This tutorial covers how to make model horse scale copies of the wooden poles and cavaletti that are used in a variety of horsey ways. They can be used as training aids (walk-over or trot-over poles), as part of a jump (ground poles or rails), or as part of an English or Western trail class (ground or trail poles).
Cavaletti are used primarily for training, but I have seen them used for lower level jumping classes in barn shows.
I’d made a sets of these poles years ago, but have never shown with them, so some tweaking may be needed for true Live Show Quality (LSQ). These are great for play or Photo Showing!
On a scale of 1 to ‘ow my finger!’ These are probably a six because of the bits where you are carving out the notches in the cavaletti with the x-acto blade. Just go slow and be careful and it should be fine! 🙂
To create the poles and cavaletti, I am using Liquitex white gesso and craft paint (or wood stain), a ruler, a mechanical pencil, 150 and 320 grit sandpaper, a #11 x-acto blade (although a #17 chisel would have worked better if I had one), an x-acto handle with a Razor Saw Blade (52 teeth per inch) and a x-acto miter box. I am using basswood square and round dowels, which are firmer than balsa wood but still easy to saw and carve.
Most of these supplies will be familiar to the folks who’ve read my fencing tutorial, thankfully most wooden prop-making uses the same bits! Although the inherent amusement value in collecting all the parts to a miniature woodshop should not be overlooked… *makes note to go buy herself some new x-acto blade shapes*
Real Life Examples
I think half the fun I have making props comes from all the research involved! This post started out just covering the poles, but as I did the research for those I realized the cavaletti would be easy to make (sort of) and it sort of snowballed from there.
From the online discussions about poles and groundwork, a lot of the barns use landscaping timbers so they won’t roll. (See also: they’re cheap.) This page has a pretty nice rundown of all the different ways to put together jumps!
I was able to track down a few companies that sell the real life poles as well. So depending on your setup, you could either use the dowels as is or you can sand the edges of square dowels to approximate the landscape timbers.
Cavaletti come in a bazillion variations at this point, so I’ve covered just the basic wooden x-shape below. I’m basing this design on instructions for the real-life version provided here by the Texas Horseman’s Directory.
Per the internet, poles are normally between 8 and 12 feet long and 3.5 to 5 inches in diameter. Using this Scale Conversion Calculator, that would work out to 3 to 4.5 inches long and 0.11 to 0.16 inches in diameter. So a dowel of 1/8 (0.125) or 5/32 (0.15625) would be close and 3/16th (0.1875) would be a smidge too big.
The hobby shop I use (HobbyTown USA) stocks 1/8th and 3/16th dowels, but no 5/32nd. The 1/8th dowel looks a little small and the 3/16th look a little big… So which one you pick is really down to personal preference and which looks best with the horse. While Breyer Stablemates are mostly 1:32 scale, it’s definitely not an exact science.
The smallest dowel Home Depot sells is 3/16th and while the Michael’s has 1/8th, it’s never in stock. The good news is that 1/8th dowels that are at least 3 inches long are quite easy to come by online (although apparently they only come in bulk.)
Also, if these are for play the larger scales will hold up a bit better to rough handling. Although I haven’t been overly careful with the smaller ones and I have yet to break one. *knocks on wood*
The cavaletti are 4×4’s that are 24 inches long, which translates to 0.13×0.13×0.75 inches in scale. Which means a 1/8th (0.125) square dowel should work just fine. However the easiest way to make these is to simply get a square dowel the same dimensions as your poles. So if you are going with the 3/16th poles, you’d pick up a 3/16th square.
Sidenote: Some real-world cavaletti are build with square posts instead of poles, so if all you have are square dowels you’re good to go.
Turning Wood Into Props!
If you bought a bulk lot of the poles that is already the right length… then skip this part! (Well, except for the sanding.)
Use the pencil to mark out the correct length and the miter box to help hold the dowels still whilst sawing. You want to saw just beyond the pencil mark and then sand down to get the correct length.
As you notice in the pictures of the painted poles above, I sawed on the marks and ended up with some poles that were shorter than others. For toys, it’s not a deal breaker and for showing props you can sand them all down to match the shortest pole… or you can just learn from my mistakes. 😉
Once the pole have been sawed (or taken out of the bag) you will need to sand them smooth with 320 or 400 grit sandpaper. I put a little bit of a bevel on the edges, just so they look a little worn. Ground poles, and even jump poles, were never treated with kid gloves at the barns I’ve worked at, but that’s just personal preference.
