The Magic Behind the Poles

Walking Ground Poles

For years, they sat on one end of our indoor arena—five ground poles anchored by concrete blocks. With unwavering consistency, we worked our horses over them once a week, either ground driving or riding. But it was not until the winter when my mom and I watched Dr. Reiner Klimke videos over and over that I realized why our ground poles remained set up all the time.

Their purpose was not to alleviate the monotony of training sessions as I assumed but to physically improve the horse. As I sat in Mom’s office and watched the videos of Klimke’s students beginning each ride walking and trotting over poles, I realized there is really something to this. On the screen, sleek Warmbloods became looser and freer in their bodies right before my eyes. Of course it would be a couple of decades before I learned why they did; at that moment the mystery intrigued me enough to commit to keep using our own poles, no matter if I could describe why or not.

If world-class equestrians found it useful to ride over ground poles, then I thought we should, too. Various pole patterns have since formed a central part of my clinics and lessons. Most riders can feel the positive changes right away in their horses: their gaits become springier, jaws soften, cadence improves. Finally, about ten years ago, equine fitness studies caught up to some of the practices of old classical dressage masters. Now we had our why for riding poles.

Thanks to researchers and vets like Jean-Marie Denoix, Gillian Higgins, Hilary Clayton, and Andris Kaneps we have learned how successfully ground poles serve the horse’s neuromuscular coordination. They activate and release tension from his bottom line muscle chain, which in turn softens his jaw and poll, resulting in reflexive signals for relaxation throughout the body. Also, because of their fixed position on the ground, poles interrupt the horse’s habituated stride patterns. In this way, they stimulate activation between his brain and nervous system. This leads to gaits that are not only more rhythmic but also stay free from restricted ranges of motion.

Ground Poles at the Start of Your Ride

The following are my tips for benefitting from ground poles on a regular basis.

  1. The simplest way to use ground poles consistently is to walk back and forth over them 20 times at the beginning of your ride. You can do this every day. Do not assume there is more value in trotting them.
  2. Make a place on your farm where you can LEAVE them set up. If you have to set them up each time to use them, you will not stick to a consistent plan.
  3. There is no exact formula for how many poles you should set up. Just use what you have. Typically, four to six poles in a row works for most riders/horses. You do not need a fancy type of poles.
  4. Take note of what changes in your horse as he works over poles. Does he stretch his neck lower? Have more energy? Does his back feel any different under you?
  5. For walking, space the poles approx. 2’8” apart.
  6. Do not micro-manage your horse if he stumbles or trips. Try to stay out of his way and let the poles do their work. They WILL do the work.

Of Saddles and Forelocks

 

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My friend looked at me blank when I replied, no, I could not hand her the leash. Surfers and dog-walkers use leashes, I said. Equestrians use leadlines. Of course this was picky on my part, since I knew more or less what she meant. A few days earlier, though, she announced a commitment to buckle down and advance from an interested novice to a competent horsewoman. That included proper employment of the lingo.

 

Since I had the fortune of starting with horses young, I’ve forgotten how perplexing the name of equipment and riding maneuvers can be. It still surprises me when new riders exclaim that they were trotting on the correct lead. Or when they ask if the saddle’s belly strap thingy should be tightened before they ride. Admittedly, few pieces of horse equipment have an intuitive name. Why do we not call a browband a forehead strap? Or a cavesson a nose ring? Sure, there are some obvious ones: hoof pick, bucket, stirrup. But there are plenty more that sound like a foreign language: billet, longe, latigo, concho.

 

For those who enter the sport later in life, it means acquiring a whole new language. My empathy for these struggles remains fresh by my own foray in to sports with specialized lingo. While the vernacular of equestrians is mostly second nature to me, the terms of my bike hobby often elude me. Aside from the basics like pedal, seat post, and brakes, I usually default to calling parts “thingamajigs,” or “thingies.” Luckily, several of our friends who are bike experts can usually sort out what I mean.

