My Horse Doesn’t Care Where His Feet Are…
“My horse doesn’t care where his feet are.” I hear this from at least one student in every clinic as a reason to bow out on conditioning exercises involving ground poles. The student will explain that her horse knocks his feet against the poles rather than picking them up nicely to step over them and the rider, therefore, no longer bothers using ground poles when schooling despite my arguments in favor of their conditioning benefits.
For a few reasons, this statement does not make sense to me. First of all, as prey animals that need to hustle quickly from danger, horses care VERY MUCH where their feet are. Their evolution and survival has depended on this.
Secondly, nearly all of the riders who decide their horses don’t mind banging their legs and feet against poles in their path of travel arrive at their diagnosis after a handful of attempts with ground poles. They might spend a total of six sessions, spread across a few years attempting poles before writing them off as unproductive.
In other words, they do not spend nearly enough time and consistency to develop the horse’s aptitude. It is akin to the impromptu gym sessions I tackled in my mid-twenties hoping to define my calf muscles. After a somewhat random amount of time and focus, I decided the exercises did not work. (much later on, I remedied my follies and found those calf muscles!).
Finally, I believe that when we decide a horse does not care where his feet are, it allows us to skip out on answering a much tougher question: WHY is he not able to step cleanly over the poles? Much as we like to believe that these big powerful animals can easily navigate up, over, and around exercise routines that seem so simple, the reality is often different. In fact, more often than not, our horses’ coordination, stabilizing muscles, and movement patterns are more compromised than we realize. Riding ground pole routines makes us address this.
Is it possible that some horses might not care at all about banging their legs and feet against objects in their path? Possibly. But it’s MORE possible that they have a weak thoracic sling; or poor proprioceptive conditioning; or deeply embedded asymmetry in the body; or a stiff neck. Basically, just because an animal (or human, for that matter) cannot perform an exercise well initially, it does not mean he does not care for what he is doing. It means he is not doing well and it is our job to improve it.
This is not an elusive idea, especially when it comes to ground poles. Over the years, of all the horses that came to my barn for training and knocked in to ground poles, not a single one went home banging them anymore. I believe horses care very much where their feet are, but that is no guarantee their fine motor control is as tuned as it could be.
Power in Interruption
In the following photo, Roxy demonstrates what I call the power of interruption. This describes the benefit of momentarily altering the horse’s movement patterns for the sake of improving them. Not unlike their human pals, horses generate movement through patterns held in the neuromuscular system. These patterns serve them well, allowing them to move and perform various tasks with utmost efficiency and limited active brain recruitment to move limbs. While indeed efficient, these patterns are not always optimal. For instance, Roxy has a pattern of trailing her hind legs out behind her when she trots rather than swinging them well forward underneath her body as I would prefer.
My task is to help Roxy create new patterns than the ones she knows as comfy and familiar. I would prefer her to adopt a pattern that involves a body posture that is more beneficial to her long-term wellness, or in other words one that sees her carrying more weight on her hind limbs and easing weight OFF her forelimbs. There are number of ways to go about this task, and one of my favorite ones is to interrupt a horse’s existing gait patterns.
As you can see from this photo, the exercise I’m using in this example is fairly simple. It is just a polygon shape formed with poles on the ground. With the horse on a longe line, the handler can move herself all around the polygon, directing the horse across, through, and over the poles in constantly changing ways. The horse never knows where it will be asked to enter/exit the shape. In this way, it delivers all the benefits of schooling over ground poles but eliminates the repetitive and predictable nature of sequential poles set up in single line.
Exercises like this that encourage the horse to adjust her balance, or change her speed and height of stride, briefly interrupts motor patterns. What immediately follows is a chance to develop new patterns. This might mean more awareness of stride trajectory, more flexion in hind limb joints, more precise foot placement. These kinds of exercises open the door to further improvement. They work because the horse is guided to alter his stride with minimal anxiety or tension, given that he is not receiving a lot of input or cues from a rider. The exercises are offering him the input in a very natural, easy way.
Admittedly, there is plenty of time during a horse’s schooling when we want our work to be predictable for him so he gains confidence and clarity in our expectations. When changing his physical body and gaits, though, it can be helpful to introduce a little well-timed interruption. The key is to use just a little (not so much to frustrate the horse), and that any chosen exercise has relevance to an existing pattern you hope to change. In other words, we’re not seeking to interrupt his patterns just for the sake of adding randomness or variety to his routines. The exercises need to support your specific goal in each session.
