One of the lessons I did at camp was using walk poles to improve the quality of the walk and the upward transitions afterwards.
It was a useful exercise, so I used it with some clients the following week.
I laid five poles out at 3 feet apart and had my client walk actively over the poles. Depending on the length of their stride, I may roll the poles out closer to 4 foot apart. I’m aiming to improve the quality of the walk, which often benefits from lengthening the stride slightly. Once a horse has been over the poles a couple of times they usually step out with more impulsion anyway. The poles encourage the horse to increase their cadence, which helps generate impulsion and activates the hindquarters.
Then I raise the poles at alternate ends, which makes the horse really think about their foot placement; lower their head and use their back muscles as they exaggerate lifting each hind leg. Often a horse slows down through poles, so it’s useful to remind the rider to keep using their leg and seat, as well as looking up!
Once the horse is confident over the poles and the walk is more active, engaged, and the horse working over their back, it’s time to add in transitions.
I get the horse and rider to walk over the poles and two or three strides after the last pole ride an upwards transition into trot. The transition shouldn’t be rushed and too soon, so the hindquarters have finished stepping over the last pole, but don’t leave it so many steps that the benefit of the raised poles is lost.
The upward transitions should feel more powerful, more uphill and balanced. Once trotting, I get my rider to ride a circle, or leg yield, or whatever they’ve been working on so they can feel the improvement in the movement as a result of a better quality trot. Then they ride a transition to walk a few strides before doing the poles again.
I’ve used these raised walk poles on the lunge, and you could also long rein a horse over them, asking for an upwards transition afterwards. With some clients I’ve got them to ride direct transitions into canter after the last pole. Again the improved wall improved the quality of the canter.
Walk poles are definitely something to use during rehab, fittening work, or if you just want to improve their walk.
With the majority of us not jumping at the moment and needing ideas to entertain us and our four legged friends more of us are looking at polework exercises.
Polework exercises that are being shared on social media are becoming increasingly complex and imaginative. I’m not against them in any way, but I think it’s important that riders don’t blindly copy the layouts, and take the time to plan, prepare and focus on your aims so that they don’t run into problems.
With any pole work layouts there are one or more themes:
Engagement of topline muscles
Before deciding on the pole layout you want to use, have a think about why you’re wanting to use the poles. What part of your horse’s way of going are you looking to develop?
It might be that a simpler pole layout is just as effective as a complex one.
If you are focusing on your horse’s weakest area, or your horse is weak or green, it might be better to only focus on one theme and keep the layout simple. Once they’re stronger, more established and confident you can start to use multiple themes in your pole layouts.
It’s also important to know the correct striding for your horse for trot and canter poles, and how to assess if the distance is too long or too short. The distance between trot poles is 4’6″ for the average horse, and if it is the correct distance for your horse their feet will hit the floor in the middle of the gap between the poles. If the distance is too close, then your horse will place their foot down closer to the upcoming pole. If the distance is too long, they will place their foot down closer to the pole they’ve just stepped over. The distance between canter poles is on average 9′, but it’s important to measure and calculate the distances like you would for trot when setting up the pole layouts.
Once you know your horse’s striding and can lay out straightforward trot and canter poles correctly for your horse you will get the most out of the any pole layout; reducing the risk of them injuring themselves or tripping over, and increasing the benefits of the polework to the horse’s way of going. Then you’re more likely to reproduce layouts you’ve seen online correctly.
I think there’s a real risk of people copying pole layouts they’ve seen in videos online without the correct knowledge to build it suitable for their horse and pony. Furthermore, without a thorough explanation of the aims of the polework layout or how to develop the exercises progressively; unknowledgeable riders may come a cropper by outfacing and confusing the horse, doing it too fast or in an unbalanced way, with the horse using his body incorrectly, and thus the polework is of no benefit at all.
I think it’s great that everyone is focusing on improving their horse’s way of going and utilising polework, but equally I think it’s important to share the “inside information” of distances, routes through the poles and the reasons, as well as riders themselves asking for advice from their coach or the author of the polework layout so that they are fully informed to the purpose of the polework and how to know if it is benefitting or not benefitting their horse and needs adapting during the session. And then of course the polework is safer for everyone.
I’ve been doing a lot of lesson plans during lockdown; some for private clients to give them some structure to their riding whilst they can’t have lessons, and some for Pony Club, which is a challenge in itself providing a lesson plan with sufficient layers of exercises to accommodate riders aged 5 to 20.
