Arc of Poles

I only ever blog about exercises or lesson subjects which I feel have gone particularly well, would benefit others, and require a more in-depth explanation. A few of my clients will recognise this exercise from the last couple of weeks.

Riding trot and canter poles in a straight line is fairly, well straightforward, but putting them onto a curve makes it trickier, and is useful for highlighting a horse’s strengths and weaknesses. Using a twenty metre circle, I laid three or five trot poles on the curve, with the middle of each pole the correct distance for that horse’s working trot.

Firstly, I like to work a horse on both reins over the curve of poles. Having to increase the cadence of the inside hind requires a greater degree of balance, and if a horse finds this difficult then they may well drift out on the curve. At this point, it is really useful to compare the two reins to see if one is significantly easier than the other. Riding the curves and exaggerating the stride and push from the inside hind starts to improve the quality of the trot around the rest of the arena, and circles feel easier and more balanced.

I like to use the poles to improve medium and collected trot, by riding a smaller and larger arc. The poles encourage the strides to be adjusted and consistent over the poles, whilst the engagement of the inside hind leg encourages a lightness of the forehand. I used this exercise to good result with a duo, which really helped the balance of their medium trot and for the first time my rider felt the lengthening of her mare’s stride without an increase in speed or loss of balance onto the forehand.

For those horses who tend to fall into their inside shoulder on circles raising the inner end of the pole can really help them. If they have to lift their inside foreleg higher over the raised pole then they are less likely to load that limb. It almost acts like a jack, propping up the inside shoulder. The horse will feel more level, with vertical balance, as a result, and is then able to give a more through bend around the rest of the arena.

Raising the poles helps strengthen and increase the suppleness of the inside hind leg. It is also very beneficial to improving the stability of the pelvis because of the increased range of movement in the hips, so is very useful for horses coming back into work, mares after a pregnancy, and those with hindquarter asymmetry and muscle atrophy.

Next up, is canter poles, which is very useful for reinforcing a three beat rhythm, increasing the cadence of the inside hind, and creating a more uphill canter. A lot of horses will jump the raised poles, or try to canter a straight line across the poles. However, once the horse relaxes through their rib cage, they will find it easier and be able to maintain their curving line over the poles.

I find this exercise very useful for improving a horse’s vertical balance so that they feel more level, strengthening and suppling them, and getting them to work into a even contact with a bend throughout their whole body, which improves their general gait in terms of stride length, cadence, engagement of the haunches and lightens the forehand. Plus, it’s a fun exercise for both horse and rider!

Pole Triangles

This is a pole layout I did a few weeks ago now with clients, which had numerous exercises within it to benefit a wide range of horses and riders. Lay out a triangle of poles, then place a pole four foot away from each pole. Then build another triangle with outer poles next to it, so that there are three trotting poles in the centre.

The first exercise I used with my riders was in their warm up, getting them to trot and canter between a pair of poles. This really helped identify any crookedness in the horse, and encouraged the riders to minimise their inside rein aids. Initially, I only had them riding through one pair of poles but towards the end of the warm up I got some riders to ride an arc through the two tramlines on one side of the formation, a bit like a shallow loop. This started to get the horses stepping under with the inside hind and using it correctly because they couldn’t drift through their outside shoulder due to the second pair of poles.

Just by using these poles in the warm up I found both horse and rider were more focused and their way of going improved by making them straighter.

The next exercise I utilised was getting my combinations to trot over the tramlines and then over the apex of the triangle. The tramlines were set as trot poles, and both horse and rider had to be accurate to the apex. I had my riders ride across the pole layout from various points, integrating the poles into their flatwork circles and shapes. This means the horses are less likely to anticipate the exercise and the rider can then take the benefit of the polework onto their flatwork and feel the improvement immediately.

If a horse persistently drifts one way or the other over the poles it tells you which hind leg is stronger, which leads me to developing some exercises to improve them. Likewise, it can help to identify any asymmetry in the rider’s seat or aids.

You can also ride from the apex to the trot poles, which is a harder accuracy question because the poles draw the horse away from the point, rather then funnelling them towards the apex.

With my more balanced horses and riders I rolled the tramlines out so they were nine foot apart, which meant they could canter over the poles and apexes.

To add a layer of difficulty to this route, some riders rode curves through the triangles, entering over the trot poles of one triangle, trotting the three trot poles in the centre before either trotting out over the apex, or left or right over another pair of poles.

