Not Enough Time for Ground Poles? Think again.

Following the past several years of traveling around giving clinics in which I teach riders to use ground poles in their regular schooling,I have arrived at a fact: most riders quickly understand the gymnastic benefits of group poles, but they will not incorporate them on a consistent basis. It is not because they are rebelling against my advice but because poles can be a hassle to drag out and set up every day.

Honestly, though, a decent ground pole lesson does not need to be elaborate or complicated. In many cases, you can even forego using bulky risers to elevate them off the ground but still make fitness gains. This makes the set-up much easier, especially when using just four poles which I will offer suggestions for in the next few months. In following blog posts, I will recommend and explain the most effective exercises using just four poles that are quick and easy to set up. Some of these are found in my books, others are new bonus routines appearing only on this blog.

This month’s exercise is the Adjustability Circle. It improves your horse’s balance and quality of movement in a few ways. First, crossing over the poles causes him to fire up the muscles that form the hammock of his thoracic sling. This helps cushion and elasticize his strides, which translates to smoother, more graceful movement. Second, the prescribed quadrants of the circle in this pattern help get both horses and riders locked in to a very steady rhythm of gait. Rhythm, as we have all experienced, forms a primary organizing effect in the body. In other words, it cleans up sloppy, wobbly motions.

Finally, by having to step over a pole occasionally– but not in a predictable sequence– you override the horse’s central pattern generator, which interrupts him from blundering along in a gait pattern without brain-to-hoof communication. Think of it as re-booting his computer every dozen or strides. There are several ways to vary the following routine. You can ride it at different gaits and speeds. You can throw in some transitions between gaits at random points. As-is, the exercise will offer plenty of benefits on its own, so don’t feel like you need to get too creative. Just know that if this routine becomes one you do frequently, you can add variety to keep things fresh.

dressage exercise

Adjustability Circle

  1. Envision your 20-meter circle as a clock face and place a ground pole at 12noon, 3pm, 6pm, and 9pm.
  2. Now ride your horse in a lively working trot around your circle, crossing over the middle of each pole as you come to it.
  3. Count your strides between each pole; you should have the same stride count if you are riding correctly in rhythm.
  4. Be sure to keep your horse bent around your inside leg for the duration of the circle, even when crossing poles.
  5. Look ahead, keep a light contact with the reins, and smile.

For further description about the physical benefits of exercises like this one, check out my books. Meantime, stay tuned for the next post about ground pole patterns that are easy to set up.

The Sandwich Lope

The Sandwich Lope

When Western Dressage first established itself, we instructors struggled to describe the requirements of a “working lope” clearly enough for students. We wanted to be sure to differentiate it from the stilted gaits seen in the Western Pleasure discipline, and yet it was also not the animated jumping-across-the-ground canter of the traditional dressage world.

It should have springiness and energy, we told students, but not excessive speed. The horse should be adequately on the bit and lifting his back but maintaining the obedience and calmness seen in reining horses.

So, what exactly might that feel like? In the past year, hopefully without disparaging my classical dressage roots by foregoing high falutin’ descriptions, I have landed on a darn useful description.

When trail riding her often spirited Andalusian, a former student of mine used to praise the moments when cantering along a ridgeline she felt like everything was so smooth and calm and rhythmic that she could eat her lunch in stride.

I began to think of this as the sandwich test. If you and your horse were balanced and rhythmic enough to proceed with the reins in one hand while the other brought a sandwich to your mouth, you had a working lope. You should feel that you are decidedly traveling over the ground rather than grinding along and the horse should carry you on a softly engaged back that gives you a smooth enough ride to savor your sandwich.

Some horses are gifted with a balanced lope from the start. In my experience, though, most are not this naturally blessed, and the rider must invest a certain amount of effort to make the gait what we desire. Below are some of my tips for doing so, because as you have read in previous postings, I am a huge advocate of ample time spent cantering. It does wonderful things for the horse’s body. And while those wonders are happening, I suggest you think about your favorite kind of sandwich to put it all to the test.

Tips for improving the canter:

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.

How Much to Give Away

How Much to Give Away

Many of us make our horses stiffer with our attempts at kindness. Aiming for light and forgiving rein contact, we sometimes make the mistake of too much looseness, which feels erratic and unclear to the horse. Rather than improving our horse’s balance and physiology, we cause him to fall apart immediately following moments of correct movement. Whether or not to interject releases of pressure with the contact is not the question; the question is when and how to do this.

Like many of my students, I want my horse to know when he has done something good. This includes when he has organized his body and stretched through his neck to make a soft contact with the reins. To praise him, I want to make a little release feeling in the reins. I see riders all the time with the same idea, except they often push their arms all the way forward, putting loops in the reins right when the horse has established a connection between himself and the rider. Possibly, this technique is even taught in some disciplines.

While the intention is good, the action is not.

Big variations in rein pressure disrupt the horse’s extensor muscle chain that channels propulsion from his hindquarters. Rather than easing in to the positive tonicity of maintaining a flexed poll and arched topline, he feels the rider abandon the postural framework. His nose pokes out, his back sags, and he loses balance. His rider then regains a light tension on the reins in order to re-establish his correct posture, and the whole cycle starts again.

