One Hit Wonder!

After a number of requests for help Vanessa Bee has written a short article about that perennial problem…how can we help an equine to pick his feet up so that he doesn’t knock a pole as he walks or backs up over it.

‘Having judged many thousands of OLHA videos I have identified the two most common reasons for horses knocking the poles. (We have of course ruled out PAIN here, so if in doubt get your horse’s back checked because he may not be actually able to pick his feet up because it hurts!)

Reason 1 The handler unknowingly rewards the horse for knocking the pole (!)


Reason 2 The handler does not present the pole to the horse in such a way that makes his feet easy to lift up over them.


So looking at the inappropriate reward one first.

So often when the horse knocks the pole (forwards or backwards) the handler says ‘good boy’. I think they must do this to reassure him, but just think what message that sends to the horse…knocking the pole is what she wants so I’ll do it again.

By ignoring the knock and really making a fuss when he doesn’t knock the pole will help the horse work out what gets a positive response.

Now let’s look at pole presentation.

Get on all fours (if you can!!) and walk over a pole or similar. Quite quickly you will see that you have to arrange your ‘feet’ so that you don’t hit the pole. In other words if you’re too close as you lift your ‘foot’ it will touch the pole if you are too far away you will knock the pole because you have to stretch or shorten the step to try and accommodate the pole and that takes a lot of practice.

When you work out the perfect starting position of the feet you can set that up from the start before you ever try and go over the pole.

Really put yourself into the horse’s feet. Walk on two legs and on all fours over and backwards around a pole, what do you have to do so that you don’t touch it?

Remember: If every time you walked over or backed up over the pole I gave you something nice (wine, chocolate, money!) I bet you’d get pretty good at missing that pole!

Start practicing with just ONE pole, keep the sessions short, only concentrate on one foot in each session. Really isolate what it is you are asking the horse to do.

Remember they haven’t a clue what we want them to do, most of the time it’s by trial and error so we really need to help them learn what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’.

Acknowledge the answer you want and ignore everything else!


  1. Claire Perilli

    Thank you for this Vanessa. I struggle with this. I think mine is reason 1. In the beginning I was so glad that I got a nice halt or a nice back up, that I would reward them whether they knocked the pole or not. I am now trying to be precise and only reward to they don’t touch the pole. I am not sure they are understanding yet but we will keep working on it.

    1. The International Horse Agility Club Post author

      This is the tricky bit, but what I would do is get a really good backup without the pole really working on good energetic feet lifting not just dragging those feet back. Only when that was solid would I put a pole there and even then I would work on one foot at a time because you’ve probably noticed that it’s often the same foot that hits the pole.

  2. Ros Perry

    thankyou Vanessa. I think ours is a combination of both reasons.
    particularly backing up,,, I know I praise the wrong point sometimes,,, and its like – doh – I did it again!

  3. Sheri Pederson

    Great observations and ideas! I will definitely be more mindful of my rewards and we’ll do the practice work. Maybe we’ll wait finding the poles using the “Braille” method!

  4. Amanda Melton

    Thanks for sharing these helpful tips. Definitely guilty of rewarding the effort, but not the precision in the beginning. Timing is everything and these exercises have really helped me pay closer attention to it.

    1. The International Horse Agility Club Post author

      The thing is Amanda there is only one right answer here. Yes we want to reward a horse that is trying but in this case there is a knock OR there isn’t a knock, there’s no halfway answer. So if a horse tries not to touch the pole but does touch it we must ignore that because he needs to know exactly what we need, there are no half measures!

  5. Sandra Dainty

    Thanks for that, I had just about worked out I was messing up the presentation to the pole but hadn’t given a thought to to my aww good girl when they knocked it! Something to work on now.

  6. Kim Gieseke

    I consistently watch my students praise the horse right before the last foot goes over the pole and then the horse hits it with the last foot. The person’s focus has changed and then the horse hits the pole. If the person would have focused just a bit more… horse probably would have not hit it.