Anyway, I saw a similar layout online and immediately stole it and adapted it slightly to suit my needs.
On the inner track I laid out 3 poles parallel to the long side. One at K, one at E and the other at H in a straight line.
The purpose of these exercises is to improve the suppleness of the horse; discourage a rider from over steering and to encourage the use of the outside aids; improve the rider’s control over their horse; and to introduce the concept of shallow loops and counter canter.
The poles at K and H encourage the rider to ride deep, correct corners as an added bonus.
To begin, ride in and out of the poles in walk and trot, so that if you’re on the right rein the first and third poles are to your right as you pass them and the second pole is on your left. Assess how easy it is for your horse, whether going left is as easy as going right. Do they maintain their rhythm or do they lose their balance and either rush or slow down? Ideally, the wiggle should be fluid and rhythmical, with no changes from left bend to right bend and vice versa. I also like to focus riders on their aids at this point; are they using their seat, are their aids as quiet as possible, are they turning their upper body in the direction of travel?
Once this is mastered, which shouldn’t take too long, the middle pole can be rolled towards X by a couple of feet. Riding in and out of these poles now requires a greater degree of balance and suppleness. Because I’m not present when my riders are using this exercise I’m trying to layer it so that they establish the basics and will develop the exercise progressively so reducing the chance of going wrong, reducing the risk of creating bad habits, and increasing their chances of success. And who doesn’t need an ego boost in these times?
I’m sure you can see how the shallow loop is developing now. This is the ideal time to tell the rider about shallow loops as they can now visualise it which will help their understanding. I would then continue riding the exercise whilst rolling the centre pole closer to X. Ideally, I’d want to finish the session riding an accurate shallow loop around the poles, and then recreating it along the opposite long side without the help of poles, but as soon as the horse is starting to find it difficult and is losing their balance past the middle pole, the exercise should plateau. It can be repeated until either the horse starts to tire or masters it. Next session he will be able to do the next level of difficulty but it’s important not to overface him.
This exercise should teach a rider a good eye and feel for riding correct shallow loops in walk and trot. The next step is canter!
Putting the poles back to their original position, I would introduce the concept of counter canter to make sure the rider knows what it is, how it benefits the horse, and how to ride it. For those of you feeling a bit puzzled as you read, counter canter is basically cantering on the wrong leg. Riding right canter but travelling left, for example.
In this exercise the line between the first and second poles is correct canter, and the line from the second to third pole is counter canter. Some horses will try and be clever and either do a flying change, change their lead in front, or just fall into trot. I don’t tend to ask my riders to make a big deal out of the counter canter, but to just ensure they are maintain position right if on the right canter lead as they return to the track. That is, weight into the inside seatbone, inside leg on the girth, outside leg behind, try to keep the horse looking slightly to the inside and just turn their head to look back at the track. This doesn’t guarantee that a horse won’t do a flying change, but it makes it very difficult for him to do so.
Again, riding this exercise from the very very shallow loop means a horse is less likely to change his leg, and also means he builds confidence and balance in his counter canter slowly. He is then more likely to give counter canter when the middle pole is rolled towards X.
I would then have the rider cantering the very very shallow loop, focusing on their position and ensuring the leg that is on the girth is pushing the horse back to the track rather than the outside rein. Invariably, they’re usually successful in maintaining the canter lead.
As in the trot, the exercise can be developed by rolling the middle pole steadily towards X until the horse is at the edge of his comfort zone. Again, the idea is not to push him until he wobbles and goes disunited or scrambles a flying change, it’s to increase his suppleness and improve his balance.
Once the shallow loop starts to get deeper the rider should start to feel an improvement in their horse’s canter; it should feel straighter, lighter on the forehand, more three beat and active.
From the shallow loops of counter canter changes of rein can be introduced and riding corners of the school in counter canter used to develop the movement.
I’ve found that using poles can really help a rider visualise and ride a movement accurately, which makes a schooling session safer and more progressive when I’m not present to supervise and explain. So far, I’ve seen good progress and had positive feedback from this pole layout and lesson plan. Hopefully it helps some of you during lockdown.
I used this pole layout last week and found it very useful so thought I’d share it for anyone struggling for ideas at the moment. You could also long rein or lunge over it.
The layout is quite simple; create an equilateral triangle with three poles, and then lay a pole perpendicular to each apex.
