Pole Star

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.

Examples of the circle exercise and straightness exercise lines ridden by my riders.

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.

Poles and Transitions

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.

A First Jumping Lesson

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.

Figures of Eight

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.

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.


Two poles is all you need for this exercise to improve your horse’s straightness.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, a lot of horses carry themselves in a crooked way. For example, with their hindquarters always to the right. When I start working with a horse who is crooked in their way of going I check the rider’s position, symmetry and if they have any history of injuries which could cause them to have a weaker side. Then I cover topics such as saddle fit, chiropractic and physiotherapy treatments, dental history to make sure we rule out any of those causes.

If a horse is allowed to work in a crooked way then muscles develop asymmetrically, which can compound the problem.

I find that using poles as tramlines can be really beneficial in teaching both horse and rider what straight feels like. The physical presence of the poles can be more effective than asking the rider to do too much correcting and straightening of the horse as the effort involved in applying these aids can twist the rider’s seat, which doesn’t help the horse go straight.

In a session where I’m planning to use tramlines, I warm horse and rider up focusing on feel and straightness. I don’t necessarily want my rider to start adjusting their horse, but I want them to gain an awareness: is the horse holding their head to one side, or their hindquarters to one side? Is it always held to the same side? I tweak my rider’s position and aids so that they are minimising the crookedness, and are as symmetrical as possible.

Then I get them to trot between the two poles a few times, so that the horse is comfortable with the poles, then I roll them slightly closer so they are fractionally wider than the horse. Now, when they pass through, the horse will have to straighten their body so that the left hind follows the track of the left fore, and the same with the right legs. The rider should then feel the change in the horse’s way of going, which will help them recreate the straightness elsewhere in the arena. We repeat this until there is less of a change in the horse’s body before, during and after the poles, because they are working in a less crooked manner.

Next, I add in transitions. Horses who are crooked tend to wobble through transitions, so riding a transition between the poles encourages the horse to stay straight. Horse and rider begins in trot, and once the hindquarters have entered the poles, ride a transition to walk. Usually the first couple of times there’s a clunk on the pole, proving the horse has lost straightness. As they exit the poles, you sometimes see an exaggerated drift because the horse is so reliant on the poles to keep them straight and almost lose their balance when their support is removed. It’s a very good exercise for teaching the rider a feel for a straight transition and straight horse.

Once the downwards transition is feeling straighter and more balanced, I repeat the same exercise with upwards transitions, from walk to trot. Riding the transition between the poles usually encourages the horse to utilise their hindquarters and push up into a springy, active trot because when they are straight they hindlegs work more efficiently as their stepping towards the horse’s centre of gravity. The rider learns the feel for a more active transition, and a straighter way of going. Again, you might get the wriggle after exiting the poles, but as the horse improves their balance whilst being straight, they will be less dependent on the tramlines.

Soon, the rider should be able to ride their horse on two tracks and in a straighter frame without the help of the tramlines, and when they do travel between poles there is no change to the rhythm or balance of their gait.

I really like using the tramlines for canter, which is notoriously a crooked gait. I place the tramlines so they are ridden across the school, from E to B, and then get my horse and rider to ride straight across the school in canter. Having to ride a straight line across the school encourages the rider to use their outside aids and not their inside rein to end up riding a half circle across the arena. Once the canter has become straighter, the rider should feel the increased stride length of the inside hindleg, and the canter will become more balanced and three time in rhythm.

So long as the horse and rider can strike off into canter on the long side, on a specific canter lead, you can begin to ride trot to canter transitions between the tramlines, which most horses find quite tricky as they usually drift through the outside shoulder. As with the walk and trot transitions, the canter transitions will improve the rider’s feel for straightness, their awareness of the importance of maintaining the outside aids, and improve the quality of the transition.

The mare I used this exercise with over the weekend likes to hold her hindquarters to the right and her head to the left, so after warming her and her rider up focusing on minimising the crookedness in walk and trot before we started using the tramlines. It took a few trots through for the mare to begin to maintain the straightness without the poles – she drifted as she came out from between the poles initially. Once we started to ride transitions between the poles I noticed that the mare stayed softer in her neck and started to engage her hindquarters. This mare is very good at learning an exercise, so we only needed to do it a handful of times before moving on, and continuing to practice keeping her straight elsewhere in the school. With all this focus on straightness, my rider’s hands became more even, which helped the mare stay straight. For this pair, cantering between the poles had the most effect. The mare finds it difficult to stay together in the canter, tending to run and wiggle along; the tramlines encouraged her to be straighter, and subsequently her rider could begin to balance her more easily and then the canter looked stronger and more correct. We’ll be doing more work using tramlines as part of more elaborate polework exercises to further improve the mare’s straightness and quality of her gaits so that both horse and rider can work straight and efficiently, with less risk of overstressing and straining one area of her body.

The Polework Tree

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.

A Christmas Cracker

For anyone feeling festively proactive, here’s a fun polework exercise I did with Phoenix this week.

It’s not the easiest to see in the grass, but I had a bit more space in the jumping paddock and it makes a nice change from the four fences of the arena at this time of year, it is shaped like a Christmas cracker. With ground conditions I did make it into a trot exercise, but by adjusting the distances between the poles in the middle, it can become a canter exercise.

