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.

Improving Joint Stability

Remember I went to the Horses Inside Out conference in September? I’ve recently used yet another exercise that I picked up from that informative day, to help improve stability and flexibility.

At the conference, we learnt that whilst it’s important to improve the flexibility of our horses it’s also important to consider joint stability. If we only focus on our horse’s suppleness in one direction then the joints lose stability because the muscles around the joint in the other directions are weaker, which makes the horse more prone to injury from hyperflexion.

By working horses in a variety of ways and directions we improve the strength and range of movement of their limbs. Lateral work is perhaps the most obvious way of increasing a joint’s range of movement.

In the horse’s legs, it is only the shoulder and hip joints which are capable of adduction and abduction of the limbs, so this is the area of focus in lateral work.

The idea of this exercise, which can be done ridden or inhand, is for the horse to move their legs forwards and sideways with each stride. Having a pole to negotiate ensures each foot is moved cleanly. For the horse to abduct a limb it requires balance, and core stability. A bit like the balance exercises we do in Pilates. This week we did one which involves standing on one leg and sending opposite hand and foot diagonally out, akin to doing the jive. With our eyes closed! But it hurts the outside of your thighs!

Lay out a line of three or four poles, end to end in the middle of the arena. Walk your horse towards the end of the first pole, so that the pole is on their left. Then ask your horse to walk forwards and to the left so that their left foreleg steps over the pole first. Their left hindleg is the first of the hindlimbs to step over the pole. That part is very important!

So the left limb bends as it’s lifted and then the abductor muscles at the shoulder and hip lift the limb away from the horse’s body before replacing it to the ground. The abducting requires abdominal strength and balance in order to keep the rhythm of the walk. Once the horse has crossed the pole you can ask them to step right across the next pole.

If they find it difficult, then the horse will turn their body so that the limb furthest away from the pole will step over first (if the pole is on their left, the right leg crosses first), which means the horse isn’t actually doing any abducting of their limbs, and are almost serpentining over the poles.

You can place more demands on your horse by getting them to cross the pole more frequently, say after three walk steps. This requires more balance, strength and joint stability. You can also raise the poles by using potties or cavaletti cubes. Below is a video of the exercise when I tried it with Phoenix. I could only raise my poles by jump blocks so had to accommodate them in the exercise. Hopefully it is clear enough to give you an idea of how to do it. Next time, we’ll be trying more poles and using cavaletti cubes to raise them.

I’ve used it recently in a couple of lessons with horses coming back into work, or who are a bit tight over their backs, and when they’ve been trotted afterwards, their riders’ have felt the improvement in their way of going as they’ve all looked looser over their backs and swinging more in their stride.

Wonky Poles

I came across this exercise a few weeks ago, which is a great variant on usual trot poles. It’s good for adding an extra level of difficulty to trot poles, keeping a horse thinking about the exercise, and checks both them and their rider’s ability to ride a straight line. Especially useful for green horses, it improves proprioception.

Begin by trotting over a series of trotting poles laid parallel, approximately four foot six inches apart. Adjust the poles to suit your horse’s stride. Once your horse is confident, balanced and negotiating the poles straight and easily, you can begin to put him on his toes.

You should be trotting over the centre of the trotting poles, and the horse should increase their cadence over the poles and increase their impulsion. With the poles parallel, the horse can see either end of the poles as they trot over it. This helps the horse judge where the centre of the pole is, which is where they need to lift their feet over. Remember horses have that blind spot just in front of them, with a small amount of binocular vision, so rely on their peripheral vision, which is monocular. The binocular field of vision is where they gauge depth perception, which is vital for negotiating poles and fences.

Now your horse is happy with parallel trot poles, angle them so that they form a zig zag pattern. The centre of each pole should still be four foot six inches apart (or whatever distance best suits your horse). An easy way to create the zig zag pattern is to hold the pole in the middle, and lift and swing it so that it is then at an angle.

Usually, when first trotted over the zig zag poles, a horse will lower his head, pause, and increase their cadence. As long as you ride the centre of the poles, the distance is correct for the horse, but the zig zag position of the poles will make them think about where they’re putting their feet.

Going back to their vision. The ends of the poles are in their monocular vision, and they aren’t level. One eye will see the ends of two poles close together, and the other eye will see two pole ends together further forward in their field of monocular vision. Therefore it is not immediately obvious to them where the centre of the poles are, which is the part they’re stepping over. This means they need to engage the binocular vision to gauge the position of the centre of the poles. So they pause, lower their head to look carefully at the poles, and then lift their feet high to give the poles plenty of space just in case.

This means that the horse is working his body harder, so improving his balance, coordination, impulsion, rhythm and proprioception. It’s a good variation of trotting poles for those horses who get bored, or need to do a lot of pole work for rehab, and can be made physically more demanding by increasing the number of poles.

I don’t think this pole arrangement would work as raised poles, but they would work as canter poles, with the centre of the poles approximately nine feet apart.

Pick Up Sticks!

I went into the arena yesterday and it looked like there had been a giant game of pick-up sticks. With no clear winner as far as I could tell.