The first exercise is to ride straight through the layout – over the base of the triangle and then out over the apex opposite. It’s an excellent test of straightness (pick a point in the distance to focus on, keep the reins even and steady, and squeeze your horse down the tunnel created by your reins with the our legs). The apex encourages horses to pick up their feet. Often they’ll look down as they step over the apex, which helps develop their topline.
The poles I used are 10′ long, which means that the distance between the base and apex is a canter stride for the average horse (I’ll let any bored A-level student work out the precise distance using trigonometry. Let me know if you take up the challenge!). You can ride the line in both trot and canter, in both directions. It is slightly harder to be accurate riding from the apex to the base pole.
A harder exercise, which focuses on riding a smooth turn between two poles, encourages the horse to increase the cadence of their inside hind which improves their strength and suppleness. Ride, in trot, from the base pole to either of the other sides of the triangle, aiming to ride over the centre of each pole. Make sure you ride straight over each pole, so ensuring you ride a definite curve through the triangle. I had a few clients ride a straight line between the poles, so going over each one at an angle. I then stood in their way and made them trot around me, which soon helped.
You can then think of riding a circle around each point of the triangle, the external pole helps prevent the circle becoming too small. You could also try cantering the circle, but you would need to increase the size of your circle and so the curve within the triangle.
Finally, I concocted a twisty exercise for my more advanced riders, to really test their horse’s balance and suppleness.
Trotting (or walking until you get your head around the sequence) straight over the baseline pole, then curve right. Over the second pole then ride a big curve left. Trot over the next side of the triangle you reach (the side you’re yet to go over) and then curve right. As you exit the triangle curve left again. Eventually, you end up at the beginning.
The key is to not override the turns, and to maintain an even rein contact. Too much inside rein and the horse will fall onto their inside shoulder and struggle round the next turn. Additionally, you should keep the curves outside the triangle fairly big so you can prepare for the next chicane. Make sure you cross each pole in the centre, and perpendicularly. The external poles help prevent drifting as you leave the triangle. It’s not easy, but you can really see the improvement in the horse’s way of going afterwards.
The Wise Man Built His House Upon The Rock was playing in the car last week. Although this time at least I had the toddler with me! There’s nothing worse than realising you’re listening to nursery rhymes when alone in the car …
I digress. It struck me that the Wise Man is very relevant to the approach to training a horse and rider. The rocks are the foundations of the house, and in the same way that you choose to build a house on firm standing, it’s important to build your ridden skills on firm foundations. Establish the basics, reinforce them as necessary, and don’t try to run before you can walk.
If you have a firm foundation when you encounter a problem – a fall whilst jumping for example – then it is easier to pick yourself up and there is less long term or catastrophic damage and the recovery period is quicker. It’s a bit of damage limitation; in the sense that when you have solid foundations beneath you, you will only wobble and fall a couple of rungs down the ladder, rather than if you were standing atop a sand dune when you will fall down many rungs.
My friend is looking to buy a new horse, and we’ve been discussing the merits of getting a schoolmaster versus a green horse. One she viewed last week has talent, can jump, but is obviously lacking the basics. Which isn’t a problem if you approach the horse with the knowledge that the first six months need to be spent establishing the jumping basics; improving the jumping canter, using canter poles and grids to improve her technique before progressing up the levels. To some, this can be frustrating, but in the long run, the horse is less likely to injure themselves because they are using their body more correctly and are physically stronger; they are more confident so are more likely to encounter little wobbles along their jumping journey rather than major blips which ultimately makes a smoother road to travel.
For this reason, every so often my clients revisit one of the more straightforward subjects of their riding, which once practiced usually vastly improves their performance in a trickier exercise.
It’s also a reason that I feel it’s so important for riders to have regular lessons and instructors. If an instructor regularly sees a pair then they can pick up on problems before they develop, nipping them in the bud, and can ensure that the foundations are firmly established. That’s always my worry with clinics and Pony Club rallies. If a rider goes to various clinics with different instructors they can end up with a bitty education and holes in their foundations. That’s not to say that clinics aren’t a positive thing, as they have their place in terms of a social environment, getting a horse and rider confident riding away from home, but they are best used to complement regular lessons.
Do you think your riding is built upon firm foundations? Or are they a little bit fragile?
I did a fun polework lesson over the weekend, in the shape of a five pointed star.
It was harder than I anticipated to make star-shaped – I could’ve done with a drone to help me get it perfectly aligned! But once it was set up I could see the multitude of uses for it!
