Seven pole work exercises to shake up your flatwork routine.
If your looking for something interesting and beneficial to add to your horse’s exercise program this winter, pole work may be the answer! Pole exercises are easy to set up and there are many variations you can use to benefit yourself and your horse. You can work your horse over poles from the ground (lunging or long lining) or under saddle.
Pole work encourages your horse to become more rhythmic and balanced, while adding a little interest to your flatwork. It also helps you develop and improve your own eye, timing and balance, as a rider. Many people think pole work is just for those who jump their horses, but it has benefits for horses in all disciplines.
Pole work is also very helpful when it comes to strengthening your horse, particularly through the hind end. Pole work is useful for horses coming off of injuries, building fitness or strengthening specific areas of the body such as the stifles. Various exercises correspond well to certain areas or weaknesses in your horse’s body. If he does have a specific weak spot you are trying to target, ask your coach and/or your horse’s veterinarian or therapist for some suggestions on what to set up.
As with anything, start out slowly – make sure your horse is both mentally and physically prepared before moving to the next step or a more difficult exercise. Many people don’t realize how much effort certain exercises can require from the horse. Start out small and slow and build your way up gradually. If you and your horse cannot comfortably navigate a single pole at all gaits, then there is little point in setting up several in a row. Work towards having your horse happily go over three to four walk, trot and canter poles.
The spacing between poles will depend on the size of your horse or pony’s stride, as well as what you are trying to accomplish (lengthen or compress the stride). On average, the distance between poles at each gait are:
Walk poles: 2½’ to 3’ apart
Trot poles: 4½’ to 5’ apart
Canter poles: 9’ to 10’ apart
Your horse’s footfall should land in the center of the space between each pole. You or a ground helper will have to judge whether you have the poles set up correctly; if you need more impulsion (landing too close to the nearest pole); or to stop rushing through the exercise (landing too close to the furthest pole).
Seven Exercises to Have Fun With
Now that your horse is comfortable with the idea of going over poles, and you know how to set things up, here are some fun exercises to try!
1. POLES ON SERPENTINE LOOPS
On a three or four loop serpentine, place a pole at each point where you cross centerline. This gives you a very distinct marker to ride towards and over.
• Develop your eye and control
• Improve the accuracy of your serpentines and your horse’s straightness
2. CANTER DISTANCE TO SINGLE POLE
This is fantastic exercise for those that jump – and from time to time can be fun for those that don’t, too. Throw down a single pole anywhere in the arena – just somewhere convenient to canter towards. Simply canter over the pole repeatedly in each direction, working on and getting a feel for your distance to the pole. You can also start counting down your strides as you get near the pole – e.g. 3-2-1, jump.
• Develop your eye for distances
• Improve your and the horse’s adjustability to fences
3. CANTER STRIDING BETWEEN POLES
Another great one for any rider. Set up a line of two canter poles, four to five strides apart. Canter through them in your regular working canter until you are comfortable. Then try adjusting – can you extend your horse’s canter and do it in one stride less? Can you compress your horse’s stride and add one?
• Improve your timing and your horse’s adjustability
4. RAISED POLES
If plain walk, trot and canter poles are getting “boring”, try raising them. You can use jump standards for this, or specially made small blocks. Start off by just raising one end a little bit. Eventually you can raise both ends to require your horse to lift and use himself more through the exercise.
• Improve your horse’s rhythm, balance, and strength
• Develop your balance and timing
5. SINGLE POLE ON THE QUARTER POINTS OF A 20M (66’) CIRCLE
To be started at a walk, progressing to a trot and eventually the canter. For increased difficulty down the road, you can raise one side of the poles, and/or practice maintaining the same number of strides between each pole all the way around the circle. It is more challenging than it sounds! Helps to:
• Develop your eye and timing of aids
• Encourage straightness and respect of aids
6. THE FAN
To be set up so that when you travel across the middle of the poles, you are in your regular working gait, and as you travel more towards the narrow ends your horse is more compressed, or more extended towards the ends more spaced out. Maintain your bend as you travel across the poles – be careful not to let your horse drift or cut across the poles.
• Develop your eye and timing of aids
• Increases your horse’s adjustability
7. COURSE OF POLES
This is a fun exercise whether you jump your horse or not. For those who do jump, it can be a great supplement to your flatwork, or in preparation for starting your horse over fences. Set up a little jumping course, but just with poles on the ground. You can include lines, singles, bending lines, rollbacks and so on.
• Develop your eye and create a more accurate, rhythmic ride to your fences
• Keeps your horse guessing and more attentive to you as the rider These exercises are just a few of many you can try. Get creative, and have fun!
Isabella Edwards is an equine enthusiast and avid competitor living in Ontario, Canada. She and her mare compete at the provincial level in both dressage and hunter/jumper.