I’ve got a new favourite pole exercise which I’ve been using with many clients over the last couple of weeks. Most people seem to like it because it resembles a Christmas tree – perfect for getting us through the last dregs of winter.
Lay two poles parallel, about two foot apart (they can be rolled closer together as you progress through the exercise) and lay a pole perpendicular to these, touching the end. Next, lay two poles diagonally from each end of this pole, so that they form a triangle. Create another triangle of poles from this apex. You can have as many triangles as you like, but I find two or three is sufficient for improving the gait without tiring the horse.
The main focus with this exercise is straightness. The tramlines (or trunk of the tree) guides horse and rider to the centre of exercise, and straightens them up should they travel crooked in the trot or canter so their hind feet follow the tracks of the front feet. The apexes of the triangles highlight if the horse drifts left or right through the exercise. If a horse has one stronger hind limb, then they can push harder with the leg over the poles (and this is exaggerated if a horse has to really stretch over a pole which they can do if they lack impulsion) which causes them to drift diagonally. So this exercise is really useful to discover if a horse has a tendency to drift in one direction, or has a stronger hindleg.
The apex of the triangles causes the horses to look down slightly and focus on the poles, which stops them rushing and encourages them to lift their belly and increase their cadence. This means that the polework tree can be useful in slowing down a horse who rushes through poles.
A couple of weeks ago I used this exercise with a very established horse who tends to be a little weak in his core so does a lot of polework. The first time he went over them, he dropped his nose to peer at the apexes, and really lifted his legs over it. When he over exaggerated his step he did wobble off our central line, but after a few times he was trotting off each rein, lifting his back and engaging his core over the poles without losing his balance and straying from the centre line. He then continued in this trot afterwards, feeling great! I also worked through the exercise from the other direction, which is slightly harder because you don’t have the tramlines to set you up straight. It still has the same elevating effect though. I found this horse especially benefitted from doing the polework tree in canter. The distance between the apexes caused him to collect his canter, which engaged his hindquarters and as he went over the apexes themselves he bounced over the poles and came away with a much more active canter.
Rolling the tramlines together improves the riders accuracy as well as the horse’s straightness. If the horse backs off and wiggles on the approach to them and the rider corrects with the hand then the horse will continue to snake towards the pole. If the rider keeps the hands steady and uses their leg to keep the horse on their line then the horse will stay straight. You could add tramlines to the top of the tree to help you ride the exercise down the tree, as you will reach the middle of the apex of the top triangle.
I’m working a lot on suppleness with one horse and she is much more balanced on circles and finds lateral work much easier. The fact that she stayed central throughout the exercise shows we have managed to improve her flexibility equally on either side. However, I want to improve her suppleness in terms of her stride length and cadence now. The apexes increased her cadence nicely, and she was tracking up better afterwards. When cantering through the exercise the mare became more elevated, which is helpful as we’re making the move from prelim to novice and she needs to learn to take a bit more weight behind.
I think most of my clients have seen this pole arrangement now, but I’ll be bringing it out again over the next few weeks and seeing if I can make any alterations so that it further improves the horses straightness, cadence, balance and suppleness.