Once my two riders had warned up in trot and canter I had them working on opposite points of the star. They had to ride a 10-15m circle on the outside of the star, trotting over the two poles which formed the point of the star. I had my riders adjust their circle so that they found the perfect striding between the poles for their horse. The horse shouldn’t be skipping or stretching for the second pole, neither should they be chipping in and tripping over it. Riding the poles on a curve increases the step of the inside hind, so activating it so that it works harder on a normal circle. When the inside hind comes further under the body the abdominals work harder and thus the horse lifts their back.
My riders rode these circles on both reins, feeling the improvement, and also the difference between reins as by asking the horse to work harder it highlights any weakness or evasion tactic. They both felt that the trot was more co-ordinated and together after this exercise.
Next, we turned our attention to their accuracy and straightness by riding across the star, over the points. I had my riders find their line, focus on a point, channel the horse between the reins using the legs and seat. The aim is that the horse trots over the point of the poles. This tests their balance and straightness, as well as improving their cadence and suppleness.
These two exercises kept us busy for the level of horse that I had in this lesson, as we combined them into a little course at the end, but they could also be done in canter. Both horses improved dramatically in their way of going, looking much more balanced and active in their trot work.
Next time I do this exercise, I want to add in some trot and canter poles on a curve across the arena, so the star becomes a shooting star.
I adapted this exercise last week for my clients to improve their canter transitions.
When you aren’t working to a dressage test, or set of quick directions, it can be easy to spend too long preparing for a canter transition, aborting at the first corner, and then in the downward transition it’s easy to spend half a dozen strides recovering and finding their balance.
I wanted my riders to be in the position that they could strike off into canter with instant preparation, and can ride into a balanced trot immediately. After all, once you get to elementary level, the movements start coming up very quickly!
I laid out five trotting poles on the track on the long side; with a fairly short distance between each one. I wanted the horses to be on the verge of collecting over the trot poles. With the mare who struggles to get the correct canter lead I placed the poles so that the last pole was at the quarter marker and she could use the corner to get the correct strike off. The other, more established horses, had the poles in the middle of the long side so that the canter transitions were in a straight line.
I worked each combination through the poles until they were balanced, and the trot had become more together and uphill, with increased cadence. Then we added in the canter.
After riding the trotting poles, I asked them to ride forwards to canter before the corner (or at the corner for the less established mare). Then they had to ride forwards to trot at the corner before the poles.
We repeated the exercise a few times, moving the transitions so that they were closer to the poles.
The result was that my riders started riding more quickly, and I don’t mean rushing; the time between preparing and riding the transitions, and then reacting to the outcome, decreased. The horses became more responsive to the aids and then more active in the transitions.
The trotting poles engaged the hindquarters, which helped the horse push upwards into canter, so it felt like a pop into a steadier, more powerful canter. The mare who tends to run into canter suddenly began to almost jump into it, which resulted in a less harum-scarum canter.
Having the trotting poles in the near distance when riding into trot encouraged the riders to sit tall and hold in their core so that the horse sat on his hocks and didn’t fall onto the forehand after a couple of strides, unable to contain all this energy. Often a horse and rider will go into a powerful, energetic trot, pushing nicely from behind, but after a few strides they both seem to collapse and lose energy, so losing the quality of the trot as they bowl onto their forehand. However, the poles require the horse to maintain the initial trot for longer so builds up their strength and balance. Again, the horse and rider have to be thinking and react quickly to correct any loss of rhythm or balance.
Having to ride a downwards transition before some poles doesn’t give a rider the opportunity to accept a sloppy, unbalanced transition, nor does it mean they can do it “when the time is right”. The time is now, and they have to make it right. If they do get an unbalanced transition, for whatever reason, the looming poles encourages them to react and correct it; which is very important around showjumping courses, and so that the next dressage movement is not impeded.
I was really impressed with the improvement to both the horse’s transitions, the quality of the canter and trot, and of the positive, quick thinking way that my riders were now riding.