I used five trot poles (4’6ish depending on your horse’s stride length) along the middle, with poles perpendicular to the ends. From the last poles I laid two more diagonally to form a triangle, and then two more to so that the point of the triangle became a cross. I’ll get a diagram …

Maybe I need a drone to take images of my exercises from the air … I’m afraid you’ll have to put up with my dodgy sketching on my phone because I am not getting up, risking waking the baby, and losing the only lie in we have booked this week just to get some paper. I’m already annoyed that I didn’t sleep beyond seven!

There are many ways to use this arrangement of poles. Ultimately the only limitation is your imagination!

I began by walking over the centre of the cross of four poles because Phoenix was quite suspicious of them and it took her a couple of attempts to walk straight over the centre and not wiggle around it. I approached from all sides, so either walked the full length of the cracker, or just went across the short side. When I started trotting it, I did the short sides first so she only had to concentrate on the cross on the floor and could get it right.Trotting the full length of the cracker, with the two crosses to keep you straight is a good check of their straightness and the trot poles improve their rhythm, stride length, cadence as well. You could raise these using caveletti blocks to engage their abdominals a bit more. I didn’t because this polework arrangement is the most complicated I’ve done with Phoenix and she found it hard enough to stay balanced over the trot poles and go straight over the crosses before and after without trying to jump them!

You can also trot across the cracker, so you are using the trotting poles as tramlines, which also helps straightness. Adding in a halt transition between them helps improve your straightness through transitions and can stop any cheeky horse from swinging their quarters.

Finally, the ends of the cracker are useful for introducing poles on a curve. This is not something I’ve done a huge amount of with Phoenix – usually it’s on the lunge and using the corner of the arena to support her – so it was a good test of her balance and suppleness. I trotted arcs of various sizes across the two poles at either end in both directions. On the right rein, where she sometimes resists bending through her whole body, she just loaded her right shoulder over the second pole. But by exaggerating the right bend before the poles and ensuring she was listening to my inside leg she started to maintain the correct bend poll to tail over the two poles. I kept the arcs a bit bigger on the right rein until she’d succeeded in staying balanced. I’m definitely thinking of doing more poles on a curve with her in the next couple of weeks as this felt like her weakest area.

Have fun with this Christmas Cracker polework, and if you crack it in trot, adjust the poles so you can do it in canter and that will really test your ability to ride straight!

A Pole Conundrum

I’ve been asked to run a couple of polework clinics for a local riding club so I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for ideas and testing them out. 

Here’s today’s polework question to get the horses thinking.

Lay four trotting poles out, at the correct distance for the horse. Then lay another four trotting poles out at ninety degrees, so that the second and third poles lie over the middle two poles of the other set of poles. 

Thus you have one row of trotting poles on the ground, with a train track to encourage the horse to stay straight. And in the other direction you have a similar effect, but with two poles raised.

To look at, this square of poles is quite an eyesore. The horse has to really think about where they are placing their feet. The perpendicular poles ensure straightness, and the raised ones improve suppleness through the joints and over the back. 

The first time each horse met the square, they backed off while they puzzled it out. After trotting through the poles a few times the trot felt much looser, and any subsequent canters were much more elevated and balanced.

This exercise can be expanded by adjusting the distance between to poles so it is ridden in either medium or collected trot, or even canter which will build more strength and agility.

Incorporating Poles into Flatwork

In one of today’s lessons I taught a lady and her full-of-character mare. They don’t jump anymore, as it was quite dramatic when they did, but I’ve noticed a couple of times that the mare is hard to motivate in lessons, even though we do a wide variety of exercises and movements. About a month ago we used two poles to help tunnel the mare in a straight line and work on straightness in trot and canter, which made the little mare think about what she was doing.

So today after a quick warm up in walk and trot, using large circles, travers, and squares to help loosen the mare up and establish the outside rein contact, I got out three trotting poles on the three quarter line.

Initially I got them to just trot straight and balanced over them as the mare has that Arab streak, which causes her to have a hissy fit at anything that “shouldn’t be there”. It took a couple of goes to stop the hesitation and to keep the mare confident through them, and of course the poles were completely different on the other rein!

Once established over poles I got my rider to utilise the new found energy to pick up canter, creating a more forwards going canter than normal so my rider wasn’t nagging with her leg and could focus on keeping the upper body more still. We changed each canter exercise; sometimes a circle, sometimes trotting at K, sometimes E, to keep the mare on her toes as she is the queen of second guessing you. Then, just for fun, my rider trotted away from the poles, keeping the energy and activity in the hindquarters.

The mare was focused on my rider now, and more alert and interested in her work, so I changed the exercise a bit.

My rider had to trot straight over the middle of the poles before leg yielding towards the track. The mare likes to predict leg yield and rush through the outside shoulder, so we didn’t leg yield each time and the poles helped generate a bit of activity in her hindquarters so she could move them over more easily. Once my rider could leg yield after the poles I asked her to leg yield on the approach to the poles, and then ride straight over the poles before moving across again. This encouraged her to use her outside aids to prevent the mare leg yielding across the poles and the mare learnt not to rush as much. After a couple of goes we started interchanging the exercises so that the mare couldn’t predict what was happening, and then we repeated the whole thing on the other rein.

Both canters improved in their transitions and rhythm, and the leg yield became more consistent and moved steadily across, even when we used the side without the poles.

By the end of the lesson the mare was working really well; a bigger and more active stride than before and lifting a bit more at the wither so she was engaging her back, which is something she finds quite difficult to maintain. I’m looking forward to using more poles in future sessions to keep both horse and rider on their toes.