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Perfect Pole Work - For any kind of horse

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Photo: Malgré Tout

No matter what type of horse you have, or which discipline you ride, pole work is a great tool. It helps to activate a larger part of the horse’s muscles, improves the horse's balance and coordination skills, and creates a change for the horse. Here, osteopath Pauline Preston gives you three exercises with advice from her book Pole Training.

Read more: Poles & Cones - Creating variation in the daily training

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3 categories of exercises

Physio exercises strengthen the balance and typically also the small stabilizing muscles. This applies to virtually all exercises where the horse must think about how and where to put its legs. Use skewed angles, odd distances, and mixed colors. 

Body-pump exercises are exercises with an increased focus on symmetry and fitness. Here the poles are lined up straight and they are raised slightly, so the horse must lift itself a bit, but not much. Repetition and uniformity are important. 

Dressage/agility exercises make the horse work throughout the body, with a focus on strengthening different muscle groups. These are typically vault exercises, zig-zags, and similar formations, where the poles support typical dressage-like and agile exercises. 

About Pauline Preston

Trained osteopath for horses and dogs with a focus on optimizing movement and muscle use.

Teaches, gives workshops and lectures on the horse’s biomechanics, movement, and the benefits of different types of pole training. Works in Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark and has both national team riders and international riders among her clients.

Pauline’s interest in pole training began when she took over two Shetland ponies from her neighbor, which she then had to figure out how to train and activate.

Get the most out of your pole training

To get the most out of the pole training with your horse, you should consider the following:

  • As pole training is both physically and mentally demanding for the horse, you may consider cutting your training time in half compared to if you trained without poles. 
  • The distance between the poles must basically be multiplied by two if they are to be ridden in canter and not in walk or trot. 
  • Adjust the distance between the poles based on your horse’s training level. The greater the distance, the ‘flatter’ the horse will move, while a shorter distance will give a more upward movement. However, both ways only work if the horse has the strength to carry itself. Therefore, it is important to always be realistic about your horse´s training level.
  • Before doing the exercise, you must have tempo, rhythm, and angle in place a few meters in advance. Remember to have a steady connection and not engage too much when the horse is on its way over the poles.
  • Before you even start training, it is a good idea to decide what type of training you would like to do. These pole exercises can be divided into three categories: physio exercises, body pump, and dressage/agility.
by tina bjerre nielsen photos malgré tout (2)

The triangle

How to do it

Lay out the poles so they form a triangle. The end of one pole can be on top of the end of the other pole and so on. In this way, the triangle will be lifted to different heights, which will challenge the horse’s brain, coordination, and nervous system. You can also choose to make several triangles and place them next to each other to make the exercise more suited to level 3. The horse’s nervous system works a bit like a path system. If the horse always does the same thing and chooses the same path, lots of these small paths will shut down. By making the horse aware and getting it used to “extra” paths in its nervous system, the horse gets better and better at using its entire body uniformly. 

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Anyone can do this exercise, and it can basically be ridden in all gaits. If there are several triangles, they should only be done in walk if the horse is inexperienced, and in trot when the horse has a certain routine, as the vault is no more than 6 meters in diameter. 

Level 1

Lead or ride the horse over one pole of the triangle in the middle and continue over the middle of the other pole.

Level 2

Lead or ride the horse over the triangle a quarter from the middle of one of the poles and continue over the opposite tip of the triangle.

Level 3

Lead or ride the horse across the triangle at one tip and continue in a sloping line across the opposite tip of the triangle.

by tina bjerre nielsen photos malgré tout (1)

Gymnastics for shoulder-in

How to do it

Place three poles in line with one another about 10 cm between each of the ends of the poles. Then place a pole on the right and left sides of the middle pole at about 1 m. The outer poles act as support poles. Your horse needs to make a soft serpentine line across the three poles that are in line with each other to train the muscles to be able to make a successful shoulder-in. 

Once you pass with the horse’s front part, you should already start steering the horse back over the pole again so that the horse stays rounded. The arches must be relatively small, but still big enough for the horse’s entire body to be involved in the work. Whether you completely succeed or not, this exercise is beneficial for the horse. 

The exercise requires that you have control over your horse and that you can work with refined signals. It should basically be done in walk, but you can choose to remove the support barriers and try trotting. However, you should only do that when you feel that you and your horse can perform a correct shoulder-in in walk.

Level 1

Detachment and joint mobilization

If the horse steps over the pole with the front leg closest to the pole, the exercise becomes more detachable and joint mobilizing. The farthest front leg provides more contact with the small abdominal muscles and the back of the lower back. In other words, riding the exercise this way is never wasted - it will always do good for something. 

Level 2

Hind leg engagement

To achieve optimal hind leg engagement, activation of the horse’s abdominal muscles, and a feel of its center of gravity, make sure that the front leg that is furthest from the pole is the one that steps over first. The exercise helps your horse to (re)gain its balance and improve its weight distribution in the shoulder-in. The clarification of the tracking up to the center of gravity also gives the rider a clearer feeling of the horse’s inner hind legs and center of gravity.

Why train shoulder-in over poles?

A challenge in riding shoulder-in is that the horse has a hard time working in the hindquarters without the forequarters being affected. Riding shoulder-in-over poles trains the horse’s tracking up with its hind legs all the while holding it together on its front. The horse must lift the front part over the poles at the same time as it must unload the push from behind. Thus, the horse must think upwards in its chest and in its front part, where it could otherwise become flat in its movement.

by tina bjerre nielsen photos malgré tout

Zigzag

How to do it

Place the poles in a zigzag pattern so that each pole tip touches another pole tip, except for the first and last. Challenge the horse by making the zigzag pattern narrower on one end, and broader on the other end. Thereby, the horse must take smaller and smaller steps to get through the formation. By doing this, the horse’s ability to coordinate will be put to the test. To make it even harder, you can raise the poles staggered by placing the ends on top of each other.

The pole formation is fairly easy for most horses to do if you only ask the horse to perform the exercise in walk and in trot. It is recommended that the poles are not raised and that the distance between the zigzag patterns be equal. When the horse is comfortable with it, you can adjust the height or the distance. 

Level 1

Place the formation so that it forms a symmetrical zigzag pattern with equal distance between each pole and without raising the poles above the ground.

Level 2

Place the formation so that the distance between the poles becomes smaller at one end than at the other.

Level 3

Place the formation so that the distance between the poles is smaller at one end than at the other and lift the poles so that the ends are on top of each other.

Read more: 3 creative pole exercises that can benefit any pair

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