Horses and riders moving in unison, then splitting apart, creating patterns of movement that please the eye and boggle the mind—this is the essence of drilling on horseback, a very old equine activity that is experiencing a huge resurgence.
The art of drill team is as old as horsemanship itself. Born of war, horseback drilling first started as a way for mounted soldiers to maintain order among their ranks while riding into battle. These days, drilling is more than just nostalgia—it’s a great way to teach students how to ride.
Trainers and riding instructors are now incorporating drill team into their riding lessons. Instead of just teaching students how to ride in a traditional group setting, they are branching out and including drill team instruction as part of the training process.
How Drilling Works
Horseback drills work by having riders follow commands given by a drill leader, either by voice, hand signals or whistles. Sometimes the group memorizes the drills, and no drill leader is needed.
The riders in a drill team act as a group, and move in formation in twos, threes, fours, fives or all together. Most drill team groups have anywhere from 10 to 15 riders.
Most drills are set to music, and are performed at the walk, trot or canter. The music can help keep the riders on track with drills that are memorized. Riders can use different elements in the music as a cue to help them know when to execute certain commands.
When working in a drill team, riders learn to ride with precision and timing. They also develop the art of cooperation on horseback. The horses learn to work in close proximity to other horses and to obey their riders’ aids without hesitation.
Some stables use drill work to help break up the monotony of arena riding, while others take it one step further and offer exhibitions at local horse shows. Some drill teams even participate in parades and enter drill team competitions.
Offering drill team as part of an instruction program is something that sounded like a great idea to trainer Katherine Murphy, owner of Blazing Star Stables in Monmouth, Maine. A mounted police officer, Murphy enjoyed doing drill team as part of her job and decided it would be beneficial to her students.
“Drill team is one of the ultimate tests of the relationship between horse and human,” she says. “It enhances your leadership skills, showmanship skills and horsemanship skills. It also provides attainable goals.”
Trainer Ginger LaBarre, of LaBarre Training Stables in Hanover, Penn., also discovered drill team through police work and decided to implement drill team training as part of her riding instruction program.
“Many years ago, I rode with a county sheriff’s mounted unit,” she says. “Drill is also part of the United States National Mounted Police Training and Competition. I enjoyed doing it with them, and am always looking for something else you can do with a horse.”
How It Helps
Drill team can be fun for students and horses, and can help liven up a lesson program. But how does it help students become better riders?
“Drill team provides an opportunity for students to gain the ability to work together with their horses and their peers,” says Murphy. “Horses are herd animals and sometimes I think the kids are, too!”
Murphy says that by working in pairs, quads and larger groups, her students learn about their horse’s personality and comfort level within a herd. The students develop self-confidence by reaching goals, and by making mistakes and choosing to continue.
At LaBarre Training, drilling helps students conquer horsemanship in a fun way.
“Riding in a drill unit is one of the easiest ways to learn riding without actually having to be taught,” says LaBarre. “You learn proper ring etiquette very early on: always pass to the left, a horse with speed has right of way, follow from a safe distance.”
LaBarre says students also learn how to judge speed, and rate distance and timing.
“The better your body position, the better control you have over your horse and the easier it is to perform maneuvers and then add speed,” she says. “And the best part is the teamwork and sense of camaraderie.”
Dixie Walker, owner of Walker Quarter Horse Farm in Jacksonville, Fla., teaches Western and English pleasure, jumping and trail, often to first time horse owners. She says her stable’s drill team provides a great learning experience for those developing their horsemanship skills.
“The girls and guys learn balance and teamwork,” she says. “And every horse must learn to walk, trot and canter beside other horses.”
Walker notes that drill work does take some skill, but the students just love it.
“We perform at horse shows and parades, and we all have a great time doing it,” she says. “I really think it is the best thing for our teenagers. It gets them working together and keeps their minds off of other things.”
The responsiveness and attitude of the horses is a big factor in drill team riding. Horses used in this activity must be obedient and tolerant of other horses around them. However, you don’t need a horse with special training to participate in drill team.
“Basically, the horses need to be nice,” says LaBarre. “If the horse can turn left and right, and stop, that’s a good place to start.”
But most important is safety. “We ride in very tight spaces, and sometimes bump into each other,” she says. “The horses need to be tolerant to both rider error and other horses.”
Murphy believes in warming up both horses and riders to prepare them for the work ahead when getting ready for drill team practice.
“When we begin drill team, I have the students warm up in the arena going in all different directions, at various gaits, speeds, and over obstacles on the ground with their horses on 12 and 22 foot lines,” she says.
This exercise prepares horses and riders to understand they won’t all be going the same way, and may sometimes even be going toward each other as well as going over or through obstacles.
Overall, drill team provides not only fun and diversion from the usual ways of learning, but gives both horses and riders a chance to develop their relationship. According to Murphy, students are often pleasantly surprised when the relationship they gain with their horse in drill team carries over to other activities.