Part 2: Pole Work, Common Problems and Corrections.
I like to prescribe specific pole work exercises as graded exercise therapy. Below are some common problems you may run into when doing your horse’s home exercise program. Pole work is an increased challenge for you and your horse, so although you may have the basics established on the flat, when there is the added pressure of a challenge little gaps in training may be revealed.
How to fix common mistakes that occur during pole work.
a) Horse slowing down over the poles or becoming labored:
This can be due to the horse feeling over faced, if he is unsure he won’t want to go charging in, so make the exercise simpler for a few repetitions and then progress gradually.
Use less hand or rein, check your balance to make sure your body is not saying stop and go at the same time. Ideally you should be able to stay balanced over your stirrups not relying on the reins to support yourself.
Fatigue; as mentioned in Part 1, pole work can be strenuous, keep track of how many reps and sets you are doing and monitor your horse for signs of fatigue.
Labored; check the spacing between the poles. Too far apart your horse may be slowing to reach, too close together your horse may be slowing to figure out how to fit his hooves in between.
b) Horse rushing or speeding up, before the poles, over the poles or after the poles:
Again it could be that the horse lacks confidence, has previously been over faced, and is now anxious and tense. The horse may be keen and anticipating the exercise, in which case he needs to learn to wait for the riders aids.
The horse could be cheating using speed and momentum to compensate for a lack of strength. Staying in balance and springing from one leg to the other over poles is hard work that requires a lot of muscular effort (just try doing ladder runs yourself!). Go back and improve balance and strength in flatwork by riding more transitions.
Going faster lengthens (and flattens) the stride so once you have made sure your horse is in better balance, check the spacing between the poles. If your horse is struggling with wider apart poles they may cheat by going faster, rather than elevating and taking an engaged longer stride. If your horse is running, being on the forehand, this may also show as the hoof prints not being in the middle of the poles by the last pole.
Don’t approach the poles unless calm, balanced on your line at your speed, waiting and listening to your aids. Try circling before or riding past the poles on a parallel line, do other school figures in between presenting to the poles to mix it up so the horse has to listen to your directions and doesn’t just assume you are going to whiz around the outside track and present to the poles again.
Simplify the exercise, and practice halts before and after.
Check your position, leave the horse alone in the last few strides, eyes up, not changing your balance or driving on too strongly. Make sure you are letting go with your hand, not restricting the horse over the poles. You should have the rhythm and tempo you want long before you get to the poles, rather than pushing or hurrying in front of the poles. Don’t confuse speed with impulsion.
Sometimes poles on curves can help and changing bend or direction regularly. On the curve you can apply inside leg to ride the horse into the outside rein easier than on a straight line. On a straight line it is easier for the horse to speed up.
Check the spacing, if poles too close together can go quick up, down like a sewing machine, rolling the poles out, may help achieve a more natural flowing stride and tempo.
c) Horse drifts to one side, doesn’t stay straight, starts first pole in middle, but by last pole has drifted to one end of the pole:
Congratulations you are now aware of which side your horse (and perhaps you) are naturally crooked towards. Pole work is just showing you that at an increased challenge there is still more work to do. Go back to straightness training, in hand work and flatwork.
A few things you can try to help during pole work. These are not fixes, just tools to temporarily use to help. For a horse drifting to the right: Raise poles on the right side, place markers on the right in between the poles, poles on circle left raise outside edge (R), poles on circle right raise inside edge (R), place a straight pole afterwards on the side you drift towards. Try turning your eyes and shoulders to the left edge of the pole.
Stand up in the stirrups, check you have even weight in both stirrups, both seat bones, and even pressure in both reins.
Go back to a simpler exercise.
Get yourself and your horse checked by a Physiotherapist, old injuries can significantly contribute to asymmetrical patterns of movement.
d) Horse not stretching down, not looking at the poles, not using body well, poor form.
Can your horse walk a straight line in hand in good form, or do a turn on the forehand whilst maintaining bend and flexion and softness through the body, in a nice frame... if not then don’t be surprised if they can’t show good form with a more challenging exercise like poles. If your horse has those previous building blocks in place, then a couple of things you can try with pole work are: stand up in the stirrups and give your horse a longer rein. Getting off your horses back allows the back to lift, the hind legs to swing under, the horse to find balance and naturally stretch the head and neck forward, down and out.
It is amazing how often our body sends the horse the opposite message of what we want. eg. sitting heavy on back and short contact, versus, light seat, long reins to allow to stretch. If your balance is unstable the horse will probably raise his head to catch you (and him). If you are struggling to sit lightly try putting your stirrups up a hole, hold a monkey strap, or neck strap.
Get the stretch at walk first, then ask for a few steps at trot. Don’t expect to be able to get on and straight away trot long and low over a long line of poles. Be patient, it takes time for a horse to become strong enough in the back to carry a rider over poles.
Other strategies to get a school master horse to look down include: raising 1 pole, having a ground person change which pole is raised each time. Raise alternate ends of poles. Raise them different heights, so not all level. Keeps them switched on. Move a marker cone in or out, ride over a specific stripe on the pole (don’t just go over the middle each time). Put a jumper, or cap over the pole, tie a ribbon around the pole and move it along to different positions. Try putting a space in between the poles eg. 1,2, skip a few, 3,4,5,6.
As you can see much of this comes back to the principles explained in Part 1.
If your horse is bumping a lot of poles or struggling to step over them, seek advice from your Physiotherapist and or Veterinarian.
Pole work is a useful tool for rehabilitation and strengthening your horse, but to get good results it must be applied appropriately to each individual horse. This blog contains general advice, without seeing you and your horse I can’t give specific information.
The beautiful illustrations are from Ingrid & Reiner Klimke Cavalletti book, which I recommend for anyone wanting to learn more about pole and cavalletti work.