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.

The Importance of Straightness 

Straightness comes quite high up in the Scales of Training, but I feel it is often overlooked with novice riders, which can often cause problems later on in their training, or cause injuries due to over stressing a limb.

I wouldn’t expect a child or novice rider to be able to straighten a horse, and correct them very easily, but I would want them to be aware of what straightness is in it’s most basic form.

Firstly, it’s important to understand the importance of riding evenly on each rein, and changing diagonals whilst hacking to help the horse develop symmetrically. A horse with even muscle tone is more likely to travel straight. Straight being when the left hind foot follows the path of the left fore foot, and the same with the right limbs.

Lessons and guided schooling usually instils this to riders quite easily.

Another area I like to work on, which ties in nicely with Pilates, is proprioception. I like my riders to be aware of their body; which side is stronger, where they tend to tense and where they tend to collapse. Then together we can work on creating a more symmetrical rider, which will help the horse stay symmetrical. I’m a huge advocator of having regular physio or osteopathy sessions. Everything we do in our daily life encourages us to twist and carry ourselves crookedly. If you sit at a desk all day then your right shoulder will slump forward because it’s using the mouse. If your other hobby is fencing then you will have a very developed dominant side. Regularly straightening yourself out will ease muscle tension, reduce risk of injury, and improve your posture. All of this will benefit your riding, and most importantly if you are as symmetrical as possible then you will not stress one side of your horse’s body and cause him to compensate with his body in order to stay in balance.

A lot of people lack proprioception. They think they are standing straight, when really they are leaning on one leg more than the other. Try standing up tall, closing your eyes and identifying where your weight is in your body. Then adjust yourself until you feel the weight is even down both legs and you aren’t loading your toes or heels. You’ll probably feel like you’re at a forty five degree slant! The other thing to do is assess the upper body with your eyes closed: are the hip bones level, are the shoulders level, is one hip further forward than the other? Again once you even yourself up you’ll feel wonky. But that’s because your perception of straight is crooked, and you need to adapt that.

With so many asymmetric riders, it’s not surprising that horse’s backs are suffering and the horse physio/chiro/osteo industry is booming. 

Back to my original point. I spend a lot of time in lessons tweaking riders’ positions to improve their straightness, and encouraging the correct feel. Often they can see the immediate difference in the horse because they have stopped blocking them.

So a straighter rider will encourage a straighter horse; even a horse who needs regular back treatment will benefit because his muscles will develop evenly and will hold his skeleton in place for longer.

Most of my riders will understand straightness at this level quite easily. Now it’s time to expand their proprioception to include their horse. Riders can see the head and neck, so this is a good place to start. Is the horse looking one way or the other when trotting down the long side, or the centre line? Once my riders can see the lack of straightness we can correct it by adjusting the weight in the reins, position of the riders hands and shoulders. Next we can look at their feeling for what the shoulders are doing; are both shoulders moving around the circle, or is the horse drifting through the outside one? Again, checking the symmetry of the rein aids, seat aids and leg aids will allow them to start to influence the horse’s shoulder position. Finally, and this is usually the hardest for riders to learn to feel because there is no visual cues, is developing an awareness of where the hindquarters are positioned. Then a combination of leg and seat aids can begin to influence this.

So far, the idea of straightness is still more of an awareness, but I will talk to riders about the exercises we are doing and how it is improving the suppleness of the horse, which will improve their ability to stay straight. However, there is no point trying to supple a horse if he is allowed to carry himself in a crooked way.

If a client still doesn’t understand the importance of having a symmetrical horse and rider then I like using transitions within a gait to highlight this. 

A few weeks ago I was working on shortening and lengthening with a client, who was finding her horse lost rhythm and balance, but the exercise highlighted the importance of being straight very well. We spent most of the lesson focusing on the proprioception of the rider; using circles, serpentines and shallow loops to get her maintaining straightness, and most importantly being aware of their loss of straightness. 

Then we began lengthening the trot. As they came round the corner, I made my rider establish straightness for a stride before asking the horse to lengthen. When she did, the mare opened her frame and went into a lovely, balanced medium trot with all the power coming from behind and the forehand light. This is because when the horse is straight and pushes off the ground with a hind leg they are pushing towards their centre of gravity, meaning the energy is free to flow in a straight line from the hind leg through the body and forwards. If the horse is crooked then energy (or propulsion ) is lost as it travels through the kinks in the horse’s body.

This rider really noticed a difference when she established the straightness first. On one rein she had to make sure the shoulders had travelled the full corner, and on the other rein she needed to prevent the hindquarters from swinging out through the turn.

We took this forward into collecting the trot, and extending the canter, but the most important bit of homework for this rider to take away was the straightening to prepare for the transition.

Whilst straightness is near the top of the training pyramid, I still think an awareness of symmetry and proprioception is vital in the early stages of a rider’s development and will stand them in good stead for riding higher levels of dressage and training their own horse.

A Breakthrough!

So I’ve been feeling like I’m plateauing with one of the horses I exercise. I’ve spent a lot of time getting her to be forwards in the trot, and to use her hindquarters more, but still she is too much on the forehand for my liking, which is affecting any lateral or medium work. She’s not particularly downhill in conformation, but I think it’s a lack of engagement of her tummy muscles so her back is blocking the power.

I’ve used direct transitions, which help to an extent, and plenty of circles and leg yield to improve the flexibility of her hindlegs. Rein back has also been really useful in helping her take the weight off the forehand, and the upwards transitions subsequently feel better. She tends to load her left shoulder and take her quarters to the inside, which has been checked by the physio and I think this is a limiting factor in our progress, so I’ve done a lot of work leg yielding right, counter canter, and travers.

Anyway, I’ve been struggling to overcome this blip, spending ages planning my sessions and beating myself up a bit about it all. A couple of weeks ago There were some poles out so I decided to have a break from flat work, and worked her over raised poles in a circle and she seemed to enjoy the change. I don’t think she’d be a great jumper because she shies at all jumps as we’re working and it took me weeks to get her to trot over a single pole without stopping to peer over it first!

The canter felt significantly better after this pole work, so I was convinced to try some cavaletti work with her in our next schooling session, even if I had to get off a dozen times to rearrange the poles.

In the next session we began with four poles on the ground and once the mare was happy with this arrangement I raised them one at a time. Of course each time she had to peer at them and knocked a few whilst sorting her legs out. At one point someone asked me if I’d fallen off because I was remounting. 

I could feel the difficulty the mare had with the poles as her natural response was to rush, lengthen her stride, but not elevate any. When she got it right, he back lifted, her legs flexed and the trot slowed with each leg spending more time in the air. Her weight shifted perceptibly off her forehand, which combined with lots of transitions created a lovely trot.

So we’d had our mini break from dressage, and cavaletti were out earlier this week when I rode her. She pinged straight through them, so I used it as part of our warm up, and then once the canter had loosened up the trot I readdressed the straightness and loading the left shoulder issue. We’ve played with shoulder in, but it’s really more shoulder fore. This time however, left shoulder in felt as good as it ever did, with the left hind being activated, but the right shoulder in suddenly had a break through. Remember, her quarters go right, but this time they stayed behind her, and the right hind stepped under with the left shoulder lifting. It felt much better!

After a few strides I rode straight out of it and she literally pinged into medium trot. It was like the handbrake had been taken off and she suddenly found it much easier to propel herself forwards! 

I did a couple more right shoulder ins before enjoying her medium trot before finishing. I felt inspired, and I felt like a lightbulb had been switched on in her mind! Now we can build on this new found straightness and nail the trot-halt transitions, medium trot and walk-canter transitions ready for some more novice tests!