Neither the horse nor the rider becomes steadier in this scenario. With the contact always coming and going, the horse’s back stiffens, his tongue muscles tighten. He relies on his forehand for equilibrium. The rider, meanwhile, develops a habit of pushing her elbows forward, collapsing her chest.

Am I advocating that riders should not offer a release of some sort? No. Riders absolutely should offer a lightening when the contact becomes nice. The trick—and the big challenge for us kind riders—is to give this release with a small movement of our fingers. With our hands and fingers we can offer the horse a lot; we do not need to push loops in the reins. An instructor once described this to me as “letting the steam” out of the contact. By opening your fingers in to a loose fist when the horse is moving correctly, you can create a lightening while maintaining the same rein length and bit position in the horse’s mouth. This consistency leads to steady recruitment of muscle chains that hold the body in good alignment. Avoiding big variations in rein length and tension prevents these muscular impulses from becoming erratic, or from being recruited without the continuity needed to increase strength and elasticity.

Studies of equine anatomy have shown how constructive it is for a horse to travel while ‘on the bit.’ They also show what a positive training tool the bit can be for the horse’s muscular development when used with good intention. The bit, and rein contact as a whole, allows us to trigger positive neuromuscular reflexes throughout the entire horse by generating engagement and looseness that both begin and culminate in the horse’s head and neck. In sum: yes, we do want feather light contact with the bit. Remember, though, that lightness is trusting and steady, not intermittent and sloppy.

A Dressage Trainer with No Arena?

dutch warmblood dressage

Paris at her first rated dressage show

 

Everything about the possibility of running my dressage business from this property suited me perfectly—big pastures, access to trails, trailer parking. Or I should say everything except one glaring absence: an arena. A usable ring with good footing sat in the back of the property but in addition to being pretty tiny it was a round circle. It struck me more as an area to longe horses rather than attempt dressage workouts.

 

I stared at it while pondering a year without defined corners or long diagonal lines to practice trot extensions. Yet, without clear answers for how we could fare as a dressage business without a proper arena, I leapt with faith in to this facility. That initial trial year flew by, became two, and then what I’m hoping is permanent residence. Two things happened when I moved in to our lovely serene facility in Larkin Valley that has led to this hope. First, the horses became happier and healthier than ever. Second, I thrived as a dressage trainer without a dressage arena. This absence, and its unexpected benefits, has sharpened my daily focus, allowed me to fully embrace cross-training, and opened my eyes to some new ideas along the way. It’s these ideas I want to share here since I know many of you readers have also creatively overcome challenges to training environments.

 

First, as I became more creative using any available area (field, driveway, paddock) for schooling, I got a while lot more at ease with working with unseasoned horses outside the arena. This in turn helped me convey a better sense of confidence to them. During the previous years when I spent an intensive amount of time in the arena, I grew a little apprehensive of all the distractions and excitement outside the fenced world. That of course perpetuated me spending more and more time in the arena and less outside. Now as I viewed our entire property, not just the tiny round ring, as one big schooling area, these boundaries between the safe confines of arena and the world outside dissolved.

 

Next, I tractored up a 400-meter track in our front pasture. The footing is not perfect, but suitable enough for moving the horses out at speed. Unexpectedly, I fell in love with riding on that track. My dressage horses enjoyed gallops and long forward stretches of trot. Pretty soon, I realized that they were staying fresher and energetic even during hard work weeks. In dressage it can be tempting to go in the arena every day to fiddle around trying to perfect one or another skill. Between not having a formal arena, and now enjoying so much freedom of movement on the track, I was avoiding the repetitive schooling that dulls many horses. With my assorted schooling areas including trails, we were living and breathing my fondness for cross-training and for utilizing varied footing surfaces.

 

Another unanticipated outcome of being a dressage trainer with no arena has been entering a tight-knit horse community. My neighbor down the block allows me to ride over and use his big beautiful arena when I wish, which involves a brief warm-up jaunt down the road while planning my schooling session. Not only do I enjoy Bobby’s groomed arena, but I also savor the feeling of being connected to a wider horse community than just my own barn and always thinking about how we can help each other out. After all, our industry is more sustainable and healthier for this kind of teamwork.

 

And, lastly, being without a formal arena forces me to stay laser focused in my training. For instance, when I enter our small round ring with a plan to work on something specific, I get right to it and abide by a cut-off time which is usually 30 minutes. I refuse to drill horses around and around on circles or in small areas, so I give myself a time limit for each day’s formal schooling, after which I’ll ride elsewhere on the property for additional exercise but not for drilling or tinkering around with dressage maneuvers.

 

My horses’ training has progressed at a pleasing rate, which shows me all those years of fixated schooling for hours at a time inside an arena could have been trimmed to save the horse from repetitive movement. So, how about you? I’m interested to hear what kinds of insights you may have had in regards to your schooling environments as dictated by weather, facility limitations, or anything else. Perhaps you have experienced similar insights? Or maybe you have additional ones to share?