Get in pole position with these great tips
Polework is for everyone. Dressage riders, Jumpers, Eventers, Reining riders – if you ride a horse, you can all benefit from correctly-performed polework.
When done regularly, polework can increase your horse’s strength and flexibility, improve their ability to engage the hindquarters, and make their paces more expressive and cadenced.
Here are three exercises which you can incorporate into your riding routine. Do them regularly and you’ll quickly see benefits in the form of improved strength, fitness and musculature in your horses.
Remember to always build up slowly when it comes to polework. Even walking poles can be strenuous and though your horse may not seem to be puffing, their muscles will be feeling the strain.
Exercise 1: Poles in walk
Set out six poles in a straight line. If your horse is green, lacking strength, or not used to polework then start with them flat on the ground and aim to work up to each of the poles being raised on one side.
If you don’t have a tape measure then you can get good rough estimate for walking pole distances by using four of your feet; placing one foot directly in front of the other as if you were walking a tightrope. In metres, the distance would be 0.8-0.9 metres.
Because there is no moment of suspension in the walk, all effort to raise their feet over the poles is done via the muscles. This is an excellent way to build strength in the core and hind end, as well as make the pelvis more mobile and increase the ability to bend and engage the hocks.
Exercise 2: S-shaped poles in trot
You’ll need at least 8 poles to do this. Set them up in an S-shape. Five ‘tightrope steps’ from the middle to middle of each pole is a good guesstimate, as is one ‘big’ human step. The poles will make a fan shape on each curve of the S.
Once your horse is warmed up, trot over the poles in a nice working trot. You’ll have to guide him with your legs and seat to ensure he bends through his body as you follow the curves of the S.
If your horse isn’t used to polework, you can do this 2-3 times on each side before moving along. As he gains fitness you can do more repetitions and work towards raising the ends of the poles.
As you ride through it, you’ll quickly notice that your horse has to engage his hind end. You should have a more active and bouncy trot as a result. However, this exercise is also great at showing up and one-sidedness or lack of suppleness as your horse may struggle to switch bend and may find it harder to activate one hind leg than the other.
It is a tricky exercise, so if you struggle then don’t be disheartened. You can always ride the first half of an S shape and then ride away from the poles before circling back and doing the other half on the opposite rein, building up to doing the entire S.
Exercise 3: Canter poles on a fan
Loads of people do the ‘clock face’ canter pole exercise with four poles on a circle, but fewer riders seem to utilise the fan shape when cantering, though it’s commonly used with trotting poles.
Set up 3 to 4 canter poles on a fan, with a distance of around three big steps from the middle of one pole to the middle of the next. Of course, this means that the distance on the outside of the poles is much bigger and the inside much smaller.
Across the middle should be a distance which is easy for your horse to canter over in his normal rhythm.
Work on a circle, cantering over the middle of the poles as you reach that part of the circle. Your horse should maintain rhythm and bend, and canter the poles without jumping or rushing. Do this a few times on each side and if your horse is responsive to your aids, use the outer ends of the poles for a lengthened canter and the inner ends for a collected canter.
As you become more proficient you can lengthen on one circle and collect on the next, raise alternate ends or even add more poles. With extra poles you can use small verticals every two to three poles if you really want to challenge yourself.
This exercise is great at developing push from the hind end and asking the horse to lift his forehand and engage his core.
Maintaining an even rhythm will require the horse to balance himself and not fall onto the forehand or rush with his head in the air, so you’ll find that the base of the neck, the back muscles and the hind end all develop strength by doing this exercise regularly.