Have you used ground poles in your schooling before? Do you perhaps think ground poles are only really useful for jumpers or competition horses?
Ground poles are a fantastic tool for horses of all disciplines. They help to improve self-control, balance, focus, suppleness, elasticity, coordination (including hoof / eye) and strength in both the horse and the rider.
Another added benefit of working over ground poles, is that your horse will use his back more correctly. The poles will also encourage greater flexibility or bend in his joints and, over time, the poles can be used as exercises when shortening and lengthening strides in different gaits.
Ground poles can also be used also as a training aid, which you can regularly return to when loosening up older stiffer horses. They can also, if used correctly, encourage a horse with a shorter stride to gradually, inch by inch, lengthen or stretch their strides without rushing and losing their balance.
Jumpers will often incorporate days of schooling over ground poles rather than jumping as it saves the horses joints while keeping them fit, ready and tuned up for show ring. Use of the ground poles encourages the horse to push more off their hind quarters, instead of pulling with shoulders & front end and also helps develop confidence over distances and an awareness of the legs and feet.
The beauty of the ground poles is that basically no jumping is performed. However the horse and rider both still receive the benefits…
Poles can be used to get your horse to begin balancing themselves using their hind quarter more, instead of total reliance on using the head & neck to maintain balance.
As I mentioned, ground poles can be used with horses of all disciplines, whether it be dressage for greater ability to balance, lengthen and shorten, or jumping. They are equally as beneficial for trail horses as they can help develop ‘sure footedness’ in a horse due to increased coordination.
Both Horse & Rider Must Work Over the Poles
So, we have discussed just a few of the numerous benefits for the horse, however it is worth remembering that all this can be undone if the rider does not do their job efficiently!
If you don’t focus on where you are going… You’re probably going to find yourself some place else!
In other words, look up when going over the ground poles, not down. Plan your route or line and then as you approach the pole itself, look up and on to either the next pole or wherever it is you are continuing on to.
Ground poles are excellent for teaching you, the rider, to maintain a steady rhythm and tempo in walk, trot & canter. They also teach patience, with riders learning to wait.
A big part of using ground poles successful in your schooling is allowing your horse to think for himself and figure things out… Which will in time make him a much safer mount in difficult situations.
It is important that before you start each session, you have a clear goal in mind and also an end point. Working over poles can be tiring for your horse, so make sure you are not hammering on and on as tiredness leads to mistakes and bad habits.
Also keep in mind that although the poles are on the ground it makes good horse sense to ensure your horse is dressed for jumping, whether that means extra leg protection or different tack etc, as sometimes horses can get exuberant over the poles and may knock themselves or injure themselves.
Start with Single Ground Pole
So, to start I suggest beginning to work in walk over a single pole. Try to use this exercise to firstly build your horses confidence and introduce him to poles, but then also to begin ‘training’ your body how to respond to the different feeling as your horse navigates the pole.
Too often riders do not put the appropriate time in to doing the simpler exercises, and this almost always leaves the door open for problems further down the line in a horses education or career.
Once you are both comfortable navigating the pole in walk, begin to trot back and forth over the pole. When riding this, try to keep posting, adjusting your body to accommodate the different feeling over the single pole.
Remaining balanced in the Saddle over the Poles
Ground poles will test your balance and independence of seat, whether it is over true ‘ground’ poles, or over raised poles later.
Remaining balanced while your horse navigates the pole is often easier said than done, particularly if it is the first time you are riding over a pole. This is because your horse is using himself, particularly his back-end, more. His hind legs have to lift more up and under him in order to successfully clear the pole.
It is vital that you make sure your knees and ankles are free to absorb this extra bounce and movement… Any excess tension or ‘fixed’ positions will cause you to become stiff and rigid. This is what leads to you becoming the proverbial ‘sack of potatoes’ on your poor horse’s back.
The reason I suggest the light seat is due to the increased suspension or bounce as the horse navigates the poles. Novice riders in particular struggle with this and it can often result in them getting left behind and become heavy and burdensome on the horse’s back.
This will enviably result in the horse hollowing his back instead of rounding and using his back-end. However if you feel you are balanced enough to absorb the added energy, post through it, and use the posting to help maintain the tempo of the trot.
The Poles Must be Adjusted; Not the Horses Stride
Finally, it is important to remember that your horse is an individual. The suggested distances of the poles, when you begin to work over more than one pole at a time, are just that – suggestions.
The poles must be adjusted to your horse’s stride, and not vice versa. You can use the suggested distance to build the initial exercise, however once you see how your horse handles it, it is vitally important that you adjust the poles to suit your horses stride.
Your horse will not have the strength, the confidence or the ability to adjust his stride at the beginning stages of working over poles.
In order for ground poles to be an effective schooling aid, your horse must have confidence in what he is doing… And allowing him to feel comfortable going over them is the key to creating this.
Small increments rather than huge changes are what will bring you success when working with ground poles.
This is the first of two blog posts on this topic. The second blog post contains actual exercises using ground poles which you can use when riding your horse. You can read Part 2 HERE
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