I gave a pair their first jumping lesson this week. The rider has jumped before, but is bringing on her ex-broodmare slowly. We loose jumped her a couple of months ago to see if she actually knew what to do, but otherwise have focused on her flatwork to build her muscle and strength. Canter is coming along slowly with the help of poles to help her find the rhythm.Anyway, they had a go jumping over the weekend and felt it was a bit chaotic, so I decided to give them a better experience of leaving the ground.After focusing on transitions within the gaits whilst warming up, and getting the mare bending and thinking about her rider’s aids. I laid out three canter poles between K and E on the track. I used the track to maximise the arena so that the mare was most able to stay in balance on the turns. Her right canter is her weakest so I positioned the poles just off the corner to help them keep the canter rhythm until the poles. They could have a longer straight approach on the left canter because the mare can keep left canter together in straight lines.As is with horses, I rapidly had to move onto Plan B, when the mare decided that right canter was out of the question today. She often strikes off incorrectly, but can be helped out by a trot 10m circle before the canter transition. Not today though! There was no point banging our heads against a brick wall, getting frustrated. We’d jump out of left canter and try right another day. If she continues to struggle with it we’ll investigate further.So after trotting over the poles on the right rein, and then once on the left rein, I had them canter over the poles. The mare’s canter is currently very flat and verges on the point of four beat, so I kept the poles wide to improve her rhythm, and once her canter rhythm is established we can begin to balance it so that her haunches are under her body and she’s working her body correctly.Now it was time to leave the ground. I rolled the two poles closest to K together to make a teeny tiny cross pole. Then I rolled the third pole out so that it was a whole canter stride away from the fence. I wanted them to canter over the pole, have a whole canter stride and then pop the jump. This setup wouldn’t phase an inexperienced horse, but would put her in the right take off spot.They did it once, and met the first pole badly. With the mare only having one canter gear we have to adjust the distance of the approach so that she can fit several whole canter strides in. Which will help her jump confidently and neatly. A horse who has several gears to the canter can be adjusted to accommodate a set distance. I got my rider to ride deeper into the corner, which meant that they met the pole well the second time. I built the jump up to a bigger cross once we knew the striding and their line was right, and they flew over a couple of times, growing in confidence each time.To finish, I converted the cross pole into an upright. The biggest they’d jumped to date, but as the mare was already jumping that big over the cross pole, it was a mind over matter element for her rider. To know that they could jump it.And they did!
The plan now is to keep working on right canter, and do more canter polework to help establish the rhythm, and then using poles to help set up the mare for jumping, and to tell her where to take off until she is more experienced and has more understanding of the idea of flying.
For some reason I’ve been doing a lot of figure of eight work in lessons. I think it’s because I’ve been focusing my clients on changing their horse’s bend, and staying balanced throughout, but I’m enjoying seeing the horses strengthen as they switch between hind legs.
I was teaching one lady on her horse, who can be a bit lazy and not engage his engine, but where we’re building up his topline and trying to strengthen his hindquarters it’s important that we get him thinking forwards at the beginning of the session. So we’ve been using trot poles as an incentive.
After a short trot to warm up on each rein, I started them working over five trotting poles. This increased their impulsion immediately, and the stride length started to improve, but because the poles were on a straight line the horse could avoid bringing his inside hind underneath him, which makes it harder for us to improve his suppleness and strength. He needs more circle work, but without overstressing him. So we began to put the poles onto an oval.
The poles were still ridden in a straight line, but my rider curved away just after them, to ride a distorted circle before curving back to the poles with a short approach. This improved the horse’s cadence over the poles as he started to flex more through his knees and hocks and couldn’t sneak onto his forehand in the straight lines.
Next, we started to alternate which way they turned after the poles, so we were riding a figure of eight. This had the benefit that it made my rider ride straight over the poles, and not accept the slight bend her horse left himself in on straight lines. Which improved their balance round the turns because he wasn’t pretending to be a motorbike and stayed vertical.
Next up, we incorporated canter transitions. After the trotting poles, as they turned left my rider asked for left canter. The aim was to have a positive response from the canter aids, have a forwards canter round the bigger oval, and then ride a transition into an active, balanced trot ready for the poles again. Having the poles after the transition helped maintain impulsion and stopped him trying to drop his forehand.
We developed this into a figure of eight exercise with one circle in canter and the other in trot. Which improved his suppleness and stopped him predicting the canter transitions. Especially when we turned the same way consecutively!
I’d like to develop the exercise further with them so that both circles are in canter, and the poles are raised. This will get him more responsive to his rider because there are a few questions in quick succession, and it will improve his balance, strength and suppleness. He will also begin to work more consistently over his back, engaging his abdominals and bridging. This will help his rider learn the feeling of him working correctly so that she can recreate it without the help of the poles as he gets stronger.
It’s a really simple exercise which has immediate, positive effects, and I loved the way it stopped this horse anticipating and rushing the poles, or the canter transitions.
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.