 

Trepidation hits, though, when I go to the bike shop alone to describe a malfunction or broken something-or-other. It involves much gesturing with my hands, sound effects, and vocabulary that probably sounds to the bike mechanic like a six-year-old. I’ve observed similar scenes in my barn aisle when novice students describe a ride that did not go so well.

 

The saddle slipped because the belly band was loose, they’ll say. And then the horse was not listening to their squeezes (cues? aids?), and he wouldn’t gallop (canter? Trot?) on the right diagonal. And did I have an idea what his problem might have been? The first part of my job here involves getting a translation. This is where I sympathize with both my bike mechanic and students new to any sport with complicated equipment.

 

I handed my friend the leadline. She took it, and reached up to pet the horse’s face below his forelock. “This horse has nice bangs,” she said.

A Word About Dressage Exercises

 

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The image of dressage horses prancing sideways might just seem like fancy footwork, but in reality these lateral movements are akin to physical therapy for the horse. From a conditioning standpoint the dressage exercises of shoulder-in, haunches-in, and half-pass prove highly advantageous for improving neuromuscular coordination and proprioception. Obviously, they are most helpful when introduced only to the mature horse carefully and in small bouts, but many riders could benefit from learning what they do.

These movements activate muscle groups deep in the horse’s body that otherwise remain under-utilized, a state which causes dysfunctional movement. When ridden correctly, or schooled in-hand, they can be curative for horses with poor postural habits due to their effectiveness in recruiting deep pelvic stabilizing muscles, which play a cybernetic role for locomotion. You can think of these muscles as storing a whole new language for the horse’s body. As joints, muscles, and tendons learn to speak this new language, the horse becomes capable of fluid efficient movement.

In addition to the hip and spinal joints gaining better stability and range of motion through lateral exercises, the pectoral, groin, and gluteal muscles become stronger. These play a primary role in adducting the legs, plus improve forward reach and mobility of the forehand. As the gluteal muscles strengthen, the horse’s power and impulsion in the hindquarters also increases.

The extent of these positive outcomes relies on the quality of practice. Many riders introduce these movements too early, before the horse is physically mature or has a good baseline of general physical conditioning. This is a mistake that often leads to soreness, or to shortening the horse’s gait rather than improving forward reach. The horse in this case learns to shuffle through the exercises in a compromised way and does not recruit his cybernetic muscles for balance and control.

It is almost always better when training these movements to request just a few steps, and then allow the horse to travel forward. Repeat this sequence rather than try to hold the horse in the exercise for several meters at a time. And always before tackling these maneuvers, it is imperative that horse and rider can execute flawless turns on the forehand and turns on the haunches.

These simple but often overlooked turns require the foundation elements that lead to success in lateral exercises—bend and responsiveness, hindquarter engagement, proper sideways movement, roundness. Be absolutely certain that your horse’s gymnastic turns are as good as they can be, and practice them frequently, before tackling lateral movements. Whenever there is a loss of quality in one of your lateral movements, often you can return to schooling these turns to fix the problem. If there is a glitch in your turns on forehand/haunches, there will assuredly be a glitch in your lateral movements.

Learn to Love it All.

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By then I was sitting on the stallion in an empty arena. Our teacher, Manolo Mendez, had left several minutes ago saying something about needing to inspect the size of the horse’s stall/paddock, wondering aloud if it might be too small or maybe the footing too soft. At that time, I couldn’t see how that mattered at all in my desire to refine our half-pass, but I didn’t know Manolo well enough then to do anything but wait.

He finally came back to finish our lesson, but we never got to the half-pass on which I was fixated. In fact, we barely rode much. With a studious look, Manolo talked about the soles of the horse’s hooves, his eating habits. He wanted to make sure I never let the saddle slide forward over his high withers. And so on. I fought distraction to listen to all this non-riding advice. I knew I had a dismal left half-pass and some late flying changes, and I wanted to fix them as soon as possible. All this attention on abstracted details seemed off the mark. Noting my youthful impatience, Manolo put his hand on my arm just then, looked at me, and altered my course as a trainer. He swept his gaze around the facility and grounds, then said: the trainer is in charge of all this. With gentleness and respect he reminded me: YOU’RE the trainer. In other words, a good trainer has more than just a riding passion. She also has a horse care passion. How the horse lives matters as much as his training.