What if my Horse Gets Anxious About Ground Poles?
Occasionally while giving clinics, I encounter a horse that becomes anxious or revved up about working over ground poles or cavalletti, which are a large part of my lessons. Often frustrated or embarrassed, the rider will ask what she can do. She understands that ground pole exercises are beneficial and yet she can’t ride the horse over poles without him getting charged up.
First of all, there is no reason to become embarrassed or frustrated. Plenty of horses find their own ‘creative’ ways of negotiating pole work, including leaping sideways, bounding spastically across the poles, or standing in place snorting at them. Sometimes this is due to stress arising from past negative or forceful experiences, but other times it can be from the horse getting evasive about the task in front of him.
Fortunately, helping an anxious horse settle to a calmer approach of ground poles is usually very doable and straightforward. And it actually involves NOT crossing poles. Instead, it can be fruitful to school the horse around, between, and through poles for a while without asking him to travel over them. Once he has relaxed in to a steady rhythm and body posture during these tasks, then he transitions seamlessly to riding across the poles.
Exercises that ask him to organize his body while bending or turning around, but not over, poles help him approach the objects as just another part of his steady work routine rather than something different, exciting, or scary. Often it takes just a day or two to accomplish this, but give yourself as much time as you need. Rushing the horse in this process generally only causes his leaping or evasion of poles to persist.
If you are at a loss for patterns that are useful in this situation, try starting with the following two exercises from my new book, 55 Corrective Exercises for Horses.
Exercise #15, Snake Over Poles, Variation 2
Exercise #37, The Labyrinth
When you’re able to practice these two exercises without fanfare, you will be riding across cavalletti routines in no time. And then you will be reaping all the goodness they have to offer.
How to Place Ground Poles for Gaited Horses
It’s no secret that I rely a lot on cavalletti routines in clinics and training. Riders of gaited horses, though, occasionally feel left out since much of the information about how to arrange ground pole exercises is based on the average distance of trot strides. I myself have been guilty of writing articles that refer only to how to set up poles for walk, trot, and canter. Riders of non-trotting horses are left with the impression that cavalletti routines are not for them. To the contrary, gaited horses benefit enormously from the spinal stabilizing effects of these exercises.
As gaited breeds gain popularity among adult amateur riders, I have noted the paucity of information available to them about modifying our most useful exercises to meet their particular needs. To this end, I wanted to share some quick advice on setting up ground poles in a helpful way for gaited breeds. This is just one exercise among dozens of possibilities, but it’s a simple and quick one. And the benefit for clinicians is that the distance between poles in this example can work for both trotting and non-trotting breeds, allowing a group of riders to work together without anyone feeling left out.
Any ground pole exercise for gaited horses has the goal of improving or clarifying the rhythm of their particular gait. We never wish to arrange poles just for the sake of challenging their coordination or seeing how high they might lift their limbs. Instead, we want to use exercises that confirm the power and steadiness of their unique footfall patterns that often become disrupted or irregular when a gaited horse does not use his body correctly. Never practice cavalletti exercises that interrupt the smoothness of their stride or cause them to struggle to maintaing gait. Bear this in mind as you scan articles and books for routines that are relevant to your Icelandic, Missouri Foxtrotter, Tennessee Walker, and others.
Meantime, you can use the following arrangement regularly in your training to help gaited breeds flex their hind limbs and find stability through their trunk.
Simple Ground Pole Set-up for Gaited Breeds
- Set four or five ground poles parallel to each other in a line (so that you can ride straight across them). Space the poles at a distance of 8 feet* apart.
- Now develop your working gait (Tolt, Foxtrot, Running Walk, etc.)
- Ride straight across the poles.
- You should count TWO steps from your horse between each pole. For instance, each front foot should take a step in the space between the poles before crossing over the next pole.
- Your rhythm should feel like this: CROSS the pole, One-Two, CROSS the pole, One-Two, CROSS the pole, and so on… Feel for those beats and aim to keep them consistent each time you ride over the poles.
- Repeat the pattern at least 12 times.
**this is an average spacing for a horse about 15.2 hands tall. If you ride a horse with a shorter stride, you will modify the spacing suggestion by 2-3 inches.