Polework is becoming increasingly popular probably because it brings together elements of directed focus and fun.
Here is one of my favourite exercises that helps horse and rider develop better bend and suppleness.
you’ll need minimum of 6 poles
set them up in a shape of an “S” letter
the distances in the middle of the poles are set at about 1m
The How To:
this exercise is done at a walk with you walking alongside your horse’s shoulder. During the change of bend, this gives the rider a good test of timing because you’ll need to continuously monitor the balance through your horse’s shoulders. On one of the turns you will be turning from outside in like you would when riding (rather than pull on inside rein to rescue turns) which again increases appreciation of how much outside shoulder movement is needed for a good turn.
start at either end walking slowly and with attention to accurate line through the middle of the poles
over the middle pole you’ll need to change direction and that is also the most beneficial and most testing step for your horse. He/she will need to accept your influence without speeding up, tripping over the poles, slowing down or losing balance and falling out/in.
You can do this exercise whilst riding too but I would really recommend giving it a go on the ground first. Rider’s perception of balance always increases via in-hand work/groundwork and that in turn develops “riding feel” in the saddle.
If your horse is young or particularly crooked or not used to working with you on the ground, you can start with this intro exercise.
walk with your horse on a 20m circle and try to notice how he/she likes to walk in both direction
notice how he/she distributes weight through their body, which foreleg/shoulder tends to carry more weight, which hindleg tends to push stronger than the other
notice which way they carry the neck, is it outwards/inwards and when
notice where is the horse tending to “lean” on you – is it through their ribcage, shoulders, maybe they just try to turn at you
Time: about 20 minutes or so
As you make these observations you will start having more of a picture of your horse’s balance and way of going on both reins.
You want to build this exercise up until you can walk with your horse by your side and be able to “shape” him/her by gentle touches where you feel they brace/fall in/tense up. The horse will learn your touch (i.e. your aids, your body language) is there to help them not to fight you (tension is just another form of fight).
It’s a super exercise that can transform the way your horse perceives your aids so it’s worth trying even with more experienced horses.
Some time ago there was a photo circulating on social media with potties being used to raise poles off the ground and play the role of inexpensive low cavalettis.
Yesterday, Gemma brought her latest purchase – 8 bright green IKEA potties – to the yard to give them a test drive in the lesson.
She owns Ozzy, a 5 year old for whom pole work/balance work are an important part of the exercise routine.
I use poles in their lessons regularly and they have a very positive effect on Ozzy’s coordination and suppleness which in turn improve his balance. Raising poles off the ground helps with encouraging more bend in all the joints of the hind legs, has a very good effect on Ozzy’s usual downhill way of going by naturally creating more hind legs effort and shoulder lift as well as helping with the gelding’s straightness (as his suppleness improves he starts using himself more symmetrically which makes it possible to improve his straightness).
In canter, the pole work highlight differences in Ozzy’s body use on the left and right rein which gives us ideas for exercises and routines to use to help him even the work up.
If you have a young horse you are bringing on, using cavalettis as part of their flatwork can be a really fun element of the overall training.
The IKEA potties are proving very easy to handle (light to move about), don’t roll at light touches and if the poles get rapped harder by the horse, the potties just “fall over” without rolling away much at all.
They hold the poles we use easily allowing for a roll over of about an inch either way. I think it would be great to collect more of them 😉
Do you use poles/cavaletti in your training? What’s your usual set up?
This exercise was initially suggested to us by Sam of Back-In-Line as a follow up training element complementing the McTimoney treatments the horses have been receiving. The idea is to encourage the horse to become more mobile and relaxed through the whole back area behind the saddle. It certainly does that but it also made two rather buzzy, over-reactive horses deal with pole work in a much calmer and relaxed manner.
The video below shows Emma B. with her ex-racehorse “Shabby” doing this exercise for the first time.
1. Approach a line of poles in walk (I set the distances fairly randomly at 2.5m to 3m apart)
2. Halt at random place(s) and stand immobile for 10 seconds or so.
3. Move off
We repeated the exercise 10 times changing the rein half way through. As you can see, there is some resistance in Shabby’s reactions which we are working on but he remained calm enough for the exercise to have a really good effect on his later work in the lesson.
Merehead, another ex-racehorse, has quite panicky reaction to poles so we did the exercise in-hand. If you have a horse that gets anxious and jumpy when presented with new exercise I would really recommend getting off and doing it all first on foot. My reason being that the whole idea is for the horse to benefit from the exercise (physically and mentally) rather than simply “conquer” it…
Doing the exercise in-hand lets the handler guide the neck into horizontal position and prevent undue tension and ridden anticipation from turning the exercise from constructive into destructive.
At the end of the lesson Merehead walked over the poles very calmly under the saddle which was very unlike him (he tends to jump the poles or become very agitated at simply being pointed at them) so we will definitely be using this exercise more not only as part of physical training of a healthier way of moving but also mental acceptance of the task in hand.