Single Pole Exercises
One pole? There is still plenty to do.
By Jec A. Ballou
Simple exercises can sometimes be the most effective because riders are apt to practice them more consistently. And when it comes to movement and fitness, consistency matters above all. I often use the following single pole exercises in clinics because they offer an easy way to derive the postural benefits of pole work without the logistics and effort involved in setting up more complex routines. When you are short on time or dealing with poor weather, these exercises offer a convenient way of ensuring you do not miss the calisthenics your horse needs.
Riders are occasionally surprised how a little rearranging of the horse’s posture, as required with single pole maneuvers, can create notable improvements. These postural adjustments include activating and lifting the base of the neck, greater rotation in the trunk and back, and stimulation of sensory nerves in feet and forelimbs.
Obviously, these exercises alone will not make a horse fit. But when practiced for five or ten minutes before your ride, they help activate nerve pathways and deep postural muscles that might otherwise hibernate during periods of less overall exercise. Practiced with intention and focus, they can function similarly to the type of form drills performed by a dancer or sprinter prior to performing a routine.
These exercises can be done from the saddle as well, although I generally encourage riders to do them from the ground so they develop a daily habit of observing their horse’s posture and alignment. Making them part of your pre-ride groundwork is a useful part of your warm-up. For set-up, you can use fence posts, jump poles, or whatever pole you have available that measures at least two metres long. By no means do you need to set these up in an arena. Since you only need a small amount of space, I encourage you to use an area outside your arena somewhere.
Walking Uphill Over a Pole
This exercise can provide a little fine tuning of the horse’s extensor and flexor muscle chains. If you have the option to raise your pole off the ground several inches that is ideal, unless of course you are working on snowy terrain in which case you will leave the pole flat on the ground. Place your pole about halfway up a gentle slope that is 20- to 30-metres long. A gentle slope works perfectly for this exercise; there is no need to hunt out the steepest hill you have.
- Encourage your horse to walk up the hill with a low and stretched neck position and with animated steps.
- Cross the pole and proceed a few more metres. The goal is to step across the pole without any interruption in his stride rhythm.
- Then immediately turn around and head back down the slope crossing over the centre of the pole. Proceed a few more metres and then stop and turn around again, facing uphill.
- Repeat this sequence at least 10 times. Aim for the same speed and stride lengths heading up and down the hill.
Related: Workouts at the Walk
Turns Beside a Pole
Your horse’s positioning beside the pole is what helps resolve imbalances and postural anomalies in this exercise. It is imperative that you keep his hind feet as close as possible to the pole. If or when he tries to stiffen through his body, loses his balance, or falls forward on the forehand, his positioning will be compromised, and you will suddenly find yourself quite far away from the pole. If this happens, regroup and reposition, and then carry on.
- Stand your horse parallel to a pole. Ask him to stand as close as possible to the pole, the closer the better.
- Now ask him to keep his hind feet planted beside the pole while making a half turn on the haunches.
- He should end up facing the new direction but still parallel to the pole.
- Ask him to step forward a couple of steps, remaining closely positioned next to the pole.
- Now halt and repeat a half turn on the haunches to change direction again.
Some horses are very mindful of the pole’s presence, in which case there is no need to raise it off the ground. If, however, your horse repeatedly trips or swings in to the pole, it can help to raise the pole on risers.
Transitions Beside a Pole
In this exercise, the pole serves as an alignment tool. The horse is aware both visually and physically of the pole’s position and he therefore makes small postural adjustments to account for his own positioning beside it. In this way, his sensory nerves are stimulated with very little interference on your part. Remember, sensory nerves communicate with motor nerves. The more we support this communication, the more refined a horse’s movement can become.
The goal here is to be as close to the pole as possible at all times without actually standing on it.
- Walk your horse energetically towards the pole aligning him parallel to it.
- When the horse’s body is alongside the pole, halt promptly.
- Stand immobile for three seconds.
- Then back up six steps, remaining as close to the pole as possible without hitting it.
- Immediately walk forward and halt again.
- Walk forward away from the pole and prepare to approach it again, repeating the above sequence.
Once you have repeated the sequence above, you can modify it to include trotting on your approach to the pole. You can also vary which side of the pole you choose to halt in order to keep your horse’s attention.
Transitions Before and After a Pole
The objective here is to make lots of small adjustments of the horse’s balance and energy. I often think of this being akin to a “quick feet” drill that human soccer players do.
Place a single pole on the ground or raised to a height of six inches.
- Walk or jog towards the pole. Two steps before you cross the pole, transition to a different gait/speed to cross the pole. For instance, if you were approaching at a jog, make a quick downward transition to walk, step across the pole, and then immediately resume your jog.
- Repeat this sequence, alternating transitions between walk, jog, and halt both before and after you ride across the pole each time.
- Be sure you do not ride the same sequence. The goal is to keep you and your horse alert and responsive.
Related: Spring Conditioning for Your Horse
These are some of my favourite quick, efficient uses of a single pole to keep your calisthenics routine engaged when you might have less time or disagreeable weather. Obviously, there are plenty of other creative uses for a single pole: circling around a pole, side passing around a pole, straddling a pole with each set of legs, small gymnastic jumps. The key point here is that while a grid or sequence of poles offers terrific strength training, you can still accomplish some good work with one plain old pole on the ground.
Main Photo: Shutterstock/Rolf Dannenberg