Pole Exercises for Horses
Winter is closing in the nights are dark and cold and it's tricky to be able to find the time or enough daylight to vary your weekly training sessions. This exercise is quick and simple yet super effective. Its main aim is core, shoulder, and back muscle activation, as well as stretching throughout – so is a good full-body workout for your horse! I wouldn’t say that this is an exercise you would solely use in a session, but it certainly works the horse sufficiently to only combine it with a bit of stretching in trot and canter afterward. Personally, I wouldn’t like to do a hard schooling session on top of this exercise as it's actually quite hard work for your horse.
This simple pole work exercise is to be done in the walk but is a great full-body workout. It will benefit all horses but especially if your horse also suffers tightness through the shoulder. The whole point of the exercise is to teach the horse to be able to lift through the shoulder whilst also being able to extend. That requires a huge amount of core stability and flexibility throughout his body this exercise goes a good way towards helping that.
As you can see in the walk photos without poles, this horse naturally has quite a tight shoulder, its lift and extension through the shoulder is relatively limited. This also prevents the hindleg from really stepping through, In part, this is caused by tension and in part the horses’ natural gait. By introducing poles for the horse to work over, it can really aid both of these small issues and help in developing a wider range of movement through the shoulder and hind end.
How to begin:
Start with three poles placed at 3 feet apart over the centreline of the arena – these are to be parallel to one another rather than on a curve. The spacing will depend massively on your horse or pony’s’ size and natural stride length. I have spaced the poles at 3 human feet and will gradually move them out to 4 human feet as I try to encourage the horse to lift through the shoulder and extend. Some horses will be able to start at 4 feet and extended to 5 just see what comes naturally to them. Your first attempt at the poles will be a bit of trial and error and so adjust the spacing accordingly.
I would also say a top tip is to start the exercise with only 3-4 poles so your horse is clear as to what is being asked of him, progressing over time to 6-8 poles once you and your horse get used to the exercise.
To begin with, I like to ride this exercise in a semi-working outline to help give the horse a little security down the rein whilst they find their balance. Ride the poles as part of a 20m circle so that the horse has time in-between to rest, but try to keep as straight as possible while riding over the poles. Treat it like a set of reps in a HIIT class, you don’t want it too intense straight from the off giving you and your horse time to get used to the exercise and warm-up. After 5-6 circles, I would change the rein and repeat the other way. After these first repetitions, I would then repeat the same exercise but in a free walk. Encourage the horse to stretch its neck out as much as possible, seeking the contact forward and down. You’re looking for relaxation and for the horse to really try to balance itself. You will most likely find that you struggle to stay straight over the poles, this is because the horse hasn’t activated the right muscles to engage and therefore keep balanced. After a few repetitions you should find this naturally starts to even up without too much correction. The next progression from the 3-4 poles on the ground would be 6-8 poles on the ground, in collected walk and free walk
For those wanting to build upon this exercise and make it a little harder, I would then aim to work towards raised poles. When thinking about raising the poles fully off the ground, I firstly would reduce the number of poles in a line, and then work back up to 6-8. To make this even harder you could have 6-8 raised poles placed over both centrelines of a 20m circle, with the widest spacing your horse can manage - That would be the ultimate workout goal! However, if your horse hasn’t done much pole work, is young, or hasn’t a huge amount of fitness or strength I would advise working on the non-raised poles to begin, progressing over a few sessions to a raised pole.
Top Tips for winter:
However short on time I would always allow time to walk your horse round to stretch and warm-up before starting over the poles, so as not to cause injury. If you are really short on time (or daylight!) this exercise can even be done on the lunge or even just in hand – great to add some variety to your horse's work and mix up your workout routine. I always like to do a stable stretch or carrot stretch after doing work in the arena to help relax the horse and loosen off the muscles – it’s also a great bit of bonding time.
Ground exercises to help free up the shoulder:
The stable stretch is very simple and one which many people do before riding. Make sure the horse is stood straight and in a comfortable position and then gradually and gently pull the front leg out towards you. I wouldn’t be looking for the leg to be totally straight as this will encourage the horse to lean its weight down into the foot or onto you. Instead, I’m looking for a nice slow stretch whilst the shoulder maintains an uphill frame. This will encourage the correct muscles in the core, back, and shoulder to fire up.
Thank you to dressage rider and trainer Jess Dunn and to Whitehill Stud for writing this blog on pole exercises for horses for us.
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