It can feel bumpy, right? A little more space than what you’re used to feeling. And, if there are two or more poles, well, it can all get a little unbalanced! For you and your horse.
I preach all the time about the benefits of groundpoles when used correctly. And, one of those benefits comes from riders learning what to do when navigating them.
Groundpoles are, well, Poles!
One of the first issues riders come up against when working over groundpoles is that they treat them like they’re not there. They are. And all of the bumpy, unbalanced, sometimes discomfort, you are feeling when you ride over them is evidence of that! Expecting to initially ride over groundpoles and not do a thing differently is simply setting both you and your horse up for an uncomfortable experience.
As your horse steps over the pole, he will use his body differently.
He has to lift his legs higher. Yes, 4 to 5 inches is still higher. He will also have to step under himself a little more to propel himself forward. This is especially true if there are two or more poles for him to navigate. He will engage his core. A little like ’tightening up his tummy’ as he moves over them. And he will stretch down and forward with his head and neck to see what he is doing, to balance, and to allow the freedom of movement the rest of his body needs.
All of the above is one of the reasons groundpoles are so beneficial for your horse, regardless of discipline or training level.
Who Are You Relying On?
The biggest challenge riders face when moving over the poles is that they are relying on their horse for balance and support. And while, generally speaking, this may be acceptable for the first few rides in the saddle, every rider must begin taking responsibility for their own support as early as possible in their riding.
Simply put, it means that you begin to carry yourself and are aware of your body as you ride.
When you and your horse are moving in a straight line on a flat piece of ground, this can feel relatively simple and easy. However, as soon as we begin to include bends, circles, and corners into the equation, more demands are made of the rider’s independent seat in the saddle. Which is good. This is the progress we make as riders.
Learning to ride over poles while maintaining balance and self-support is the next step to really developing an independent seat as a rider.
The key is to position yourself in a place that allows your horse to do what it is you asked him to do AND allows you to remain balanced and ready to use your aids if and when needed.
Weight Into the Heels
Heels down is a concept we are all familiar with as riders. It is the thing (along with ‘sit up’) that we probably heard most in our first few months of riding. And for good reason. Being able to weight your heels is literally the key to the kingdom when it comes to riding horses. That is a big statement, however, it is true.
When your weight is into your heels, you are in charge of your own support. You are standing on your own two feet (even though you might be sitting!).
When you begin working over groundpoles, start with this. Push the weight into your heels. I use the word ‘push’ because, initially, it will feel like that. It will feel forced. After all, who walks around all day long with their heels pushed down?!
When you are preparing to ride groundpoles, let the first thing you do be to make sure your weight is flowing towards your heels…
Standing on Your Own Two Feet
Now, you don’t always need to stand to have your weight into your heels. However, when you’re initially learning to travel over groundpoles, it is the most comfortable way for both you and your horse. But it is not standing as we would do it while dismounted.
As your backside rises out of the saddle, think ‘back’. Literally, reverse your bum so that while you are moving it up out of the saddle, you are also moving it backward. Closer to your horse’s tail.
Up and back. When you first do it, it will feel a little odd. But, when coupled with your heels down, you will instantly feel more balanced in the saddle. It’s a little like a squat, but on horseback. When you squat, your bum moves backward. When you are getting ready to ride over groundpoles, I suggest your bum do the same ;)
Also, remember the first, key piece to all of this; as you stand up, ‘stand on your heels’.
So many riders will shift their weight at this point to the ball of their foot and try to stand on the stirrup irons. This is the equivalent of squatting while on your tippy-toes. Not very balanced. Focus on keeping the weight into the heel as you move your rear end up and back.
Counter Balance with Your Upper Body
As you move your bum up and back, while standing on your heels, you will feel that your upper body will naturally fold down. This is correct and it will help you to maintain balance. Again, think of the squat. Instead of your back being vertical, your shoulders move in front of the vertical.
It is at this point that many riders will look for the easy way out; they ‘lie’ on their horse’s neck.
This is incorrect for a few reasons. It prevents your horse from moving as you have asked him to and it stops you from supporting yourself. And yet, it feels so easy! Especially if you are using your horse’s mane or a neckstrap for a little extra support…
Your upper body can only balance out your lower body if you engage your core and carry yourself.
This means keeping your back straight and keeping a lot of daylight between your chest and your horse’s neck! Think of not going below a 45-degree angle from your hips to your shoulders. The less ‘down’ you go, the easier it is for you to maintain your own balance and support.
Also, focus on keeping your chest ‘open’ and wide. Imagine how it feels when you take a deep breath and let your chest remain open as you ride over the poles.
Following with Your Hands
As your horse moves over the poles, he will stretch his head and neck down and forward. If you are balancing with your reins, you make this uncomfortable and, sometimes even, impossible for him to do. Blocking this movement over long periods of time will result in hollowness in your horse.
We often only think of our hands when it comes to the reins. However, when you follow here, I want you to think about your shoulders. Allowing through them in order to give your horse the space to move his.
The simplest way to think of this is to just follow your horse’s mouth. Where it goes, allow your hands to follow a little.
If you are struggling with balance, you can also grab a piece of mane. Just make sure that you have moved your hands forward a little first; about a third of the way between the withers and the poll is usually a good rule of thumb to follow. I also think that most horses would prefer a tug on their mane to a stab on their mouth when a rider is trying to rebalance!
Your Head and Symmetry
The final piece is your head. Again, think back to advice you probably received in your early lessons on a horse. “Look where you’re going”. Good advice, heed it! Remember to keep your head up and looking forwards. Looking down as you travel over the poles is an easy habit to fall into and one that can be difficult to break.
Look up and think about riding your line as you ride towards, over, and after the groundpoles.
Also, use your head as a warning signal for the rest of your body. Your chin should remain centered over your horse as you travel over the poles. Not more to the left or the right. If you do realize that it is slightly more to the left or right, the issue is probably to do with your body rather than your head.
By keeping your head centered over your horse, you can remind yourself to keep your body equally positioned as well.
Practice Makes Perfect
I would suggest first practicing all of the above in a walk while on the flat with your horse. You can even begin at a halt if there are too many moving parts in the walk. From there, work in trot a little. Again, while on the flat. No poles.
Working on moving in and out of the light seat without losing balance or jabbing your horse. It should be a soft, fluid motion.
And only do as much as you need to do in order to remain balanced and give your horse the space he needs to work over the poles unhindered by you in the saddle.
Other Useful Bits & Bobs to Help Your Riding
- One Groundpole Layout; Multiple Ways to Ride It – Free Riding Plan Inside
- Improving Your Riding with Your Light Seat
- 1 Simple Groundpole Exercise to Ride This Week with Your Horse
- Top 3 Mistakes when It Comes to Groundpoles
- Connection; My Online Membership for Equestrians
- Online community for equestrians working on their mindset & fitness
- Online Community for equestrians focusing on re-schooling horses (and ex-racehorses