Sunday, August 24, 2014

Cones & The Courage to Drive to the Outside

Hoof Prints and Wheel Track

I often hear instructions given to drivers who are learning to drive cones: "Get straight before you go through." That strategy will indeed position you to drive your horse through the middle of the cones gate if you have a straight approach to begin with. The problem is most approaches to cones gates in competition begin on turns, not straightaways. The downside to that strategy is that it often will require you to drive a route that is much longer than actually necessary.

Since your time on course is a not only a measure of how fast you are traveling through space (speed) but how much time it takes to travel the distance around the course, increasing the distance travelled will increase your time on course. TIME = SPEED X DISTANCE

Like the jockey, Calvin Borel, who says his secret to winning races is to "Take the shortest route around the track.", if you can remove strides between gates, your time on course will be faster. Slower horses can often beat faster horses simply by taking a more efficient path thru the cones. Remove one stride between each of 20 gates (that's 20 strides!) and your time on course will be several seconds faster....often enough to beat the competition. One of my mottos is: "It's all about the route."

Study this photo. The green dots show the horse's hoof prints as he travels a turning route to approach the gate. (He is travelling away from the viewer) Look where his feet are as he approaches this gate. Imagine where the horse's head must be when his front feet get to the cones gate.  Aim your horse for the middle here and you will nail the inside cone every time. 

My advice: 
  1. Practice, practice, practice with tight clearances. Who cares if you hit a few at home? In fact, the only way you will learn where your wheels are on the ground is to hit some cones. If you practice with 10 cms. clearance and make it thru 80% of the gates you have set up, you should rather quickly be able to make it thru 100% when gates are set at 30cms. in competition. 
  2. Drive *some* cones every day. It doesn't need to be a lot of them. Regular practice with a few cones gates is better for you and your horse than driving a lot of cones only once a week. Set a few gates out where you can easily get to them and drive them every day to or from your day's work out.
  3. Drive at an easy pace at first while practicing. Concentrate on positioning and making life easy for your horse. You want him to feel good about this game. Drive at speed as part of your work but not always at speed. It's more about creating the confidence in you and for your horse that the approach is going to stay true and ultimately going to work starting from 5 or 10 meters before the gate, especially if it on a turn.
  4. As part of each practice session, use approaches to cones gates that you do not think you can make. It's fine to set up planned courses with elements you have seen in competition or might expect to see but also set cones out rather randomly and drive the easy, obvious routes first, then try driving ridiculously crazy routes and approaches that seem impossible. You will quickly be able to recognize approaches you and your horse CAN make. That will sharpen your skills for the courses set by devious course designers! And, more importantly, it will help train you to cut off unnecessary, extra strides between gates and allow you to take the shorter, smoother and more efficient routes, producing a faster time on course.
  5. Aim for the OUTSIDE cone on those turning approaches. Have the courage to take your horse's front feet almost into the outside cone. You can almost put his head over that outside cone. As you can clearly see in this photo, the wheels go cleanly through the middle of the gate with a very narrow clearance.
  6. Watch thru routes taken by good drivers in competition. They waste little distance between gates while at the same time maintaining a smooth route that allows their horses to remain well balanced and efficient.