I often hear the phrases “I don’t like schooling”, “My horse gets bored of flatwork” or “I don’t like dressage, I like jumping”. Sound familiar? Well I have a simple solution to all of these common phrases: pole work. Adding poles to your schooling session is a great way to liven them up and to give them a clear focus. Similar to jumping, when you have a sequence of poles laid out, you have a new sense of purpose that you are aiming to complete the poles by the end of the session. This means automatically your warm up and content of the session is naturally geared towards it. It also takes all the guesswork out, so you’re not on the dreaded ‘endless circle’ for thirty minutes. Poles are also great for working your horse over as it helps to work towards elevation, lengthening and shortening and helps with your own accuracy. But above all, it’s fun! I love using poles in the school, and now I do it one to two times a week – even if that’s just putting a single pole in the middle. I think something that tends to put riders off using poles is having to go to the trouble of thinking of where to place the poles and then actually going to the effort of setting them out. To resolve this, I am going to share my favourite pole exercises that are quick and easy to set out, plus it means that you don’t have to spend time meditating what sequences to do. So, let’s begin.
Standard Line Variants
- Straight over
So to begin with, you of course have the standard straight line of poles to walk, trot or canter over. With my horse, who is 16.2, I tend to use two strides for trot poles and three for canter. And if I want to do trot poles that are a little harder, I tend you put them four ‘physical feet’ width apart. Now to make this basic exercise a bit more exciting and challenging, you can raise one of both ends of the poles. A cheap way to do this, is to use potties and the pole stands. Yes, you read correctly –children’s plastic potties! These are the perfect high for raised poles, and the shape acts as a perfect well to balance the pole in. And you can get them for about £1 in your local supermarket, so they’re easy and cheap to obtain.
- Gait changes
So, once you have your straight line of poles set out how you’d like them, instead of going round and round large, you can incorporate some other exercises in along with them. Transitions are one. So a good exercise to do while going large, is simply to walk from A to B, walk from B to C, trot or canter at C and go over the poles that are positioned across B, and then walk again at A. This is only one sequence, but many more could be done in this way to include changes of rein, circles, rein back, the possibilities are endless!
- Lateral Movements
For a step up, you could incorporate lateral movements into your pole work. An example is, to have your line of poles down the centre line and leg yield into them from K, straighten over the poles, and then leg yield back to H, and repeat from M to F to create a slightly distorted figure of eight. To make this one slightly easier, you could substitute the leg yield for a shallow loop instead. This is a great exercise for gradual suppling and improving accuracy.
The next pole idea to use is to have your line of poles on a curve. For example, making up part or half of a twenty-metre circle. Stick to your usual striding, but if your poles have stripes this is helpful is getting your striding correct. Measure out your strides from the point of the middle stripe and then when riding, always aim for the centre and it will always be perfect. However, to make this a bit more of a gait changer exercise, you could also stride out the stripes inside and outside of the middle one, so that if you want to shorten the stride you aim for the inside stripe, and to lengthen head towards the outer one. This again is great for accuracy and straightness, and forces you to be on the correct bend. This is quite a challenging exercise, so to begin with, give your horse a bit more room between each pole (double your usual), so that he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a whole load of poles that he might struggle to stay straight over at first. Raising one side of each pole, but the same side this time, is a good way to make the exercise even more gymnastic.
Creating an arrowhead is a versatile exercise that can be set up once, and then used in a variety of ways. You use the point of the arrowhead to direst your horse over if you’re going straight, and this works well with a standard horizontal pole before and after the arrowhead. But the shape of the arrowhead can also be used for a curve is you ride across it horizontally. So a versatile exercise to do, is place your poles on the centre line and go across them from A to C and then circle at C, and over the curve at X and then down the line of poles A to C and so forth. You can have as many arrow head combinations in the school as you like, one at E and one at B for example, or one at D and one at G would work better for the inclusion of circles.
Making a box out of poles is a great exercise for canter work. Where there are only two poles to go across it’s a little less daunting for horses that aren’t so used to canter poles. You can do various exercises that include circling round and heading over them in all different directions, like B to E, A to C or even across the diagonals using the points like the arrowheads.
This is another good canter exercise, and is also useful preparation for jumping. The main focus of the diamond exercise is arriving at each single pole on the correct stride, so this is great for training your horse to have some initiative if he gets into a bid of a muddle, and can safely learn to work it out for himself without being faced with an actual jump. Similarly, it is helpful for improving your own judgement of strides. A second focus in keeping your horse in a consistent canter, as I have found when doing this exercise (evidentially in the video!), that’s it’s easy to allow your horse to become faster and faster on the diamond, and I think it’s clear that they especially enjoy this one! So maintaining a consistent canter rhythm now, is good practise for the show jumping arena.
The serpentine exercise can be rather technical if done in canter, as it’s focus is changing leg. I, in fact, think that this sequence is easier to do with actual jumps until you have mastered your flying changes, and the time in the air makes it easier for the horse to then land of the correct lead. However, a starter exercise can be to still do the serpentine in canter, but trot a few strides over the poles, and then strike off again in canter.
Again, geared largely towards flatwork for jumping, this exercise is all about adjusting your stride to a more collected canter, to a more ground covering one. This is extremely useful in jumping, however of course is needed for higher dressage levels as well. When setting out the two poles, measure out the strides and whatever number you chose, for example 6 strides, this will be your average working canter. So when riding the exercise, count the number of strides your horse takes between the two poles. So, with six being his normal, try then to lengthen his strides to achieve five strides between the two poles, and then do the opposite and shorten the canter strides, to try and get seven strides in. This is a clear way to tell if your horse really is lengthening or shortening when you ask. It gives you a feel his three different canters, so you can implement them when necessary. For example, when show jumping you’d channel your ‘6 canter’, but when going cross country you’d go for you ‘5 canter’.
My final exercise is the four-leaf clover. This is a bending exercise, that requires going over each pole at least once in different directions. The beauty of this one, is that you can tweak the difficulty level to suit, but making your circles as large or as tight as you like. This is just a more interesting variation of doing an endless centre circle.
So hopefully some of these favourite poles exercises that I often use, has taken out a lot of the obstacles that may stop you from doing pole work more often. Maybe its even given you a bit of inspiration to create your own exercises and sequences. Please let me know of your favourite exercises as I’m always looking for more!