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

  1. 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.
  2. Now develop your working gait (Tolt, Foxtrot, Running Walk, etc.)
  3. Ride straight across the poles.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.