I schooled around the poles, using the odd relevant pole and then later in the day I saw the designer of the pick-up sticks using them, and it made perfect sense. It was actually a very good exercise if you knew what you were doing.

The exercise, pictured below, worked on the canter rhythm and balance over and between poles, and changing canter leads over poles, so it is a good progressive exercise for teaching flying changes. 


Let me run through the different elements of this exercise.

Firstly, the circle of four poles can be ridden to establish rhythm, bend and balance over poles. You want to aim to meet each pole in the middle, with four strides between each pole. Strides over the poles shouldn’t be any different to normal strides, and each stride should be the same size.

Next you can work on the related distances. There are the straight line related distances, with six canter strides between each pole. Again, you’re looking for regulatory of the canter and for the horse to stay relaxed and consistent in their frame. 

There is also a related distance of a dog leg. It’s on eight strides, and you’re looking for a smooth line, rhythm, balance and regular strides. 

These are the basic elements of the exercise, but the next step involves asking for a flying change and changing bend in various places.

The obvious route that involves a change of lead is to ride the circle of poles, ask for a flying change over the pole that is central in my diagram and ride the four strides to the pole on the left of the diagram (which conveniently is involved in the straight line related distance). It took me a while to twig as to the reason there is a pole at ninety degrees to the “change” pole. But it’s to stop you drifting out over the pole and to help the horse stay straight and so be able to change their legs easily. 

The next way you can practice your flying changes is on the angles poles when riding the dog legs.

When all of this is perfected, they can be strung together to make the exercise harder by have the changes more frequently, which requires a greater degree of balance and coordination from the horse.

Give it a go and let me know how you get on, I found it really useful when I tried it with a horse today. He can do the changes over the poles but struggles with the consistency of the canter so it was great to be able to make the exercise difficult on different levels. 

Adjusting Strides

I read a really interesting article a couple of weeks ago, but haven`t had chance to experiment with it until this week.

The article was abut the importance of leg yielding when showjumping. This sounds controversial, but basically the article showed how you can gain space between fences without jeopardising your technique as the horse will still be perpendicular to the fence so will make the oxer more easily.

This makes sense, because you are riding a diagonal, so have a greater distance to travel so you should comfortably fit in more strides. More than just collecting your canter will, anyway. I`m sure everyone`s ridden that exercise when you canter through a related distance counting strides, and then have to increase and decrease the number of strides in between. This is the advanced version!

The first time I used this theory was yesterday morning in a dressage lesson. We`d played around with poles and cavaletti and I had a bit of time left at the end, so I tested her leg yielding ability.

I put down two short poles, about five canter strides apart, and askekd my client to trot over the centre of them to begin with. Then I asked her to come off the left rein and trot over the most left part of the first pole, and then leg yield to the most right part of the second pole. This exercise was made all the harder by the lack of jump wings, so my client had to use her leg closest to the edge of the pole to support her horse, so he didn`t skip around the end. They had to step quietly over the pole so their rhythm and balance wasn`t upset and they had enough time to leg yield. This is harder than it looks but my client managed to ride the exercise in trot on both reins. It was a good test of accuracy for both horse and rider, and their leg yield had to be straight and consistent.

Later that afternoon I was schooling a horse and someone had kindly left out a beautiful arrangement of  poles for me to work with, and two were a perfect five strides apart. So I cantered over them a couple of times, shortening our strides until the gelding rode six strides easily. Next, I tried cantering a leg yield between the poles to get seven strides. He found it quite hard, and I managed to leg yield into six an a half strides. We tried a few times on both reins, before admitting defeat by that seventh stride. I could see how the exercise is useful though, and our canter work improved. To finish off the exercise I cantered through the related distance in four strides.

This got the geeky part of my brain thinking. If those poles were twelve foot long instead of ten foot, could I have fitted in an extra stride? If they had been further apart, could I have managed it? With Pythagoras` theorem, and some trigonometry I`m sure it would be worked out – but I wish I`d measured the distance between the poles and the exact length of the poles so that I could do some homework.

Following on from this theme, I taught a young girl on her new pony tonight. We have a slight problem with the brakes. The pony has them, but is forward going and my rider isn`t committed enough to riding a balanced gait. As the pony tends to accelerate around jumping courses I have been trying to drill it into her that she must keep the canter under control on the flat. 

To accentuate my point, I laid down two poles five strides apart, and asked her to canter over them, counting her strides. The first time she got five strides, and the pony accelerated. So I asked her to go again; she got four strides. By now, the pony was really excited for the poles, and my rider could see how she needs to calm down the canter and keep the lid on it. On both reins she balanced the canter and rode an economical five and six strides through the poles and then she worked on her canter on the flat after, and I think she learnt an important lesson in keeping a lid on the gaits – and listening to me when I tell her to slow down! Giving a set goal, i.e. a set distance and a set number of strides, helped commit my little rider to achieving her goal – and to also see the results of her work. I`m hoping to continue to improve the quality of her pony`s trot and canter with similar exercises next week, and to use poles too.

All in all, two simple poles can be really useful in teaching a horse and rider to adjust their gait and improve their balance, as well as improving the communication between the two. I`m looking forwards to trying the leg yielding between poles/jumps with Otis soon.