Like many trainers, I have always held a deep love of riding. Every single day I swing up in the saddle brings me a sigh of contentment. A deep place in my spirit hums with pleasure when I manage to ride a perfect half-pass. My insides smile and glow when the horse lifts his back and carries me on elastic trot strides. Riding has always been the finest meditation I know. It both calms and enlivens me, makes me focus and balance my physical and mental efforts. By comparison, the other parts of horse-keeping felt like tedium to be gotten through to earn my ride.

That riding lesson over a decade ago set my riding passion on a whole new course.

Last week as I spent several minutes stretching and massaging some accumulated tension from a young mare’s back, I chuckled inwardly remembering that introduction to Manolo’s approach. Today I feel like an entirely different incarnation of that trainer sitting at a standstill in the center of the arena, befuddled how my instructor was connecting my horse’s living arrangement to his half-pass performance. Today it makes all the sense in the world.

Slowly and with discipline, I have come to love all these non-riding parts of being a trainer because they all contribute to how well my horses can or cannot use their bodies. And the better they use their bodies, the more rewarding our rides. Our training sessions now start as soon as I drive in the driveway to our barn. I note anything amiss, observe the eating attitudes or standing postures of my horses. I look at the stance and energy and tone of their bodies. As I walk each one to the grooming area, I pay attention to the rhythm of our strides, watch his expression at being saddled. How tight do his shoulders feel when I lift a hoof to clean it? How supple do his neck muscles feel?

In comparison to the heady thrill of an extended-collected canter transition, these details pale. But they count so foundationally in the horse’s performance. I have learned to love them the way anyone in quality relationships learns to love the day-in and day-out routines that maintain them. Often these smaller, less exciting responsibilities determine far more of our success then the moments that fill us with raw joy.

Trainers will always have their personal strengths and weaknesses, areas they excel versus skills that require more work. But good trainers, in their scope of working with horses, learn to love it all.

Oh. NOW I get it.

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His frustration towards me bordered on rabid. He wrung his hands and hurled instructions at me in less and less gentle manners. And unfortunately, the more peeved he got, the worse I rode. Honestly, I WAS trying to execute the 15-meter counter canter circle he wanted, and to understand its purpose, but in that moment I flailed. My instructor’s annoyance grew to a level I recognized, being a coach myself. Instructing students of any kind involves numerous encounters of this difficult equation: a coach trying to convey a relatively simple skill that, for whatever reason, the student finds nearly impossible. It leads to ample brow-furrowing for both parties.

I finally did conquer the nuances and purpose of that counter canter exercise, although it was many moons after the fact. My poor trainer never got to witness my fledgling competence. Too bad, too, because I imagine he might have slated me as an impossible learner by then. Similar accomplishments have come sometimes years after a trainer tried in vain to help me with an exercise. Occasionally, a coach has honed in on a particular concept in our sessions while I missed the point entirely, only to awaken to its profundity years down the road. After any of these later-than-hoped for revelations, I think about running home to call a coach from months or years previous and announce “Guess what?!—it turns out I’m NOT hopeless!”

Anyone who has been a student of a complex sport like dressage can relate to this. It’s probably sheepishness that prevents us from actually calling those former coaches. After all, who wants to admit that her learning curve is so steep? Now that I’m in the shoes as coach, though, I’ll admit these calls would be pretty great to receive. As a teacher, I often believe that if I explain exercises clearly enough, then voila, results happen. When I feel like I have said something exactly right, complete with illustrative imagery, but the results remain absent I get distressed. Especially when working on relatively simple concepts with students, I’ll panic: what on earth am I not explaining right? I try a dozen other ways to explain it. Still nothing. I explain it louder, and maybe get a little rabid. And then, it’s true, I start to consider if the student might be hopeless.

But then, wait! A phone call comes years later to say the problem was not in the instruction. It was the individual learning timeline of the student. I explained things clearly enough. The student just needed to go simmer on it at a cellular level. Look at that—neither of us is hopeless!