more than a year. At the clinic we never addressed the
wash rack or water but simply put him through the ground
exercises and TTouch work as the participants were learning.
He was handled by a variety of people. When he went home
his owner was a little disappointed we had not specifically
addressed his problems as she had defined them. Much to her
surprise the first time she took him to the wash rack - he
walked in and stood quietly to be bathed. This phenomenon is
Horses who shy at plastic on the trail usually stop after a session
or two of going through the exercises with plastic in the
ring; dressage horses who are fine at home but shy at a plastic
covered judge's stand or flowers around the outside of the
ring; jumpers who hesitate at oxers over water or plastic tarps
or new jumps can all benefit from these non-habitual exercises.
They need not be repeated to maintain the benefits although
on occasion a session using obstacles is great for a
change or a refresher.
If you don't feel as though you have "time" to do these exercises
here's a suggestion. Setup one obstacle at a time between
the pasture and the stable. When leading a horse in or out of
the barn you can occasionally use the obstacle. Especially
helpful with a horse who rushes, is nervous or unfocussed you
may also see subtle changes in horses who don't really have
any specific problems.
So what magic occurs with these exercises? Really none, except
if you define MAGIC - as More Awareness Gains
Have fun with these exercises and please send us suggestions
for obstacles you have found helpful.