The final route I had my riders take was along the length of the pole formation; trotting over an apex, over three trot poles and then over the other apex. This was a good test of their straightness, and by removing the middle pole of the trio it could be cantered.

Basically, have a play around with these pole triangles, taking as many different routes as you can, focusing on riding rhythmically, accurately, aiming to the centre of each pole, and straight. You should feel your horse’s cadence and balance improve as they start to lift their feet higher over the poles, lift through their abdominals, lighten the forehand, improve their proprioception and become more interested in their work.

Introducing Poles on the Lunge

As I’m doing a lot of lunging at the moment I’ve had to think of ways to make it more interesting for both me and the horses.

Which means a bit more polework and some jumping. When lunging over poles the onus is on the horse to go over the poles because as a lunger you have less control over accuracy than if you were riding the horse. So you have to introduce poles and jumping in such a way that the horse doesn’t learn that there’s an option of running around the poles. Then it’s far more fun for both the lunger and the horse, and you can develop their confidence and technique without the added weight or impact of the rider and their balance.

Before introducing poles the horse wants to be settled in their work, not too sharp and focused on the lunger. Then lay out one pole perpendicular to the fence, with plenty of room either side. Having the edge of the pole against the fence will prevent the horse running around the far side of the pole. Then it’s a case of knowing the horse – are they young or new to poles? Do they like jumping or do they have the tendency to be cheeky with poles (this may be more applicable with ponies!)? Are they confident with poles or jumps or do they rely on the rider to give them confidence?

If I feel the horse needs more support, or clarification over the question, then I will place a couple of poles on the inner side of the first pole to help channel the horse straight over the original pole. Sometimes I place a block or low wing by the first pole, which will later become the stand to build a jump and the guide poles can be leant up on this to make more of a barrier, and to make the question crystal clear.

Depending on the horse’s approach to new things and their experience, I will either lead them over the pole or walk or trot them on the lunge over the pole. I work on both reins until they are happy, and settled in the approach to the pole, neither rushing or backing off. If I’m honest I don’t tend to do too much in the way of cantering over poles. Going that much faster means I have less influence to avoid a sneaky run out and I find the horses better balanced in trot. Besides, any jumping we do on the lunge is not so high that they can’t jump from trot. If they pick up canter on the last handful of strides then that’s fine.

Back to building up the pole work. Once one pole is negotiated confidently I add in a second, about 4’6″ away from the first to make trotting poles, adjusting the distance to the horse I’m working with. We work over these until settled and then I add in another. I keep them on a straight line and put in as many as I feel the horse will benefit from. Using this step by step approach I find that most horses accept the exercise and take responsibility for going over it. I can also then judge how quickly I can build the exercise up next time and if the guide poles are necessary. For example, an experienced horse that I know well can probably go straight onto three trot poles.

When a horse is working well over poles on the lunge they are maintaining their rhythm throughout, improving their cadence, and using their back muscles to facilitate lifting each leg slightly higher. It’s also a good test of balance for them and horses who find it difficult tend to rush as they lose their balance. Not having the hindrance of the saddle or rider’s weight can help a horse learn where and how to carry themselves and build up the necessary muscles. This means that the horses learn to think for themselves for and to place themselves in the correct place.

When normal trot poles are established on the lunge, it’s a case of providing variety. Placing them away from the fence if the horse is committed to them, altering the number of poles, adjusting the distance to teach the horse to lengthen or shorten, placing the poles on a curve and raising the poles.

Raised poles exaggerate the step of the horse, so improving their cadence, suppleness and balance. Some horses just rush through and clonk each pole as their feet traipse over the poles, so it’s a matter of encouraging them to stay steady while they learn to lift their feet higher and more slowly over the raised poles. Without a rider to balance, young horses usually get the hang of raised poles quite quickly.

Do you keep the lunging gear on a horse while doing pole work? I think it depends on the horse and the gadget. If the horse is calm and experienced with poles then I will often leave them as they are. If they are likely to get excited or exuberant over the poles or if I think the side reins or Pessoa or whatever gadget they’re wearing will hinder their negotiation of the poles then I’ll take it off. Side reins can help a horse stay rhythmical and straight. A Pessoa can help encourage a horse to engage their core and lower their head as they lift their back over the poles so can be useful with raised poles if the horse tends to hollow their back instead of engaging their core.

When moving onto jumping on the lunge horses need to be naked so that they learn to jump without hindrance.