Alternate materials I have tried are bamboo skewers, which are much too rough to work with and Plastruct 90861 Round Rod which are awesome! The plastic saws nicely and sands well with the 400 grit paper. I don’t know how to make the plastic into cavaletti, but they make great ground and jump poles.
Carefully Creating Cavaletti
This part of the tutorial is where the x-acto knives come out, so make sure you’re watching your fingers! Thankfully the method I found is a very forgiving one, so it’s hard to mess up the cuts as long as you keep them in the wood.
Each side of the cavaletti will require two pieces of wood that are 3/4th of an inch long. Just like the poles, you will want to cut them a smidge long and then sand down to size. Don’t make the same mistake I did and use the barcoded parts without sanding off the barcodes first. (They are a pain to sand once they are assembled!
Once you have them cut to size, mark out the middle of each piece and then using that mark rough out where the pieces will overlap. You don’t have to center the pieces, there are several version of cavaletti out there that are lopsided so they offer more levels when rotated.
Very carefully carve out a square notch in each of the pieces using the x-acto knife. I did this by first making a cut straight down into the wood to about where I wanted the notch to end and then carving away the wood at a shallow angle. (Always carve away from your fingers!).
You will want to carve the notch a little narrower that your marks so the pieces fit snugly together. The carving doesn’t have to be perfect if you are planning on painting the poles… wood glue hides a multitude of sins!
Rough fit the two pieces as you go, sort of like tasting the food as you cook, and keep carving until they fit together flat. This can take some finagling, but I found that I picked up the trick to things pretty quickly. Thankfully the materials are cheap, so there’s no stress if your learning curve is a bit steeper.
Once the glue has dried you will want to sand the sides so they are as flat as you can get them. Although I got pretty good at carving the notches, I still needed some sanding at the end. I started with the 150 grit to bring them even quickly and then 320 grit to smooth things out.
As you can see from the photo, I cheated a bit and primed the pieces before I sanded them. This is just an easy way to tell when you have things flat– the paint will sand off all parts evenly. 🙂
Don’t glue anything together until all the bits are painted or stained! A drop of woodglue or superglue is enough to keep them firmly attached. You also don’t have to attach them, the cavaletti will stand well on their own (although they’d work better with angled ends).
Note: I didn’t angle the ends of the cavaletti, this means they will not stack well on each other. It’s something I’m going to come back and do later, but since it requires awkward cuts I’m waiting on my skills to level up first.
Painting ALL the Things!
There are a wide variety of ways to paint or stain the poles and cavaletti and the internet is full of awesome decorating ideas. However there are some rules involved if you are trying to recreate a real horse show layout. Although you can use real horse show photos as a basis for your props, it never hurts to hit up the rulebooks for each sport to make sure you are picking the right colors.
USEF (United States Equestrian Federation) has a rulebook that -as of this posting- says Jumper rails can be any color the only requirement is that they are eight foot long (JP123 Jump Equipment), but Hunter rails need to be natural colors or white (HU120 Type 1. Obstacles must simulate those found in the hunting field such as natural post and rail, brush, stone wall, white board fence or gate, chicken coop, aiken, hedge, oxer, etc.).
I wasn’t able to track down a western trail or english trail rulebook, but I’m sure they’re floating out there somewhere. The model horse hobby is actually a very friendly place, so you can check with just about any discussion board or group and they should be able to help you out.
But if you are making these for just for fun or for a photos shows setup that isn’t in a show ring, you can go crazy with the colors! 🙂
I’ve done some very basic starts at striping poles using painter’s tape, but they haven’t come out well. I’m ending up going back over every edge and touching them up, so the tape didn’t really save any time. I’m thinking that next attempt I’ll just sketch in the lines or use Washi tape.
Proof these Cavaletti Don’t Stack Well Cavaletti turn, turn, turn… Ready for the spotlight!
Other Folk’s Tutorials for Model Horse Jumps
I’m not the only person who is running around making scale poles and cavaletti, so here are a few links to other guides! If you know of any other guides I missed, please let me know and I’ll link them here. 😀