Ground poles are often underutilized but they can play a major role in turning your horse into an athlete. A little imagination combined with this versatile tool will make the most of your time in the arena.
Underused and under-loved, the lowly ground pole has the capacity to transform any horse into a powerful athlete. Ground poles help with balance, structure, straightness, engagement, muscle and mind-building, and can improve and change the quality of a horse’s gait. By incorporating ground poles into arena work, horses with behavioral issues also benefit by having to focus on the job at hand. And riders enjoy this addition to flat work.
Whether you have a reining horse or a stadium jumper, ground pole exercises are almost unlimited, with each one serving a specific function. The following is a guide to basic ground and raised pole setting, to get you started on building that super athlete you’ve always wanted. Just remember to be mindful of your horse’s condition and don’t overdo pole work.
To start, lay 12’ ground poles at a distance of four feet apart (Image A). This will suit the average 1,000 lb horse at a working trot. Begin with one pole and add another each time your horse progresses. Make sure the poles are straight and the gaps even. At three poles, your horse will let you know if the spacing is too much or too little. Use your foot to adjust the pole one-quarter roll at a time.
Ground poles encourage stretch and lengthening. They engage your horse’s back and stomach muscles, rounding his topline. This is the basis of true connection and collection.
As your horse builds stamina and becomes comfortable and eager using ground poles, you may move onto raised trot poles, the first progression in pole training.
Raised trot poles require various muscles to engage differently than they would during daily riding. The pole height changes the “lift” on a horse. It causes the back to round and hind end to coil. In the neck, the muscles will engage in front of the withers, helping him develop a classic, correct neck.
Try adding a few canter lines, at a maximum distance of 12’, shortening the gap as needed. Shortening canter poles teach a horse to “kangaroo”, a term that means lifting the front and coiling the loins over the raised poles.
Creating an arc
You can also lunge over poles laid in an arc. This helps increase suppleness through the bend, especially as you raise the poles.
To create an arc, lay three poles next to each other (Image B). Roll them out, leaving a minimum of 1’ in the middle (Image C). Holding one end of the pole in position, walk the other end out 5’ to 6’ (Image D). Repeat for every pole. To increase the circumference, add more distance to the inside width. Continue to add poles to your arc. When you reach around eight, you can begin to lift them. Lifting the pole on the outside end only will help the handler gauge the middle of the pole. As your horse develops, you can raise the outside edge to 8” (Image E). You can also build arcs moving from one direction to the other.
Creating gymnastics courses with ground poles
As you make even more progress, you can begin gymnastics. Move trot poles around your arena, adding them to circles, diagonal lines and serpentines. You can use ground and raised poles together, slowly adding more height as the horse strengthens. Design courses that are fun for you and your horse.
Elastic exercises teach a horse to control his stride. Try creating one pole line at normal stride; set another at a shorter distance; and a third with a stretch. Alternating between line sets that stretch and shorten helps with obedience and focus. However, the spacing between each pole in a set should be even. Some things to keep in mind while arranging your poles are:
- Stretching them adds length to the horse
- Shortening adds lift and mindfulness
- Adding height teaches rounding of the back and helps strengthen tendons and ligaments.
Tips for success
- Listen to your horse. Overworking with ground poles can cause joint and muscle stress.
- Don’t ride the poles; ride the line. Look where you are going and the horse will follow (see image below).
- You cannot force low heads – it leads to stiffening and tightening. Your horse must use the muscles in front of his withers and lift his front while stretching through his back, lowering his neck and transferring his weight behind.
- Ground poles can shift if a horse lands on them, causing potential injury. Try to build or buy pole holders (Image F).
- Uneven pole spacing leads to a horse tightening as opposed to relaxing and stretching.
- Build gradually. Teach each exercise with clarity, and focus on the desired result.
- Learn to pace lines by laying down measuring tape. Do not leave it to guesswork.
Other benefits of using ground poles
- Using ground poles encourages rhythm and relaxation. This is the foundation of all training.
- Suppleness and balance come together faster. This is especially beneficial for western and reining horses, not just English disciplines.
- It increases rider education, especially through the hands.
- Ground pole work lifts the back by engaging and strengthening the stomach muscles, and teaching the horse to use those muscles. Stretching the back helps maintain muscle during the aging process, and develops correct connection and collection.
Ground poles are handy and adaptable tools to use while exercising your horse. They can be used to build strength, demand focus and entertain creativity. So, dust them off and have some fun!
April Reeves began teaching in 1971. Today, she owns Horseman's Park Alberta; teaches clinics and private lessons to students in western Canada; and lectures, writes, shows and breeds warmbloods and quarter horses. She is a multi-discipline rider and CHA Level 3 instructor for English, Western and Jumping.