I always build the jump up from a cross pole, to an upright and then a bigger upright and then oxer if needed. I like to keep the jump adjacent to the fence and use the guide poles to help focus the horse unless I know that they’re confident jumpers. I approach it in a forwards trot, allowing the horse to pick up canter if they want. Going over the jump, it’s important for the lunger to keep moving parallel with the fence and to allow the lunge line to skip through their fingers as needed, so that the lunge line doesn’t jerk the horse’s head on landing. If the horse feels hindered on the getaway it may put them off future jumping. I have them jumping from both reins, keeping the question simple so that they can focus on finding the right take off point and improving their technique in the air. And I make it as fun as possible so that the horse enjoys the exercise and builds their confidence. Then their bascule over the fence improves.

A Polework Exercise 

Last weekend I did a polework clinic for the riding club. Polework is becoming increasingly popular, and I have to say they are enjoyable lessons to teach. Plus, using the poles for two or three hours is far more satisfying than just the one lesson.

As I had a variety of horses and riders I decided to layer the exercises, so riders could opt to stay at the easier level if it suited their horse, or progress to slightly more challenging exercises.

Let me describe the layout, and by popular request I will do a diagram.

I had a jumping arena to use, so it was roughly 30m x 60m, giving me plenty of space and I left the outer track clear. At each end I laid out four poles on a 20m circle. Then down the three quarter line, in line with a pole on each circle, I did five trotting poles on one side and three canter poles on the other side. I put wings on alternate sides of the trot and canter poles, and put wings on the inside of each pole on the circle.


Automatically I had two levels of exercise; raised poles, or poles on the ground.


Each set of poles can be worked with independently, or linked together to add an extra level of difficulty.

The poles of the circle improve suppleness, ability, strength of the inside hind, and check the effectiveness of the rider’s outside aids. Riding to the outer edge of the circle makes a 20m circle, whilst riding closer to the middle is a 15m circle and more difficult for the horse. So within my lessons, the riders could adapt the one exercise to their ability by the size of the circle.

The poles on the circle can be raised to increase flexion of the inside hock, improve flexibility, suppleness and balance. I raised one circle, so I could accommodate both levels of horse.

Using the two circles you could ride a figure of eight going across the diagonal from circle to circle. This improves the horse’s ability to change their bend. You can also ride one circle in trot and one in canter, thus adding in a transition to further the exercise.

Now let’s look at the poles. I only raised the trotting poles as the horses had enough to think about without raising the canter poles. Once the horse is comfortable with the poles on their own you can start to have some fun.

The circles can be linked together via the three-quarter line poles to make a course.

These are the courses I used and the benefits:

  1. Trot the circle of raised poles, trot the raised trotting poles, canter the circle of ground poles. The elevated trot strides should improve the canter. You want to aim to get a clear transition, which should feel more active due to the increased engagement.
  2. Canter the circle of ground poles, trot the trotting poles, trot the circle of raised poles. For horses who run down into trot this course makes them and their ridersthink because they haven’t got time to waste in a sloppy trot otherwise the trot poles go everywhere. Downward transitions then become more balanced and clearer.
  3. Canter the circle of ground poles, canter the canter poles, trot the circle of raised poles. Again, you need a crisp, balanced transition into trot in order to negotiate the raised poles.
  4. Ride clockwise over the circle of raised poles in trot, change the rein across the diagonal, making a canter transition ready to ride anti-clockwise around the circle of ground poles before returning across the diagonal and trotting in preparation for the clockwise circle. You can progress to riding both circles in canter, and having both circles with raised poles. You’re looking to have clear transitions straight into a balanced gait, with no anticipation from the horse so that they negotiate the poles easily.
  5. Trot one of the circles (it will depend which rein you’re on) canter upon leaving the circle, over the canter poles, make a transition to trot before the next circle. Again, transitions need to be clear and the horse shouldn’t rush the canter poles.
  6. Canter one circle, trot upon leaving the circle, trot the trotting poles, canter the next circle. 
  7. Trot on circle, as you leave it ride a walk or halt transition. Ride back into trot ready for the trot poles. Ride another transition between the trot poles and next circle. The same can be done over the canter poles.

Putting all these exercises together keeps the horses on their toes; they can’t anticipate or rush because the poles will cause problems. They also have to work hard in staying balanced through the transitions, which helps improve the quality of the gaits, improve the rhythm and suppleness.